Robert Diamond started out in digital media publishing by creating a Michael Crawford fan site, which he received an infringement for but he got a job out of it. Robert provides detail on his background and the lessons he’s learned in building Broadway World.
- Robert’s and Broadway World’s background
- The history of how journalists initially covered Broadway and its contribution to the industry. How has this changed today?
- Broadway World’s audience
- Do show reviews still work?
- Insights on Broadway World’s website redesign and Industry Insider
- Trends in Broadway news and events publishing
- Broadway World upcoming plans and initiatives
- Career progression advice.
Vahe Arabian: Welcome to episode five of the State of Digital Publishing. The State of Digital Publishing is an online publication and community providing resources, perspectives, collaboration, and news for digital media and publishing professionals in digital media technology and audience involvement. I’m with Robert Diamond, editor in chief of Broadway World. Hi, Rob, how are you?
Robert Diamond: I’m doing very well, and you?
Vahe Arabian: I’m not bad, thanks. You were mentioning to me just before we started around the awards that you guys were running for the end of the year. How’s that going?
Robert Diamond: It’s going very well. When the website started 15 years ago, the very first thing that we offered was the Broadway World Theater Fans’ Choice Awards, which mirrored the category of the Tony’s for Broadway shows, and we let the fans vote on it. So, that was a very popular feature. It was literally the only thing on the website when we launched. And shortly after that, like with everything else we do, we were thinking about how to expand it, and when we expanded it into regional content, we started adding regional awards as well. And every year, we try and increase the number of areas that we do it in. We did it in, I think, 60 markets last year. We’re at 75 this year. So, it’s exponentially growing and exponentially giving us all gray hairs.
Vahe Arabian: Yeah, it sounds like a pretty big job, but yeah, I’m sure it’s exciting for the fans and also just for you just to pick out the best of the best so, hopefully, that balances it out.
Robert Diamond: The awards are voted on either by journalists or members in the industry or in some weird combination, it’s around all of entertainment. So, we like stuff that makes it a more democratic process, which lets the people that are actually buying tickets be able to weigh in as well.
Vahe Arabian: 100% agree on that. And, Rob, just for those who don’t know much about Broadway World and about yourself, are you able to just give a bit of a background and, yeah, just as well in the intro about you, if you could just give a background about your day-to-day and how your team’s structured at the moment.
Robert Diamond: Sure. I come from a technology background. I started as a high school intern, as a web developer for a technical publishing company called SYS-CON media, which published magazines and events and websites for web developers in a variety of programming languages. So, when I started there, I started as a junior intern making $7 an hour and reporting to a very highly paid consultant. And they realized very quickly thereafter that I could do the same stuff that they were paying this consultant to do, so they promoted me to the $7.25 an hour and put me in charge of their web properties. It was 1996, I believe, as a high school senior. I kept working for them all through college, which was Syracuse University and started with them full-time when I graduated.
Robert Diamond: On the side of that, I’m a huge theater fan and became a very big fan of an actor called Michael Crawford. He is most known as being the original star of The Phantom of the Opera, and while I was in Syracuse, I had a Michael Crawford fansite, which was part of … We also had a lot of websites in 1997. And at the time, it was the second-biggest Michael Crawford fansite. I’ve always been psychotically competitive, so the second-biggest was a big, big area of annoyance for me. And this wonderful woman wrote to me and said, “I have been a fan a Michael’s for many decades. I can send you materials for you to scan in that’ll give you the biggest Michael Crawford fansite.” And I said, “Absolutely,” and over the course of a few months, she sent a few dozen boxes to my Syracuse University dorm room.
Vahe Arabian: Wow.
Robert Diamond: So, while frightening my roommate, I also in between classes and in between work for this publishing company, scanned everything in. And when that website launched two or three months later, I celebrated for a couple of days, and then I got a legal letter from Michael Crawford’s management and his charitable fan association letting me know that I violated several thousand copyright laws. And not only that, some of the pictures, they were selling for sick children’s charities.
Robert Diamond: So, the letter was sort of a combination of you have all these legal violations and you might also be a horrible person. And I wrote back to that and said, “Look, I’m 17 years old. I’m a college student. I’m doing this for the love of the art form and the love of the performer. Instead of suing me, why don’t you hire me.” And that worked, and they said, “Yes.”
Robert Diamond: So, I started making Michael’s website on the side of these other projects, and then once I graduated college, that sort of brought me more into the fold of the Broadway world before there was a broadwayworld.com. And Michael returned back to Broadway in a show called Dance of the Vampires. It’s another sort of long and complicated story, but I wound up making a website for that show that was sort of designed as a fan community. So, the show got killed by critics. It didn’t really have an official web presence. And while making that website, which had forums, it had polls, it had a whole login system, I started paying attention to the other theater sites out there. And I thought, “This one is lacking that, or that one is lacking this, or I wish I could bring these technology skills to do that,” and unfortunately, the show closed very quickly. That gave me the idea for Broadway World. So, the site launched in May of 2003 as a hobby project while I still had this day job. And then as the site grew, it sort of became everything. That was probably a very long answer to the short question. Sorry.
Vahe Arabian: Oh, I really like the progression of how you came to Broadway World. It was very interesting to hear because not a lot of people would go down the path of and actually and being in the position of when you received that infringement, then you got a job out of it. So, that’s very smart of you, and then just it’s a very interesting background. How’s Broadway World set up today? How would you like, in an overview, to describe what it does and how it serves people who are interested in Broadway and theater?
Robert Diamond: Sure. So, the website when it started just covered Broadway. It wasn’t even content for the first few years until we started creating our own original content that we found that there were people just as passionate about theater in London’s West End and in other parts of the world. So today, we cover theater in 100 markets across the United States and 47 countries internationally as well as some other related areas of live entertainment like opera and dance and classical music.
Vahe Arabian: Great. You have news, reviews, and from what I saw on the website as well, you also sell through a third party, tickets. Is that how the model’s structured today with Broadway World in trying to monetize the website and through ads?
Robert Diamond: Yeah, our monetization is probably 95% advertising-based. We offer several listing services and other products for purchase, but it’s mostly advertising-based. It’s our revenue stream.
Vahe Arabian: I understand. I want to come back to later around you also redesigned because I saw from the parent company about that and how you guys have built a proprietary industry insider section with all the data, which I found very interesting, which I think also that our audience would find interesting as well.
Vahe Arabian: But let’s take step back for second, and I always like to ask the journalist or the people that I’m podcasting, the people in the industry like, for example, with journalists, within sport or music or Broadway in your case, I think that in some way have made a contribution to that industry in general because, without them, they’re not going to be able to get the exposure or the advancement that otherwise they would have gotten. And especially, I think in Broadway, where a lot of it was very much someone in the 1950s, ’60s, they would read their review on the newspaper the next day, see how their show was and that would essentially make or break them. So, how do you, in your opinion and perspective see how journalism has contributed to Broadway and the industry in general?
Robert Diamond: Essentially, without journalism, ticket buyers wouldn’t know what shows they should see, and that comes from … Traditionally, it used to come more from reviews. Now, I think it comes from a lot of things ranging from video previews to the social media. So, as the media has become fractured everywhere, the more places and outlets and websites that are covering the arts is very important. One of the things we’ve been following is a lot of local papers, unfortunately, have cut back on their arts coverage, and that’s been a passion point for us to make sure that we’re expanding locally and not only filling in the gaps from others that are scaling back but trying to take things up to the next level.
Vahe Arabian: Is that how you see you’re approaching and covering the regions, in covering the gap for the local journalism, or is that just the general strategic approach that you’d like to take just to get more broad or reach an audience?
Robert Diamond: It’s a combination of things. I think everybody in the theater world and everybody that’s covering it for Broadway, although for others, are doing it because they love the art form, but they’re not … I’ve never aspired to be a performer myself. I have no creative talent of that sort. But everything we do in our niche is … Obviously, part of it is a business opportunity, and part of it is because we love it and think it’s important for society, for audiences, for those creating the arts, those consuming the arts. And in the strange times that we live in, I think that’s even more important.
Vahe Arabian: I know we spoke about how you just mentioned how the media is very much fragmented, and I guess reviews aren’t as effective as they are now, but what have you seen out of all the different content sets and the media consumption types, something the most effective or something which is becoming more effective to your current audience and potentially to future generations who might want to be involved or consume Broadway, the news and media?
Robert Diamond: I don’t think there is one answer to that, which is why we try to offer everything. My approach to our content and editorial has never been, “Here’s my opinion of what it is.” It’s more based on our readers and what we see they’re consuming, and it’s everything. Our readers run the gamut from hardcore theater fans that’ll look at 27 pieces of content and look at our message board and look at every single thing about a particular show or actor because they love it to people that are just randomly Googling, looking what to see or because they saw something else where they want more information.
Vahe Arabian: How do you go about prioritizing and then drawing the insights from your community?
Robert Diamond: A lot of it is data, and a lot of is just that the people that we work with closely, which are the Broadway and other major press agents know that our answer is almost always, “Yes”. There’s nothing we don’t want to cover, big and small, nothing that we don’t find an interesting story to tell on stage, backstage, etc.
Vahe Arabian: Sorry, I did not ask you this, but how big is your team at the moment because I’m sure there’s a lot of things that you can cover, but there’s only so much that you can cover within a day. So, have you found out a way to prioritize what you can cover and not cover, or is it just you try to take it as it comes along?
Robert Diamond: A bit of both. Our full-time staff is about a dozen people that are spread out in different places, and then, we have almost 800 contributors to the website in the 140-something markets that I just mentioned. So, we work with local people on the ground that are providing local reviews and helping us with local content as well as a core team that’s working on the news end of things.
Vahe Arabian: I understand. In terms of how the website works now as well, you mention … Like I was saying before, on the parent company website, there was a mention of how there was a massive website redesign. You made the code. The website code has been a lot more cleaner, and it’s been more effective. What was the process behind that? For those who, publishers out there, who are thinking of shooting their strategy and have a big website like yours, which is very much events and Broadway focused. How did you go through the process of effectively managing that? And what lessons can you share with people around that process?
Robert Diamond: Sure. It’s sort of a two-pronged approach to that. One was on the technical end of things, and we knew there were certain things we had to do. One was that we didn’t at the time, have a responsive design. We had a separate mobile site and desktop sites. We knew we wanted things to be faster. We wanted stuff to look nicer around the different screen sizes as well as loading faster and, of course, working. So, on that front, we needed a great design. We needed that. By that point, we were probably in year 12 or year 13. But it was a good time to review every single bit of code, to do a lot of technical analysis down to the nitty-gritty of database queries and caching and technical things that I find fascinating and some people find boring.
Robert Diamond: And then on the slip side of that, it was, is every portal or every widget on the website serving the right purpose? So, while we were doing the design and while we were doing the technical end of things, we did probably three to six months of testing, using our current website to test different things and see what worked and what didn’t work. And that ranged from if we displayed five stories here versus 10 stories, what does that mean for interactivity? If we display images versus no images here, we know it’ll load faster, but does that make people less likely to click and a ton of other experiments that we A/B tested, and in some cases, A/B/C/D/E tested to see what worked and what didn’t work. And if we make this item higher, make this item lower, and then we kept combining those things and testing and refining. It’s something we still do day-to-day here.
Vahe Arabian: So, you said it took a six-month process, and then from the … I guess, collectively, as the management group, you made the decision of what, ultimately, it would look like. And then, how was it like? Sorry, did you say that you had to replatform the website as well, or was it just purely revamping the code?
Robert Diamond: Revamping the code. It still stayed on primarily the same languages and backend systems.
Vahe Arabian: Oh, yeah, because I think that’s what I would consider doing up here.
Robert Diamond: Yeah, and we don’t just want to update the design on pages as we’ve done in the past. We wanted to actually do serious code reviews and sort of squeeze out every second of load time or squeeze out every bit we could of efficiencies.
Vahe Arabian: And what were some of the lesson, like in terms of some of the challenges? What were some of the lessons from the challenges that you experienced?
Robert Diamond: Probably number one is that we know nothing. It’s sort of what we tell people, so a lot of things we assumed turned out to be wrong, and therefore, testing and using data to see what worked and what didn’t work worked better than what we would’ve thought worked. And the other thing is just to be prepared that you never as well as what we tested, we still probably for the first month had all sorts of weird issues on weird devices that we never heard of or never thought people were accessing the website on that we had some passionate readers using. So, that probably was number two was don’t expect they want to turn it on and sit back and be happy. That’s where the real work begins.
Vahe Arabian: Yeah, I know that feeling as well with the State of Digital Publishing because, yeah, because it’s that you might think that for something that you might have an assumption but because you don’t have the experience sometimes, or you might not expect something, then it doesn’t turn out the way that you expected.
Vahe Arabian: So, it’s always an iterative process that you have to take with a website, and no matter if it’s changing it or not changing, but with that, it’s said … I saw that the Industry Insider was a big database with all the data and does things … You had some datasets like how the movies have the grossing revenue for the shows, that you had something similar, and you had other different types of datasets. How do you collect that data? Is that something that you’re aggregating from different partners, or you guys are collating that data yourself?
Robert Diamond: The industry sections started with just the grosses, and the grosses are provided by the Broadway League, which is the sort of master organization that all of the Broadway show producers belong to and report their grosses to every week so that they provide that as a raw dataset to us, and we’ve offered that as a service with our own enhancements to it at a different ways to graph things and sort things and export stuff. And we saw from that how passionate the industry was and has become about data and analytics. So, we looked at the traffic to that section. We thought a lot about what other services could we provide, what data could we collect ourselves, what things did we find interesting, our tools that we were using internally for editorial purposes that might be of general interest, Some of the other datasets in there.
Robert Diamond: We created code and came up with ways to compile ourselves. So, stuff like the social data, what’s popular on our own website, those are all our own tools that we’ve put together earlier versions of and then got back from a number of testers of other things they’d like to see, ways they’d like to slice and dice that data, and it was a very successful launch and it continues to evolve.
Vahe Arabian: How much of your team’s time does that take if you split it between generally between people who are writing articles versus you’re coloring that data? What’s the split at the moment?
Robert Diamond: The split improves each week. The first couple of weeks, pulling something together like the social data took somebody all day to make it work. Now, it’s probably just a couple of hours a week. So, we’re always looking on, at everything we do as to how can we make it more efficient, and how can we set up systems and processes to make our lives easier?
Vahe Arabian: It’s very good. I find that very fascinating that you’ve been able to use a lot, a bigger dataset for that because it just sets you guys apart, I guess, and do you guys consider yourself in terms of using that dataset and populating the upcoming shows in event publishing, or do you think that that’s different, that’s a different field?
Vahe Arabian: What I mean by event publishing, like entertainment sites, where they have upcoming events and they provide information around specific events. Do you see that yourself more around that area, or are you just more specifically in Broadway?
Robert Diamond: Oh, in Broadway, most shows have open runs or have set schedules, so we don’t really offer a calendar there. In regions, cities across the U.S. and in other countries, where a tour will stop by for two weeks or a production will run for X amount of time; there we do offer self-service listings and calendars that we get data from a few different partners on, so all of the above.
Vahe Arabian: I understand. You mentioned about your audience and how everyone likes a bit of everything. Yeah, I guess, the thing I would like to ask is do you have different personas or different sets of audiences that you have in mind or your team has in mind when they want to target or they want to create pieces of content or just publish on the website or is it just what can we have … What can we look at this silo for today? What can we look at this section today?
Robert Diamond: I would say both. Overall, we want to cover everything everywhere, so whether it’s one night in a tiny theater that seats 30 people, or whether it’s one night at Radio City Music Hall, both items are still going to wind up on Broadway World. When we’re looking at content that takes more time to develop, then absolutely, we’re looking at data and analytics and traffic and trying to make sure we’re using the best use of our limited resources of time.
Vahe Arabian: I understand. And looking ahead just more at the industry level, where do you see Broadway World and Broadway news and publishing in the spectrum of the entire entertainment industry? I know it’s a niche, but where do you see it in general and, I guess… where do you see the coverage of Broadway news moving forward, look like?
Robert Diamond: Ah, continuing to increase. We see a lot more overlap with general entertainment of stars coming to Broadway, of projects on TV, from of A Christmas Story on Fox and in the movie theaters this December, like The Greatest Showman musical. So, we see it as an expanding Broadway world, unintended.
Vahe Arabian: Right. With that mashup, it’s interesting that you said that. How well do you find that your audiences would then distinguish that this is purely a Broadway … Because I know you said that there are actors that you do both. How do you try to distinguish the type of content and news that you do because I know you guys also have different other properties as well as such as TV and different other properties, but how do you keep the integrity of Broadway news publishing as it is without trying to murk it too much with other mediums?
Robert Diamond: Carefully, and case by case. Right now, we’re doing a lot of coverage of Amy Schumer, who’s appearing in a play on Broadway, but at the same time, she’s doing a movie. We’re not going to cover that every day on the Broadway section. That’ll be on the TV and film section.
Vahe Arabian: Right, so yeah, that makes sense.
Robert Diamond: And we see if maybe she’s doing a movie with two or three other actors and people are consuming it, well, we’ll include it a little more in our Broadway coverage. And if the data does not show that, then we’ll keep it segmented.
Vahe Arabian: How would you like to see Broadway news in the future to look like, like obviously, it’s hard to say that you can’t be unique and separate, but how would you if it was a blue sky world, how would you want us to see Broadway news coverage look like for you?
Robert Diamond: Just continuing to expand and continue to embrace new technologies from live streaming. We’re looking at augmented reality. We’re looking at all the different technologies and in mediums that are out there. We were first to market with an Apple TV app and a Roku app. There’re other platforms that we’re looking at there, mobile and otherwise, so we would like to see Broadway continue to be an important part of all those different ways that consumers are now consuming content.
Vahe Arabian: It’s an interesting point that you bring up though, like how would you be able to leverage live streaming and Apple TV, for example, if it’s a Broadway show and many of them have copyright, or they have a restriction in terms of you recording the shows? Isn’t that type of restriction there, or are they going to be able to sell partnerships where you can do that for those types of shows so you can cover them more effectively?
Robert Diamond: There’re a couple of companies as advertising partners and as business associates. One is BroadwayHD. There’s another company called Scenarium, which is up and coming. There’re Fathom Events and Screenvision, which bring Broadway shows to movie theaters, and so there’s a couple of great services out there, all of which are growing and all of which are figuring out different ways that they can capture content and come up with formulas that are fair to the artists and the creative teams and the writers and the producers and the theaters.
Robert Diamond: So, as far as the streaming of full shows, that’s not something that we’re looking at. We’re supporting the efforts of others there. On our end, we’ve streamed concerts. We’ve streamed press events and live interviews from backstage and from other hotspots. So, it’s a mix of performance and interview footage.
Vahe Arabian: So, more exclusive content, behind the scenes content, and you want to leverage, I guess, leveraging the immediate technology for that purpose?
Robert Diamond: Correct.
Vahe Arabian: Cool. What are some of the initiatives that you guys have planned now, and what’s, if you can disclose that, and what are you guys looking to really focus on more so in 2018?
Robert Diamond: Two big things that we have coming up, one is launching, I guess, in two weeks’ time, which just scared me, which is a charity corner that we’re working on in partnership with Charitybuzz and Prizeo, parts of the Charity Network, which will showcase all of the charitable causes that Broadway World embraces as the great organizations like Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and wonderful stuff that people like Lin-Manuel Miranda have done for Puerto Rico.
Robert Diamond: So, we’ll be supporting that with content and with things to shine a spotlight on those that are giving back, and that’s always been part of our core DNA from day one, and we see Broadway audiences as well. After that, we’re working on expansions of our education section, which covers theater in the high schools and colleges around the country.
Robert Diamond: We’re working with a lot of those programs to profile student productions of shows and programs, themselves, how they’re teaching it and creating and forming the next generation of theater talent.
Vahe Arabian: This is very exciting to you. I hope that those events, upcoming events really turn out well as well, and what are the expectations on the events?
Robert Diamond: For the charity setting, for both of them, they’re content that we’re running a little bit of now so that we can vet our audience likes them. We see that the numbers are good. We just think we haven’t made them easy enough to find by creating specialized sections, and then with everything else we do, it’s starting with some of the major Broadway sections. But then, we’ll also expand out regionally, so we’re looking to cast a small net to start and then a wider net.
Vahe Arabian: Cool. But, Rob, just to the last part of the topic, I’d like to speak about is really about people who want to get into Broadway, news journalism, or it can be even entertainment journalism. What’s some of the advice that you can give them, and how do you think they can stand out to someone like yourself who might consider them to be part of your team?
Robert Diamond: We’re looking for people that are passionate and creative, people that don’t just want to join the organization and do what, let’s say, another website is doing or do what we’ve done before. We’re looking for people that want to help take what we’re doing forward and what they’re doing forward. So, we look for that with new employees. That’s not just what do you like about what we’re doing. What don’t you like? What would you like to be doing, and people that can think of that in terms of content that’s interesting and stuff that people want to consume. So, some people just say, “I love theater. I want to get free Broadway tickets, and I want to do interviews.” And that’s great. We all want free Broadway tickets, and we all like doing interviews, but we have a team that’s doing that now. So, we look for people that are creative with ideas and creative about what they want to do and passionate about it as well.
Vahe Arabian: What’s an example of someone who you’ve hired that has ticked all the boxes in terms of being creative, and what kind of initiative have they come up with that you’ve found interesting?
Robert Diamond: Really, our most recent hire has been somebody that started with us as an intern doing local coverage for us in Toronto and kept suggesting ideas for our social media. And after getting enough of those ideas, it became, “Great. Why don’t you come join the team and work on our social media?” And they did that while they were finishing up their education as an intern and then graduated and joined us full-time. For example, from doing our own social media work, they had the idea of doing the social media analytics once they knew we were thinking about doing the industry section. And that was a great example of somebody that found us, had unique ideas and quickly became a contributing member of the team.
Vahe Arabian: Just to confirm, that intern that you guys eventually hired, he was part of the … And he contributed to the idea of combining social media analytics into the Industry Insider component of your website?
Robert Diamond: Correct. That he was running our social media and knew that we were creating this industry insight sections, and that was … A big part of it was his idea and his execution to figure out and try different ways to gather that data and to help the rest of the team present it in the right way. And now, he writes about it editorially each week as well.
Vahe Arabian: That’s very awesome. That’s very exciting to hear, to be honest. You always want to know people around you who can give you new ideas and also people who are, yeah, just passionate. So, it’s very fortunate that you found someone like that person.
Robert Diamond: And he loves theater and loves social media, and it was a position of … Everybody was contributing to our social media, but we didn’t have a single person that was thinking about that sort of as a primary job objective. And he’s helped us greatly with our social media growth there, and then, and now, editorially and in other areas.
Vahe Arabian: Rob, what do you see for yourself moving forward with your own career in journalism and publishing?
Robert Diamond: More of the same, just looking to keep growing personally and professionally with everything we do. I’m very passionate about technology and about being first to market with ideas, and thankfully with the way that technology goes, there’s never a shortage of things that are in our pipeline that keep me excited and inspired every day to expand what we’re doing to new audiences and new technologies and new areas of media.
Vahe Arabian: I appreciate the time, Rob. Thank you very much.
Robert Diamond: You’re very welcome.
Vahe Arabian: This was episode five of the State of Digital Publishing podcast with Robert Diamond. Thanks, everyone. Speak soon.