"This is an audience transformation, not a digital transformation," says Louise Story, a media strategist with experience at the intersection of editorial and product.
Speaking at Twipe's Digital Growth Summit (27 September 2021), she highlighted the need for news companies to re-evaluate their priorities when it comes to digital transformation. Instead of thinking about how to help themselves, they need to start thinking about what audiences truly value. After all, the next decade promises a greater shift towards audiences seeking personalised content.
Part of the recalibration is also to accept that news companies of today are also tech companies, so they need to start thinking like them.
Story left The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) this summer, having spent three years there as chief news strategist, chief product officer and chief technology officer. Before that, she had spent 11 years with The New York Times (NYT) in various editorial and strategist roles, significantly co-authoring an innovation report in 2013, and another audience growth report in 2015, focusing on how to build out its digital offering. Both news companies enjoy a thriving subscriptions business these days.
During her stints with WSJ and NYT, the common thread between the two was a news product culture centred around creating the most useful experience for the reader. That way, they have fewer reasons to unsubscribe.
What’s hurting the news industry is not listening to audiences.Louise Story
Back in 2013 when she worked on NYT's innovation report, a lot of the initial thinking was around how to find audiences and bring them to the website. A shift in mindset came when a colleague reminded her that many great innovations are the result of a newcomer tackling an overlooked industry issue: "Netflix did not kill Blockbuster," she recalls. "It was the late fees and inconveniences".
As the media think about what stops audiences from engaging with them, they often point to misinformation, bad actors and clickbait. The fault of the media industry is that communication largely goes one way.
"What’s hurting the news industry - and what will continue to hurt the news industry - is not listening to audiences," explains Story, adding that the solution is to look inward to the data and to interpret what it means.
She advises news organisations to look at how data can inform the beats they cover, and create communities with their audience which involve them in the main product: their journalism. This needs to be assessed in regular meetings to make sure the company is on track. But that goes against the grain of newsroom culture.
The reality of culture change
The biggest challenge here is for top editors to relinquish some control of what is in the news agenda. They are not the "tastemakers" any longer but a bridge between the public and the newsroom. Top editors now are charged with "decyphering and combining" what audiences are interested in along with what their news reporters are pursuing.
It is also important, in this rapidly advancing digital media landscape, that editors have an interdisciplinary team feeding into their decisions all the time.
"You really cannot do what you need to do externally without looking at internal culture," says Story.
At WSJ, something which stood to her was that staff members used different language for the very same subject. Readers, for example, can be members, audiences, customers or users depending on which department you were talking to.
The objective here is to get different teams moving in the same direction with a shared, explicit goal in mind. Changing conflicting priorities into consistent goals requires every department to be represented at key meetings, language and terminology to be consistent, and all data to be visible across the company.
Why? Because audiences only see one product. They do not look at an article and differentiate between the quality of the graphics and the simplicity of the sign-up process. It all needs to be one positive experience, so teams need the same priorities.
Show and tell meetings
A practical way to do this is in once-a-week, half an hour meetings where all teams are present. The idea here is to make sure all teams feel recognised for the work they put in. Story said that a key problem that can arise is some teams getting more credit than others.
At these meetings, editorial teams can present their best stories and explain how they landed them. Engineering departments can show off a cool product they are working on. You get the picture: celebrate everyone's progress.
"This started a dialogue among our teams that created more understanding and interest in each other’s work and it’s worth the time," says Story.
Tech companies also work very quickly and have a lot of autonomy to make decisions without running everything past their bosses. To do this, you need transparency: teams must understand what the goals are, how they are measured and why the company is heading in that direction.
By taking ownership of an issue, individuals are able to make better decisions and feel confident. Story gave an example of a colleague who was working on improving page load times, who previously thought the only reason for doing this was to improve the experience for their subscribers. When he learned this is also to encourage new readers to take up subscriptions, and understood how this played into company goals, it lead to decisions that would have never been a priority otherwise.
Reclaiming utility value
Printed newspapers used to feature a lot of "utility value" coverage like weather or local events. The internet has forced news outlets to prioritise high-value content and so a lot of the utility coverage has taken a backseat.
That does not have to be the case. For example, CalMatters, a non-profit organisation based in California, has put out two trackers on its homepage, one on the legislators which represent local citizens and one on coronavirus figures. This is a good example of utility that gives news coverage added value. But often, news publishers will try similar tools and trackers, promote them for a few days but then stop and lose them in the depths of the website.
The lesson is to think closely about evergreen value content and when it can be used to meet user needs. Because if your outlet does not do it, others will. Take for instance Huge Ma, a software engineer who designed Turbo Vax, a bot that finds available appointments for covid-19 vaccinations, with just $50 in less than two weeks.
"A news company could have done this," explains Story. "[We need to think] not just about the stories we can write, but as different events happen which affect people’s lives, how can we provide a tool that helps them act on the news?"
She accepts that there are moral and ethical boundaries about the services news organisations can provide. But Story predicts that in the next ten years, there will be a great conversation about what is, and is not, considered the role of the news publisher. News products give scope to provide other ways to serve user needs beyond giving access to their journalism.
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