New York Times newsroom
Credit: By jarapet on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Sustainable, quality journalism is the ultimate aim of every news organisation in the 21st century, but the constantly-evolving nature of the industry makes it difficult to build a business.

Digital native outlets Quartz, BuzzFeed and Vice have all arguably found an audience and business model that works for them, at least for now, while the Guardian and The New York Times have come from a long print legacy to be leading digital news organisations.

Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism research fellow Lucy Küng outlined what these five news organisations have in common when it comes to their success at the launch of her Innovators in Digital News book yesterday.

The key is evolving, it's not just about bringing technologists into the newsroom to solve all problemsAron Pilhofer, The Guardian
Here are three of the key elements they share.

Early start

Many traditional news organisations have struggled to develop successful digital strategies because, as Küng explained, they started to approach the problem at a point where competition had increased considerably.

The Guardian and The New York Times have "elegant and intelligent digital strategies now", after recognising the growth of technology and the importance of investing in people with digital skills and mindsets.

After launching in 1999, the Manchester-founded newspaper announced a 'digital-first strategy' in 2011, later moving to house all its digital output on

Similarly, the New York Times, which had 910,000 paid digital subscribers at the end of last year and a 164-year legacy behind it, launched a website in 1996 and has been developing a variety of digital products ever since.

Some have proved more successful than others, like the NYT Now app and explainer journalism website The Upshot.

Küng stressed how, by taking the plunge at the right time, The Guardian and The New York Times have had time to experiment, learn from their successes and failures and "build digital expertise and knowledge of digital markets".

Speaking on a panel at the launch, Aron Pilhofer, The Guardian's executive editor for digital, acknowledged that traditional news organisations are still "dealing with transitioning [to digital platforms]" and they should learn from the "processes and orientation structure" of those like Vox Media and Quartz.

"We are genuinely structured to produce a daily product, a daily newspaper", he said.

"If we looked [back] at a successful business model in a few years, we'd look at those organisations who understand that we need to organise ourselves differently."

A clear, singular purpose

According to Küng, all five organisations have a clear, singular purpose: "they know what they are trying to do, which audiences they serve and how to create value for them".

When Jonah Peretti founded BuzzFeed in 2006, he knew what he wanted his website to produce and who the target audience was: viral content for what he called the 'bored at work network'.

Since then, BuzzFeed has considerably expanded, developing a focus on news and investigative journalism, which Peretti attributed to the fact that "news is the best way to have a big impact on the world".

Quartz, launched in 2012, focused was on business news for 'influentials' – "affluent mobile business people with many digital devices and a penchant for well-written news".

Quartz also started out with the mindset of an international publication, approaching stories from the perspective of the global economy.

And Kevin Sutcliffe, Vice News' head of news programming, also on the panel, outlined three factors that guide his organisation's strategy: brand, tone of voice and consistency.

He said Vice News knows exactly who they are trying to reach and how to reach them.

Integration of tech and journalism and a "pro-digital culture"

We are storytellers and we are committed to being content firstKevin Sutcliffe, Vice News
While "journalism and technology are integrated in digital native [outlets]", legacy publishers are at a crossroads, Küng says in her book.

Is the key to finding the right balance just bringing developers into the newsroom? Or perhaps teaching journalists new technological skills?

Pilhofer pointed to Vox Media's vertical structure and how technology plays a big role in how stories are told and structured online. Developers and journalists working together on the product on a daily basis, something which is "not happening as much as it should" in traditional news organisations.

"The key is evolving," he said, "it's not just about bringing technologists into the newsroom to solve all problems.

When people start to collaborate and you see the product and technology team and the editorial team come together more seamlessly, that's when it's successful."

James Lamont, managing editor at the Financial Times, shared a similar view.

"What we are seeing is new skills coming into the newsroom, digital natives who grew up with technology and who can teach people my age a lot."

He said that it is important for these skills to be valued properly, and while traditional journalists have "a notepad, a pencil and a sharp mind", new journalists have at least "20 other skills that go beyond enquiry and recording".

Find out more about Innovators in Digital News here.

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