Product-centered News Organizations

This topic’s author, Tim Windsor, has more than 20 years of experience in leading or helping media companies and other organizations develop and improve their mobile and digital strategies and technologies, grow audience, and build sustainable digital revenue. Here he discusses why you need a product-centered strategy.

Strategy Overview

Start off by asking what you are going to do for your audience. You can’t just answer that you are going to cover a particular community or topic, or even a broad topic within that community, such as covering crime in your city. You must think deeper about what the people in your target audience really care about, and then put together a list of five or so specific topics that are really compelling as of your launch time.

Either you know for sure that your readers cannot live without this information, or you have tested out the topics on a sample of your audience. The fewer the people working with you, and the more competition you have, the more your topics must be narrowly focused so you can provide sustained and distinctive coverage. (Some narrowly defined topics are self-limiting, but if you have done a good job of connecting with your audience as you cover a story to its natural end, your reporting or the response from your audience will lead you to a new topic.) You also can test your topics by trying to come up with a list of story ideas. If you can’t fill out a whiteboard in a half hour with story ideas you are excited to pursue, those topics won’t work out and you’ll have to revise your list.

Next determine what you can sustainably deliver and at what frequency. Are you a daily, a weekly, an hourly news source? Make that expectation clear at the beginning and deliver on it. We’ve all seen news sites that start strong but the gap between postings gets longer and longer, and then they are gone. They disappear not because of a lack of interest by the content creators, but because they did not have the time, energy or resources to continue to deliver at the frequency they started out at.

In my own career, as an editorial director at Patch.com, I saw the reporters for the hyperlocal news site killing themselves trying to cover everything that moved in their communities. What made the best editors stand out is that they understood what mattered in their community. They aggregated a lot of news, but had limited their scope of original reporting to a list of five or so topics on which they could break news.

Defining the product

In a product-centered strategy, you start off by asking, “What are you doing for your users that they cannot do for themselves?” Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor known for his theories on disruptive innovation, describes the strategy as a marketer realizing that the customer is hiring a product or service to get a job done.

As you define your product you have to ask whether it will solve an urgent need in the lives of your target audience. News does fulfill an urgent need for those who absolutely must know what is going on in their community. Just having something fun and entertaining to read can fulfill an urgent need for some people. But it is not enough for your product to be interesting. Before you just start posting interesting news, ask what your product does for the readers:

  •      Is it a time saver?
  •      Does it save them money?
  •      Does it boil down essential information they need?
  •      Does it provide a trusted filter where there is too much information?
  •      Does it allow them to connect or collaborate with other users?

If the product does one or more of these jobs, or meets some other urgent needs, then you have designed a marketable product. Thinking of your product like it came in a box on a shelf, you would know what the box says on the outside. More practically, you have a sentence or two to use prominently in your business plan and donor appeals, because your product is what gives your journalism impact.

Startup Product Trio: Web, Newsletter, Syndication

An earlier section covered the content distribution strategy, but let’s look at it again with a product-centered approach: How will the customer use the product?

If the content distribution will rely on a website, how will the customer use that website? The answer increasingly involves a smartphone, so it would be dangerous to design a website that is not mobile-friendly, and soon if not right away, a mobile app might be the product. A survey by Pew Research Center in 2018 found 58 percent of U.S. adults often get news on a mobile device, 19 percentage points higher than the 39 percent who often get news on a desktop or laptop computer.

If you are covering topics that are relevant to different target audiences that are unlikely to visit your website regularly, you may have to distribute your product to them with targeted newsletters or syndicated content in the publications they already read.

If the job you are doing for your users involves giving them a way to interact with you or each other, that need will affect the design of your product. For example, any website can create a forum for user-generated content but it will only be successful and sustainable if users have an urgent motivation to be active on that forum.

Syndicating content through well-established publications can be an effective way to get information to those who urgently need it. But the syndication must contribute toward your strategy of sustaining coverage of your topics (See the section on Distributed Audiences in chapter 3).

To borrow a concept from the technology industry, once you think you have a product that meets an urgent need, you’ll want to take it to market in some simple way as soon as possible. If you wait until you perfect your product or build every possible distribution channel, a competitor may corner the market. And if your product does not succeed in its current form, you can pivot by asking, “What else can I do in this space?”

The Product Manager Role

If you want your organization to stay small, you have to start simple and say “no” to a lot of ideas. But if you are planning to grow, your business plan (discussed in chapter 6) will have to envision sufficient staff to manage all aspects of your product.

As a startup, you need to know how much time it will take you to manage your minimum viable product (MVP in tech-speak). Then as you develop your business plan you can consider strategically adding features to that product gradually over time as long as you have the revenue to pay for staff to manage and support the growing product.

Suppose you start a newsletter as your MVP and charge enough for subscriptions to pay your costs. Over time you add more newsletters, need more elaborate social promotion to get enough subscribers, and start sponsoring events and considering some other initiatives to keep the subscribers engaged. Because adding too many features to a product can make it bloated and unsustainable, you or your team must periodically test, measure and evaluate what you have created. You must either set aside time in your work schedule to handle that work or delegate it to a product manager.

All this talk about product can be disheartening to those journalists who see their calling as breaking news and telling stories, and leaving the business talk to others. But in the next chapter we will connect this product-centered groundwork back to your news mission.