Finding ourselves at the mercy of disruptive digital technologies for more than a decade, we — the established media — have had more reason than most to invest in new product development, business model experimentation, and drivers of sustainable innovation. And yet, in the face of these existential threats, we too often pursue innovation in isolation within digital product and delivery teams.
If there’s one thing the last 13 years of creating new revenue streams for established media organisations has taught me, it’s that every one of us is sitting on a wealth of assets and unrealised potential: brands of 100+ years and the resulting legacy of trust, decades’ worth of evergreen content assets, journalists of immense skill and reputation, photographic archives of significant events, access to and influence over the highest levels of power, and loyal audiences who share our brand values and respect our work.
Frustratingly, all that potential can be fundamentally curtailed by the way we think about innovation, approach product development, and assume our businesses need to work.
The business value of design
Since the great in-housing cycle took hold a few years back, most established media organisations have acquired (sometimes large-scale) user experience and design teams. These involve designers working with product owners on discrete but significant improvements to products and services.
This investment can deliver incremental gains in product outcomes and revenue. However, we artificially cap the return that can be realised from building in-house product and design capability when we assume their responsibilities begin and end with digital products.
Why does product development need to extend beyond audience touchpoints to deliver business value? To consider digital products “containers” for news is to greatly underestimate the value potential of news-as-a-service. There is an opportunity to transform news from a static time-bound product to a fluid set of outcomes that deliver value to readers by empowering them to feel smarter, make better decisions, arrive better prepared or armed for conversation, and be inspired or entertained.
These untapped customer needs can be transformed into new revenue for news organisations. But this can’t happen when a user's intent beyond subject matter interest is barely acknowledged by most newsrooms. Or while the emphasis on distributed publishing models has them relying on scattergun content deployment over supplying the right content for thoughtful, end-to-end customer journeys designed to meet their users’ needs.
Product teams are skilled at identifying customer needs and finding ways for those needs to be met with existing organisational assets and capabilities (and if yours aren’t, you should switch out your talent for those who are).
However, many news organisations fail to recognise the degree of transformation required to fulfil the identified opportunity — or the extent to which this can be accomplished when editorial teams are used to working in isolation (a leftover from ad-subsidisation) or when existing topic-based structures are viewed to be immutable (despite the decreased relevance of “the bundle” in a digital age). What product team has the authority to make sweeping changes to editorial, operations, or commercial in the name of delivering a better news experience?
Inflexible organisational structures, lack of cross-departmental coordination, and insufficient attention to the business-wide impacts of customer-led product improvement and innovation are blockers to successful product development. So, it’s not enough for product managers and designers to have the skill, imagination, and remit to reimagine the news experience. We also need organisations that acknowledge the need to adapt the way they operate in line with changes to product.
If we accept our products are not containers for news but a single customer touchpoint in a complex news system embodied by the news business itself, we can remove the artificial caps on our investments in product development.
When the value of an in-house product team becomes not simply the extent to which it can transform audience-facing products but the actual business that delivers them, that is when we can truly begin to realise the potential of our journalists, our content, our brands, our culture, our reach, and our values.