All newsrooms at Nine in Australia have embraced digital subscriptions, says Ben Haywood, director of product at the company. Speaking at INMA’s debut Asia/Pacific News Media Summit, Haywood said an important part of Nine’s subscription growth has been a strong partnership between product and editorial.
“There are some fundamental principles that have helped us create really effective partnerships, and I wanted to share some of those with you today,” Haywood told attendees at the virtual summit, which gathered 612 participants from 35 countries.
1. Choose conversations over presentations
“I’ve found that product and editorial tend to speak different languages,” Haywood said.
Product thinks more in terms of weeks, months, or years, while newsrooms mark time in hours and days — even minutes, driven by the news cycle. Product also tends to be driven by data and research, while editorial is driven more by instinct and intuition.
“Those differences can lead to one of the earliest friction points between product and editorial, in my experiences,” Haywood explained. “Product would come in with slick presentations, with lots of evidence and concepts that were really difficult to argue with. But editorial would see it and say, ‘Hey, that doesn’t really gel with my experience, that doesn’t make sense to me.’ So editorial was speaking a different language, and product wasn’t really listening.”
The Nine team recognised that problem, Haywood said, and realised it needed to learn to speak each other’s language. That change was transformative.
“In practice, that’s meant always starting with conversations. Presentations are telling, but conversations are dialogue. Editorial and product suddenly felt listened to. Product was able to treat that editorial intuition as insight.”
There is a time and place for presentations, when unpacking big ideas — but most of the time, the team talks often and keeps it scrappy. Yet Haywood acknowledged product and editorial still speak different languages. At The Sydney Morning Herald, they even created an audience development team that acts as a translator between the two departments.
2. Don’t argue about facts
As an example of this principle, Haywood pointed to the 2017 launch of a new Web site home page. Product thought it was a massive success, while editorial thought it was a failure.
“How could that be?” he asked. “Well, it was because we were looking at completely different data sources. Product was looking at Google Analytics, and the newsroom was looking at Chartbeat. That really ratcheted up tension and eroded trust.”
The team hadn’t taken the time, before the launch, to get aligned with what success would look like, how they would define it, Hay wood said. They had to stop arguing about what the “facts” were.
In 2020, the company launched another new homepage, and the experience was completely different. This time, product and editorial were both in agreement about what successful performance would be. They invested heavily in establishing a single source of truth between the two departments. Everyone had access to that information, which was highly transparent.
3. Focus on outcomes, not ownership
“Our newsrooms have owned product for more than a century,” Haywood said. More recently, however, product has emerged as its own discipline.
As the value of digital grew, product became more assertive. This made some newsrooms defensive, feeling like an erosion of independence — something editorial is committed to defending. This put the two teams on a collision course, each competing with the other rather than focusing on shared goals.
“It became about ownership of the strategy, rather than the outcome we were trying to drive,” he shared. “We had to find a way to break that cycle. We had to change it into a partnership. Both had to let go a bit and make space for each other.”
At Nine, that meant taking the time to get aligned around a shared goal: Product success was editorial success, and vice versa. A focus on subscription was the shared goal they aligned around. But they also had to be clear on what success would look like, what they were trying to achieve, and what the problems were that they were trying to solve.
“We were focusing on outcomes,” Haywood said. “Who’s in charge was much less important.”
That forced them to focus on the principle of solving problems together.
4. Start with why and seek a shared understanding
When people are in a hurry, it’s natural to rush to a solution, Haywood said. But by taking the time to ask “why” first, it helps identify the real problem that needs to be solved.
As an example, many readers had requested that Nine organise and bundle its content differently. The team could have reacted to that and built three or four different solutions.
“But when we stepped back and asked what’s the problem, actually there was something in common. It was hard for our readers to see the depth and breadth of our coverage, and that was reducing their propensity to subscribe.”
That unlocked a great opportunity for the newsroom to present related content in context, while creating new commercial opportunities. This led to a single solution: Collections.
“We also found that problems are really empowering, and they work at many altitudes,” Haywood said. “We’ve identified eight master problems that are across all of our mastheads.”
5. Know when to just get it done
“In spite of everything I’ve just said and the importance of taking the time to solve problems, you’ve also got to know when you just need to drop everything and get it done,” Haywood advised.
When product turns everything into a major project, editorial will simply find another way around. The newsroom going around the product team isn’t good for anybody, he said.
“We make sure that we reserve capacity in every sprint for small requests that just make sense and make people’s lives easier. We call it the fast lane, and we plan for this work before we know what it even is.”
When the moment calls, Haywood said the teams also know they are empowered to drop everything, such as when the newsroom has to respond to major world events.
“What makes that flexibility possible is that we’re always striving to stay true to those five broad principles,” Haywood concluded.
The summit, which is free to participants, continues on Friday.