In the digital age, it’s easy to think technology has a solution for any business issue and can tackle all our challenges.
That’s not always the case, according to Guida Pinto, digital innovation director at Público, a Portuguese daily national newspaper of record. She spoke to more than 300 attendees at the INMA Media Innovation Week. The conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, is sponsored by ArcXP, FT Strategies, Google News Initiative, Meta, and Piano.
According to Pinto, it is people, not technology, that make the real difference.
It may sound surprising that someone with the title of digital innovation director plays down the importance of technology. And while Pinto does recognise the symbiotic relationship between people and tech, she gives the staff at Público the lion’s share of the credit for the publication’s recent successes.
Today, Público has one of the highest digital subscription rates among Portuguese publishers. That was not always the case.
In the autumn of 2019, Público had around 20,000 digital subscribers. In just two years, that number more than doubled.
Pinto attributes the uptick in subscribers to a dedicated effort that involved employees at all levels and in all departments. She describes the project as a story with three chapters:
The Tidy Up
The Build Up
The Master Up
1. Tidying up leads to an agile mentality
The first chapter of Público’s drive to innovation focused on listening to employees and optimising their processes.
Pinto and her team conducted a series of internal workshops, focus groups, and surveys. It became apparent that many employees felt that they were working in silos and that there was a lack of communication between departments.
This is a common problem. The Reuters Institute’s 2022 report found 41% of surveyed news publishers consider a lack of alignment between different departments to be a major roadblock to innovation.
To tackle this issue, Público instituted a new way of working based on Agile methodologies. They assembled multidisciplinary teams that divided work into short- and long-term projects.
Teams now meet every week to review projects in flight, assess what is working and pitch ideas for new projects. The new processes resulted in projects being implemented faster and have helped create a new mindset, according to Pinto.
“Internal NPS scores showed that people were more comfortable with the new system. They are happier and more informed,” she said.
2. Building up a management framework to support innovation
Once new internal processes were in place, Público focused on building a management framework that would build on the progress from chapter one. The goal was to support Público’s three growth pillars:
Acquire new monthly subscribers.
Drive lifetime value for subscribers.
Create a customer-centric culture.
Again, all layers of the organisation were involved. They set up separate groups to provide executive oversight, develop strategies, implement new initiatives.
Regular reporting sessions and meetings were established to ensure clear communication between the groups.
And while Pinto emphasised people over technology, she did acknowledge that one of the outcomes of their projects was indisputably techy: a text-to-speech analyzer that uses Artificial Intelligence to read written text in perfect Portuguese.
3. To master up, Público looked outwards
In the final chapter of Público’s innovation story, they engaged their readers.
Pinto explained that they wanted to go beyond tedious online surveys and typical feedback tools. They set up what they call the Reader’s Lab to get to know readers through both quantitative and qualitative methods.
One method that worked especially well, according to Pinto, was a series of reader interviews that involved (you guessed it!) all departments of the organisation.
Rather than hiring an external firm or dedicating a specific internal team, members of every department across the organisation picked up a phone and rang readers. They asked a number of questions to learn about readers' preferences and gained insight into what readers wanted most from Público.
“This was a game changer,” Pinto said. “When people do interviews themselves, they remember the reader in later initiatives they are working on. It takes a lot of work and a lot of time, but it’s worth it. It changes the culture.”