Editor’s note: This is part one of two. Part two can be found here.
The atomic unit of journalism has always been the story. This made sense when the news was distributed on paper and lots of stories could be organised on a page; that page was sold as part of a whole under a brand and masthead. And while that makes some sense in the digital world, there are some problems.
Firstly, unbundling the print edition into a series of individual stories allows digital intermediaries (Facebook, Google, et. al.) to become primary distributors of news — they become the brands users gravitate to.
Secondly, newspapers have/had a clear value proposition: a deep dive into the news of the day, plus some extras, brought together by a trusted brand with a particular editorial outlook. Massive shifts in consumer behaviour, the abundance of online information, and the willingness of news publishers to unbundle their content to grow digital audiences, mean that type of value proposition won’t sustain many online news businesses. To create loyal digital readers, something more than a digital version of the paper is needed.
What can be done about this?
Can the unbundling of news be undone?
Can the news be rebundled?
What jobs does news do?
There are at least two user needs answered by niche and general digital publications. Focusing on user needs allows us to look at the news through a “jobs to be done” framework, according to Clay Christensen.
“When people find themselves needing to get a job done, they essentially hire products to do that job for them. The marketer’s task is therefore to understand what jobs periodically arise in customers’ lives for which they might hire products the company could make. If a marketer can understand the job, design a product and associated experiences in purchase and use to do that job, and deliver it in a way that reinforces its intended use, then when customers find themselves needing to get that job done, they will hire that product.”
In news, two jobs need to be done:
- Tell me what stuff I need to know about that’s happening in the world right now. And make it simple.
- Tell me more information about a particular thing: the context, the background, the players, the likely outcomes. And make it detailed.
The first job is temporal in nature. The second is thematic in nature. Here’s a neat summary from the super-smart Heidi N. Moore:
She’s right, you know: A single product and single user experience (the default setting of most digital publishers) conflates and confuses these two jobs that readers want to get done. So, let’s break these two jobs down to see what the potential is and who’s realising it.
The temporal imperative: Tell me what matters right now!
This one is familiar to news publishers. After all, it’s similar to how a daily printed newspaper works, providing updates from a trusted source on current affairs. But packaging this to create a compelling product for a digital audience takes more effort than putting print stories online.
The most obvious product in this space is the e-paper. Many publishers have them; they’re replicas of the printed product, maintaining pagination, ads, etc. And they work pretty well.
Research from Twipe shows that e-papers do a good job for their users. When examining reader preference for two news formats: news flow (i.e. open Web) vs. e-papers, Twipe found:
- Half of all readers prefer to read digital news in an edition format.
- This finding holds true across all the countries we examined, with Germany standing out.
- Contrary to popular belief, the even split holds true for younger readers.
They also found that e-paper readers are typically busier people who want to take time once a day to go through a package of news. They appreciate editorial selection and finish-ability. Edition readers look less for free content and are more loyal to one news brand. Crucially, they are more loyal and more engaged.
But there are other non-e-paper examples of bundling, such as Aftenposten. Their customer-centric value proposition explains the job they wanted to do: explain the news better than anyone else. To define a product experience around this mission they started by segmenting their audience into four cohorts:
- News lover: Four or more visits per day, on average.
- Daily briefer: One to three visits per day, on average.
- Casual user: Less than one visit per day, on average.
- Infrequent user: Less than four visits per month
Here’s how they found those cohorts broke down in terms of frequency of visits:
And here’s how they break down in terms of share of sessions:
They decided that the smart thing to do was focus on casual users and daily briefers and ensure the first visit of the day to their site/app showed the very best journalism that explained the news of the day better than anyone else. So, they created the morning brief, a snackable front page that explains what has happened and why it matters. It also asks users whether this précis was useful.
The result? 80% of users indicated they wanted to see it daily. And the product was particularly valuable to low-frequency users. Job done.
The Economist’s Espresso app is a very similar proposition. The job it’s doing? Giving a “shot of daily news” to busy people who only have a few minutes to be informed each morning. The product is similar in nature to Aftonposten’s Morning Briefing but also acts as a subscription driver as it comes with a free trial period.
Interestingly, for a product that has made speedy delivery of news its job to be done, speed and performance of the app matters. The Economist found that there was a clear correlation between the speed of the edition loading and the commercial success of the app itself.
Part two: The second imperative for publishers.