Why separating app development from print is key to innovation


In early September, Reddit released an app centered on its AMA (Ask Me Anything) feature. Currently known for leaked celebrity nudes and cat memes, Reddit is a Web site hosting many “subreddits” where users gather to discuss specific topics, ranging from gaming to political philosophy.

The spin-out of a focused app on a specific slice — instead of leveraging viewers to draw eyeballs into other offerings — has parallels for media companies.

We’ve discussed apps focusing on specific content or features from media companies in previous posts, but only in the sense of an individual product’s development.

Newspapers historically have rolled out digital products with the idea that they would increase, or at least better retain, print subscriptions through bundling. And with good reason – that’s where the actual revenue is.

Does a product strategy designed around valuation of the print subscription limit the industry’s ability to make the necessary digital leap to a different strategy?

From a numbers standpoint, piling more apps into a bundle to boost the value of a subscription reduces each product’s relative value. Once print’s value rapidly diminishes, we still have to hold/raise subscription and advertisement rates following the same value strategy, only this time with a pure-digital bundle.

Value improvements will continue to be met with diminishing returns constrained by development and operational cost containment.

From a philosophical perspective, we think like newspapers. If anything, the New York Times Innovation Report is an example of how the industry — even the more experimental among us — approaches a new medium and adapts it to the newspaper point of view (not always a bad thing, but not transformative).

No one is likely to find sudden success just incrementally repurposing to digital. If we’re to innovate, we’ll have to do it on a separate product path, outside the newspaper worldview, and on the cheap.

I believe a structure that would enable solution finding should follow agile product development practices. Importantly, this effort should be separate from product management/development of the print bundle digital products and also be separate from daily news operations. That structure keep in mind:

  • Small teams, including staff with no media background, focus on product development – not necessarily news products.

  • Apps are built on basic systems supporting the standards – images, text, video, advertising – but scaled for quick and imperfect builds of many core ideas. (Think scale-less and no custom development per product.)

  • Quick development: Build, test, and refine/kill minimum viable product ideas in weeks, not months, including direct consumer testing.

  • Outsource/contract developers as necessary to keep costs down.

If a company – any company – wants to innovate, it must foster the mindset by implementing strategies and processes to reinforce and allow execution (and not just rearrange the furniture of the existing strategy). It doesn’t have to be expensive and involved, but it must embrace intelligent failure and reasoned risk.

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