A new city guide from Norwegian publisher Schibsted embodies a best practice strategy of editorial and product teams working together to address user needs and constantly test and adjust content and functionality based on data and feedback.
Schibsted has long been the gold standard of digital innovation. I recall watching the speed and focus of products from the tabloid VG and more sober Aftenposten in awe while leading the digital media operations of The Times and The Sunday Times in London in the mid-2000s. Schibsted embraced digital thinking in all aspects, from more modern newsroom practices to sophisticated advertising techniques and investment in technology.
Vink, a city guide for the Norwegian capital Oslo, shows that spirit of innovation and iteration. It is as much a story about embedding product thinking in the newsroom — for me the idea that every piece of content you put in front of a reader has to be considered in all its elements, not just the story — as well as skilled product development that understands the audience.
Vink — the name comes from the Norwegian for a knowing wink — is aligned to the flagship news product, Aftenposten, but has its own identity and content stream and what may turn out to be a model methodology underlying both editorial and product strategy. That’s where it may have important lessons for other publishers and newsrooms.
“Everything that is made for Vink is made especially for Vink,” said Aftenposten Culture Editor Cecilie Asker, who leads Vink, and whom I met in Oslo on a recent visit. Vink reviews make it back to Aftenposten, but there is little or no content or branding from the newspaper on Vink.
“Making stuff for a paper and putting it into a digital service doesn’t work, but making stuff for a digital service and then putting it into the paper, that actually works,” she added. However, the quality, she insists, is the same: “We’re working on the tone of voice (but) it still has the same journalistic quality quality as our war coverage … the same ethical standards.”
The Vink product and editorial method is simple but disciplined:
Those five rules could be applied to almost any journalistic product, whether a launch or an existing application or site. To me, they overcome the all-too-frequent problem of editorial and product departments wrestling over who “owns” the product and the vulgar “owning” the audience. The answer is they are both responsible for a great journalistic experience.
Vink set out — after significant research — to deliver against two primary user needs for the people of Oslo, especially younger people than Aftenposten normally reached, most in that coveted range of hard-to-reach people in the 25-to-35 range:
Schibsted says Vink has performed above targets and that 96% of users view it positively.
Mobile is the obvious place to try to meet those needs, but the Vink team also publishes Vink content on social media, carefully tuned to those needs and the different platforms.
Asker says the Vink model flips the usual way journalists discuss what they think audiences might want and then produce it. Vink does it the other way around.
“The product team started out doing interviews, digging into the user needs,” she said. That’s where those two targeted needs came from, and Asker believes the idea that users wanted a trustworthy source and felt they lacked it was actually good news for established publishers and a potential competitive advantage against social media and start-ups.
The Vink creators also looked carefully at how to differentiate against a range of competitors to meet those needs, from Google with maps and bookings to TripAdvisor with user reviews. They determined the key differentiator was going to be reliable, independent, reviews.
At this point, the Vink team is also sticking with the product as the site maximised for mobile rather than creating a standalone app, partly because they consider promoting the content rather than a download is the way to increase early engagement.
To keep Vink developing, representatives from the product and technology teams sit with the editorial team, hearing in real time what the challenges and problems might be or what the newsroom believes it is trying to achieve or what it might need to achieve objectives.
“It’s very different for the journalist because the newsroom is not used to mistakes. In this project, mistakes should happen. We’re learning from our mistakes … because if you only succeed, you don’t know what’s wrong,” Asker said.
That concept of iteration and taking risks with minimum viable products seems to be paying off and may be a model for other projects that combine newsrooms, product, and engineering.
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