Newspapers don’t need to reinvent the wheel, just package it better


At a time when newspaper buying habits — and advertiser habits — are dramatically changing, we need to be developing products that will engage around new behaviours, not defending old practices.

“You have a delicious cupcake that people love but can only eat every so often,” I told an editor who was asking for advice on how to improve her section and attract a different audience to her publication.

“The question is not how you can make a more delicious cupcake or stretch the batter to make it a pie. The question is what else can you put on the menu that will convince people to buy regularly from your bakery?”

In the same way that McDonald's now has a healthier-options menu, with salads and wraps, as well as burgers, and in the same way that Coca-Cola has developed iced teas, bottled water and “vitamin drinks,” newspaper companies need to think differently about their markets and the products they are developing in them to expand their appeal.

But the mistake too many newspapers continue to make when it comes to product improvement is to assume they need to improve an existing product.

This is why we see newspapers that believe the best way to turn a product around and make it more attractive to advertisers is to create more of it: more stories, more pages, more content, all in the same vein of what went before.

Readers, the argument goes, will be so impressed with the added newness that they will return in droves to products that they had previously abandoned because they did not have enough time or will power or interest to read. Advertisers, in turn, will be so impressed with the investment we have made in our journalism that they will once again invest the dollars they had previously withdrawn on the basis of not being sure if our products worked.

Hmmmm. Doesn't sound like much of a business plan when you write it out like that, does it? Even PowerPoint can't sex it up. Einstein said the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. There are days when I worry the entire industry needs a lithium hit.

It is thinking like mastheads rather than thinking like product suites that has led us down this path.

In the siloed world of Planet Masthead, any new idea is bolted onto the mother ship. There is only one entrance — through the front doors — and one almighty ruler through whom all decisions must be made: the editor. The result is a structure that is a monolith, slow and creaking, difficult to access, impossible to change, and requiring super-human skills from the man (or occasionally woman) at the top.

Compare that to the world of product development, which always asks itself, “What do our customers want?” or “What do our customers need?” Good product development is not about incrementally improving something that already exists; it is about looking at how customers use your product, the need it fulfills, and asking whether what you have is really the best way to fulfill that need.

Good product development uses knowledge, trends, and influences external to the business — the move to health, changing technology, social media — to influence solutions. It does not seek to dictate the business environment about how clients will engage—but uses customer utility to drive its own internal structure and processes.

Good product development never assumes what you have is perfect. It assumes that every day is another opportunity to seek perfection. Good product development analyses the assets that you have—the quality of your engagement, the commitment of your journalists, the reach of your audience—and seeks new ways to package them to touch more people.

So how does this play out for newspapers?

  1. Rather than expecting a single section to achieve everything, break it down into niches that match what you know about your different types of readers and their preferences. Then match those niches to the technology as the best way to deliver the message or engage them, (and sometimes print may well be the best engagement method).

  2. Ensure every change you make makes life easier for your customers and readers. Time-poor readers can't be bothered to learn your processes.

  3. Centralise the process, localise the delivery. Cut costs out by all means, but understand that poor technology and systems require human beings to fill the gaps to maintain production. Get the back end right, though, and your customers — and staff — will enjoy greater connection for a fraction of the cost, while production also remains at an all-time high. Get it wrong, though, and you will stress out your workforce to the max.

  4. Consider your newspaper as a cluster of niche products that drive content and engagement, rather than a monolith that seeks to control it. Niches are like Lego. They click together and you can build some extremely impressive structures with the flexibility of pulling them apart when they no longer serve their purpose, and build something new.
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