As we prepare for a new year, it’s time to not only reflect on what happened in 2023 but to have a plan in place for 2024.
During this week’s INMA Webinar, What does the world of product in news have in store for 2024, members of the INMA Product Initiative Advisory Council shared what major issues they tackled, how product is changing, and what they’re looking forward to in the coming year.
INMA Product Initiative Lead Jodie Hopperton was joined by Riske Betten, product director at Mediahuis; Kara Chiles, senior vice president/consumer products at Gannett; and Julian Delany, CTO data and digital at News Corp Australia to look at where 2023 has taken them and what they see as key areas for 2024.
But first, Hopperton offered her insights into what she is seeing.
Thoughts from the c-suite
During the Roundtable at Vail, INMA’s retreat for c-suite executives in August, Hopperton said executives agreed news media companies need better customer focus, and reported that product was the No. 2 area of investment that companies were making — bested only by subscriptions.
The new ways to reach customers goes beyond text, image, and video, with components like scrollytelling and audio gaining more steam and the rise of synthetic voices created by AI are allowing companies to quickly and affordably meet customer demand in this area. Those capabilities mean news publishers will have to look for new ways to connect with customers.
“I think we need to be on the lookout for new interfaces. AI is coming,” Hopperton said, predicting the screens we presently use to access stories will be history in five or 10 years.
“We can see that this is changing, and I think smart speakers are probably going to have their day soon,” she said.
What does the c-suite think?
During INMA’s World Congress of News Media in May, c-suite attendees completed a survey to share their long-term challenges.
Some of the biggest challenges for the c-suite today are innovation and tech adaption as well as financial performance.
“How do we make money? How do we innovate? Those two things don’t always go together,” Hopperton noted. “How do we make sure we stay at the forefront?”
Of course, with the rapid evolution of AI, things are changing before our eyes. The promise of AI is that it can improve workflows, increase product/interfaces opportunities and help companies capitalise on their knowledge.
“I also fundamentally believe that actually AI could be a threat to democracy, which sounds very dramatic, but LLMs [large language models] by default work on speed,” Hopperton said.
“They look at data, so it is feasible for bad actors to flood these systems with a lot of bad information and have those picked up over accuracy. And I think that’s something that the tech companies really need to work on and we need to work on with the tech companies. That’s something that’s vitally important.”
What’s coming in 2024
As the Product Advisory Council looks to the new year, each member has their own company priorities they shared with Webinar attendees.
Not surprisingly, AI and automation take centre stage for much of what is happening at Gannett, and Chiles said it is considered both an opportunity and a challenge.
“Obviously, we want to be careful and thoughtful and purposeful,” she said. That has led Gannett to create a cross-functional council for all the areas AI may have an influence. It is also developing governance best practises and creating an ethics core group.
“We know there are lots of concerns internally and externally. But we do think that we are in a place within Gannett and the U.S. market where we feel like we do have a competitive footing.”
As the company keeps experimenting with AI, its goal is “to keep moving forward but not get ahead of where our audience and our business is ready to be comfortably.”
Also occupying a lot of thought for Gannett leaders is the 2024 U.S. presidential election.
“Especially in a presidential year, you have more people attuned to issues and government at the local as well as national level,” Chiles said. “There’s a lot we can learn about consumers and audience in this part of the cycle. And there’s also a lot we can do and learn in terms of how we iterate or develop new election-related experiences that can then become playbooks for us continuing to expand or evolve our product experiences.”
Mediahuis will place much of its attention on the core customer journey, Betten said, which is an area she sees room for improvement.
“I think we can still have an enormous uplift in customer satisfaction and also in subscription sales and retention,” she said. “There’s five steps in a row in the customer journey — reach them, grab them, hold them, etc. — and if we manage to get [every step] to lift 5%, then our problems are clearly solved. I think it’s still one of the biggest levers we have to increase value, and the increase of value is at the core of our strategy for next year.”
Building on this core strategy, Mediahuis will experiment with subscription elements that have worked for other publications and create additional value for customers.
News Corp Australia is also looking to create additional value for customers and is leaning into personalisation to make that happen. Delany said personalisation in news is more challenging than personalisation in other areas because customers don’t necessarily know what they want:
“I think there’s an element of consumers wanting publishers to tell them what the news is of the day, and not necessarily, and get this balance right of personalisation. So this is a big challenge for us.”
To meet that challenge, the company is leveraging MVPs, or minimal viable products, to experiment with personalisation: “We’ve just come off an MVP on content personalisation with two big companies going through that process,” Delany said. “This is definitely a focus for us.”