An engineer’s approach to redesigning digital news

When I started a news company in 2013, it was common knowledge that the baton had been passed on from print to digital. Technology was probably the biggest driver for change in news at the time. Legacy publishers raced to become responsive, while new entrants experimented with content and monetisation formats with varying degrees of success.

Today, the most startling change in news isn’t in the tech that supports it, but in its distribution. More and more power has been pried from the hands of publishers and put into platforms like Facebook, Apple and Google.

Compare the user experience on a news publisher and a platform such as Facebook. One has been designed to serve the same commodity, information, to an unknown mass of people, disregarding the differences in their prior knowledge, reading habits and interests. The other is designed to mould to the needs of a specific person by learning their behaviour and likes over time.

Platforms cater to individuals. Publishers broadcast to a mass audience.

It can’t come as a surprise to anyone if readers prefer the experience on platforms over publishers. It can be frightening though, and for good reason. Publishers are left at the mercy of the platforms that are friendly and accepting of publishers’ monetisation strategies today, but may not be tomorrow. Publishers run the risk of being reduced to content creators, diminishing their editorial responsibility and independence as journalists in the process.

That leaves publishers, new entrants and legacy brands alike, with two options: continue on the way things are going now. Or learn to think not as publishers, but designers of news experiences suited to the readers of today.

The transition from a “mass” media to “one-on-one” journalism is probably the biggest publishers will make, and it starts with some customer research.

Back to the basics

Elon Musk recently popularised the idea of “first principles”. The technique of stripping a problemdown to the most fundamental truths, and then reason up from there” isn’t new, it traces its roots all the way back to Aristotle.

In this technique, you take a complex problem, remove existing assumptions about it, and focus on its core concept. This way, instead of saying “we should do x this way because it’s always been done like that in the past”, we think about the problem “x” was trying to solve in the first place.

In the case of online publishing, perhaps start by questioning the purpose of journalism itself.

The purpose of journalism is not defined by the business model of the last century. Neither is it “defined by technology, nor by journalists or the techniques they employ”, as Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write in The Elements of Journalism. Rather, “the principles and purpose of journalism are defined by something more basic: the function news plays in the lives of people.”

Journalism exists to connect people with the information they want or need to know about their communities, so that they can make better decisions about their lives.

If this is assumed to be the “first principle” of journalism, these are the key areas that a news publisher might want to consider next:

  • who are the people we are serving?
  • what communities do they feel they belong to?
  • what information is relevant to them?
  • how can we connect these people with relevant information?
  • how can we present information such that it is engaging?

When I worked as a journalist, I had had a barrier of editors between myself and the mass we assumed was reading. This is a very disadvantageous position for anyone working in journalism today.

I carried the mass media mindset into my role as a news company founder, and the first few iterations of our products suffered greatly as a result. A lot of time in the first few months was spent understanding the state of the industry, but we were swept away by the tide of popular industry trends. We didn’t need to build a better summariser, aggregator, personaliser.

We needed to think of the user first.

1: Who are the people we are serving?

No two users in the world see the same Facebook. No two users set up their iPhones the same way.

When it comes to news, no two readers are interested in learning the same things about the world, through the same mediums.

In the early days of working on news products, I read every State of the Media report from the last few years. I could tell you what the trends were at the time, what tech and publishers were popular among what demographics.

While that information is important to know, it means absolutely nothing while developing, or improving upon, news products and services.

There is no real uniformity in the behaviour and preferences of the news readers except when divided into broad, arbitrary segments. When thinking of who to serve, it doesn’t help to point at research that says millennials prefer mobile. Mobile-first isn’t going to fix publishers’ problems, user-first is. And “millennial” is a stereotype, not a user.

When thinking of what content to serve, it doesn’t help to place emphasis on the trend that fewer persons ages 24–35 follow politics and world news than before. That trend can’t guide a publishers’ decision to write on certain subjects, understanding the preferences and context of their readers can.

So who can a publisher serve? Most likely this is going to be determined by customer research the publisher does themselves.

2: What communities do they feel they belong to?

It’s easy to assume that demographics are the same as a community.

If I think of myself, I was once part of a local university community and read the student paper. I follow the news on immigration, something that affects me directly. I seek out communities of tech founders and women in product. I get my world news from social media, but religiously follow the work of journalists like Nicholas Kristof. I care about equal rights, good design, responsible pet ownership. I find people fascinating and read a lot of interviews, but I need politics explained to me in the simplest terms.

Each of these is a community I am consciously or subconsciously a part of. There may not be many people who share every one of my interests, but there are small communities of people for each one of them. Some of these communities are well-defined, some are underserved.

As a new entrant, perhaps look for a niche community of people with common ideals or goals. This community could be location-specific or location-agnostic. It may be a community of strangers of the same ethnic subculture, professional goals, immigrant status, personal struggle etc. The greatest challenge here is in finding a well-defined community that is underserved and truly learning their interests and behaviours. Answer the following: should I be serving this community? What does a day in their life look like? What are the common routines they have? Where, when, what do they read? What do they have to work hard to find?

For a legacy publisher, perhaps the vast audience that already exists can be seen as a collection of niches. The challenge seems to be in data collection: how can the publisher learn who their readers are? Is there a scenario in which third-party platforms like Facebook share their extensive data on readers of the publishers content? Or can the publisher find a compelling reason for readers to create an account on their own sites and apps, and collect data themselves?

3: What information is relevant to them?

When serving distinct communities, it’s unlikely their interests will fall into convenient categories like “Business”, “Sport”, “Politics” that have been a mainstay in publishing since the days of mass communication.

More likely, there are new categories to be created that are tailored to the interests and needs of the community. This is important for new entrants and legacy publishers alike.

Let’s think about the word “relevant” here for a second. Historically, the role of an editor has been to connect people with the information they want, and also the information they should know. An editor ensures that this information is easily understood and engaging. The editor is also responsible for presenting information in a balanced, unbiased way.

Relevant is a healthy balance between “interesting” and “important”.
The role of an editor is critical to the maintaining relevance. It is critical to the publishing of news itself.

Platforms such as Apple News rely on human editors for their curation. The role of an editor on platforms, as it should be in publishing, is not to pick and edit stories for the front page. Rather, it is curate the right content for the right niches, and edit algorithms to do its distribution.

Let’s assume the news of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370’s disappearance just broke. This is an important event, relevant to anyone in the world and shown to all on their personal feeds. I might have a particular interest in this news story and follow all small updates on it. You might have particular deep insight on planes and follow it from a technological standpoint. Another person may not want to read more on the subject unless there’s a major update.

Ideally, the editors, empowered by data on the three of us, match information relevant to each of our levels of insight, interest and behaviour. Publishers, unlike platforms, have the ability to create, not just curate, content that is relevant to a reader.

Facebook Instant Articles, also enabled by human reviewers, was recently in the news over suspicion that it was purposely promoting liberal views over conservative. There were also concerns that people were put in “filter bubbles” and only shown news that echoed their political beliefs.

If publishers were to be transparent about what data they collect and the algorithms that match relevant information to readers, it would help them maintain the trust they’ve built over the years. If they were to share relevant information, while remaining unbiased and balanced, it would simply mean they were upholding editorial responsibility.

4: How can we connect these people with relevant information?

There are routines I follow everyday. I wake up every morning, roll over, pick up my phone and check my emails and messages with one eye open.

I commute to work everyday on the subway. In a desperate bid to avoid eye contact, I might pull out my phone and scroll through my Twitter feed. In an effort to use the time wisely, I might listen to a podcast. In an attempt to be better prepared for the day, I might open up my Calendar.

These aren’t behaviours that are unique to me. The mundane routines of my day could well be the mundane routines of yours.

For publishers, new entrant or legacy, it’s imperative to think about integrating into the routines of the niche communities they target.

Online, all of us consume various types of information in small chunks of time throughout the day. Our environment changes constantly, and we consume information in certain formats (skims, five min reads, longform, pictorial, video, audio) at various points. The type of information itself changes.

Rarely do we consume information as a result of a conscious decision. I don’t wake up and think, “I must be more informed today, let me go to this news site and type in this search term”. More often than not, I subconsciously follow the habit of consumption I have built over time.

Which of these existing routines of readers is well-suited to the information type and format that a publisher wants to present to them?

An example of a publisher that excels at this is theSkimm. They provide five minute reads covering the facts and explanations on the day’s news. Their understanding of their community has driven everything from their branding to their tone, and most importantly, their medium of delivery.

theSkimm started as a newsletter that arrived in the inbox every morning, around the time their readers would be checking it with one eye open. After growing organically within their niche to an audience of 3.5million, they released their second offering: an app that syncs relevant news events into their readers calendar.

The takeaway from their example isn’t that emails and Calendar apps are the way to go. A publisher could find, based on their research of their readers and communities, that the right medium for them is a news site or app that requires readers to be logged in. Or a combination of mediums.

Rather, the takeaway is to think further about what routines the readers already have. Is there a way to present information that integrates with their routines? Is there a way to make it easy for readers to habitually access it?

5: How can we present information such that it is engaging?

In 2012/3, Matt Galligan’s Circa News did something remarkably different with the format of news presentation. Articles weren’t summarised or aggregated, they were abolished altogether. Information on a story was broken into small chunks and strung together to give it context. This wasn’t remarkable for being a “mobile-first” approach, but because it was “user-first”.

Three years later, there’s a conversational chat app by Quartz that helps its readers catch up on the news in the 2–3mins they have free. There’s Vox, which helps readers understand the news, going into in-depth coverage and short explainer vids.

The old article format — lede, fact, explanation, history, conclusion — isn’t necessarily the best way to present information anymore.

Would granular news help readers stay informed? Or a story on Snapchat? Is it something completely different like theSkimm’s calendar events app? Or is it a combination of formats that varies by the readers’ context?

The publisher of tomorrow

When NYTimes announced that it was going to start selling meal kits on their cooking section, it left a lot of people perplexed. It’s yet to be seen if that experiment will be a success or not. Regardless of that, it’s an example of a publisher providing value to their readers with free recipes, and diversifying their revenue streams by helping readers convert those recipes to meals.

As publishers move forward to build news products and services on a solid foundation of customer research, they may start to think differently about analytics and revenue. Perhaps they would be inspired to view data like BuzzFeed, manage their content like Vox, and monetise like Blendle.

The structure of newsrooms might be likely to change also. I have been on teams where journalists, strategists, data scientists, designers and developers, worked independently and unaware of each other. This is simply not an effective model, as there’s no one incharge of the total product and reader experience. The role of the product manager is imperative to enabling the design and execution of new products and services.

There are huge leaps to be made in the move toward reader-centric journalism. In the meanwhile, let’s not assume tech has broken news, it’s only caused its next evolution.

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