David Cohn
Chief Content Officer

What’s the Key to Media Success? Products
that Build Relationships

UF J-School
Captivate Us
Published in
4 min readOct 1, 2014


Any essay about the future of news, even when it’s the relatively near future, should start with a caveat: The future is unpredictable. And an essay on the future of engagement should also point out that buzzwords are often fungible. Pinning down the meaning of engagement, let alone its future, is a snipe hunt.

That said, I have sensed a changing tide in the last few years and I expect it to continue. The two most important elements of this change: Media and technology companies are becoming conflated. Perhaps eventually indistinguishable. Secondly, questions around news products and consumer experience have taken the forefront over questions of “who” or “what” is journalism. I will focus on that here.

From 2001 to roughly 2011 the debate in journalism communities was about who is a “journalist” and what is “journalism.” Today these questions are a bit of a joke, best epitomized by the “but are bloggers journalists” satire response in Twitter.

But now, pointing to Snowfall as a “marquee” moment, product is being discussed in journalism communities over these old academic conundrums. And key to this are questions of how the product builds a relationship, dare I say “engagement,” between content and readers.

From a blog post: I would argue the “citizen journalism” debate was mistakenly put in this context (if it is not from a journalism organization, it must not BE journalism to a consumer) but I think history has shown this debate to be false. And it’s not that the new frontier of “product” will make us question whether something “IS” or “IS NOT” journalism, instead it will fundamentally free us up to think through the experience of consuming news and it is here (defining the experience of journalism in digital context) that fortunes will be made. This is where you get Vox, Circa, Rookie.com, Scroll Kit (now acquired by Automatic) and more.

In days long since passed there were two products: the subscription, for loose relationships, and advertising for transactional strong relationships. Today there are many products. Where once subscriptions meant repeat readership, today loyalty to a news brand has taken a back seat to Google’s search product or various social networking products. All news brands look the same in your Facebook feed, so there is no loyalty except to the social network itself.

An ongoing relationship with a small audience is more valuable than a mass of fly-by readers that will never return. And in place of subscriptions, products that create loyalty are invaluable.

Online subscriptions are still an option to create that ongoing relationship — but even the successful New York Times metered-wall, backed by the most trusted brand in news, can only claim 3 percent of its 31 million unique monthly views as digital-only subscribers (another roughly 5 percent may be print subscribers viewing content online). The question then is: What about the other 92 percent? Why aren’t they ‘engaged’ — can we offer them something besides ‘subscribing’ to be engaged with? How can we ensure these aren’t fly-by eyeballs?

That phrasing “eyeballs” is precisely part of the problem. If we think of readers as eyeballs how can we successfully sell advertising? Advertisers don’t want eyeballs — they want to touch the brains, the minds and the souls behind those eyes. Before we can offer up the whole human condition to advertisers — we must engage it wholeheartedly. Look critically at your advertising product for consumers. Do you wonder “where’s the beef?”

As I’ve written before: “Engagement, even if we have trouble defining how to measure it, has value either because it bolsters a bottom-line metric (that can be monetized) or because ‘engagement’ helps advance the relationship between the publication and readers.” Before any organization thinks about how to improve engagement, they need to define it for themselves. You can’t solve a problem until you’ve clearly identified it.

At Circa we created the “follow” feature. This is core to our product and it allows us to keep track of what a reader has consumed so we can better serve them in the future. As a story unfolds, we treat a returning reader differently than a brand new reader. One gets the introductory experience to a story, the other gets information based on the context of what we know about them. Even while staying passive, this product is a new kind of engaging relationship with readers. It respects their context, previous knowledge and eliminates time wasting repetition of information. It is our version of a ‘subscription.’

It’s unknown what new products will surface in the next 3–5 years, but I am confident they will abound and I believe that news organizations that become increasingly structured like technology companies and focus on experiences that ensure ongoing relationships over mass “eyeballs” will win.

David Cohn is chief content officer of Circa, a startup redefining how news is consumed on the mobile phone and one of the first organizations to experiment with atomized news structures. During his career he had the opportunity to work on some of the first experiments in distributed reporting, social journalism and “citizen journalism.” In 2008 he created the first platform to crowdfund journalism. In 2010 he was named one of the “Ten Under 30” by Folio magazine and in 2013 Columbia’s Journalism School gave him the Alumni Innovation Award.

Next: What Buzzfeed, Medium and Adafruit Know About Engagement by Ryan Singel, co-founder, Contextly



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