News media should rethink their website architecture
How to make readers ‘click without clicking’ and what else editors can learn from startups
Effective content monetisation and user retention strategies remain at the top of many editors’ agendas. GEN spoke with RGB Media CEO Grig Davidovitz, who is also a former journalist with a decade of experience at Haaretz. He now works on providing publishers with tools to increase their online presence and engagement. According to Grig, news media are not using the full potential of content management and display systems. In fact, he says they need to rethink their entire information architecture, taking the inspiration from platforms, to offer a seamless and personalised user experience. He also shares some insights about the Israeli media and startup scenes.
GEN: You spent almost 10 years at Haaretz in different editorial roles before founding RGB media, a startup that offers content publishers products to expand or improve their online presence. Based on your experience, what can news media learn from startups to fuel innovation?
Grig Davidovitz: Organisations, like people, have personalities. And one of the aspects of these personalities is that it is hard to change. Furthermore, for a few decades in the last century, newspapers were very profitable businesses, so they didn’t have strategic staff and workflows to cater for business changes. They just didn’t need it.
Today huge changes are needed, and yet many organisations are not able to undertake them. Take the homepage, as an example. The homepage is a very important element, as it is one of the main entry points for loyal users. It should create an efficient ‘discovery’ experience for users. Every few years, most websites redesign their homepages. And what changes? The grid, the colours, the typography.
But we know by now that something very basic is not working — and it is not about colours or typography. The main content discovery platforms today are social platforms. What is so special about them? First, their content display algorithm, which is their main unique selling point.
But what about their information architecture? Almost all of them are built in a feed structure, while the information architecture of the Internet is almost completely hidden behind the scene. There is no ‘Facebook homepage’ that presents updates, requiring you to click on the update, go to the update page, and then click back to return to the homepage. Information is, as much as possible, preloaded, ready to be consumed by clicking on an ‘expand’ function, a popup or a semi-preloaded video player.
The more we can make users ‘click without clicking’, the better the engagement will be.
We call that the ‘Internet paradox’. The Internet can be defined as clicks between web pages with information and functions, and yet, the click action is not user friendly. The more we can make users ‘click without clicking’ (infinite scroll moving between pages, for instance), the better the engagement will be.
How many publishers are trying to really rethink their homepage? Almost none. And when we see a rethinking process, it is usually from new news organizations, like Axios.com.
In Israel, we just launched a new website, Zman.co.il, which is based on a fusion between the information architecture of social media and news presentation principles. The preliminary results are very encouraging, and we are monitoring the performance of the new platform with great interest.
Are there ways in which news media are not yet using the full potential of content management and display systems?
In my opinion, we are still at the beginning of the evolution of digital publishing tools. I talked earlier about the existing information architecture for news website, which is far from effective both from the ‘news show’ and the ‘Internet paradox’ perspectives.
But there is more. How can we personalise the display of a product not only according to users’ articulated or non-articulated preferences, which is in itself a huge challenge and requires artificial intelligence, but also according to the users’ path?
From a user’s perspective, websites are infinite amoebas of information — how come they see the same structure despite the different entry points? Should a user coming directly to an article page see the same content as another user who arrived at the website from the homepage? The first should see a clear representation of the homepage, as this is an opportunity to expose the identity of the platform to an accidental user. The second already knows what the main stories on the homepage are, but chose a specific one. They should thus get more information that is relevant to the article they originally chose, while the homepage doesn’t need to be displayed at all. News websites should be structured like a ‘mind map’ that constantly adjusts itself to the identity of the user, while preserving some areas that are identical to all. This would facilitate a common information ground for social debate.
Should a user coming directly to an article page see the same content as another user who arrived at the website from the homepage?
Last, but not least, news organisations have to re-think their mission in the age of social media. The main criteria for spreading information on social platforms is belief, not truth. Users tend to share information that they believe in, and care less about the source of that information.
With journalism principles at its core, journalistic products should become ‘truth platforms’ that spread information based on facts and logic. For doing so, they have to create alliances with other ‘agents of truth’ such as academic institutions and, in some countries, governmental organisations. Furthermore, they have to learn how to ‘take their platform out of the platform’, in the same way that the like/share button takes Facebook out of Facebook and product widgets take Amazon out of Amazon.
A major concern in today’s media industry is lack of effective monetization strategies. How would you characterize Israeli media in this regard? Do you see any innovative subscription, membership or other content monetization strategies?
I do not see any special innovation in the big Israeli media websites. In terms of paywalls, for instance, Ynet have erected a Freemium paywall at the beginning of this year, a strategy that has not worked for most publishers. Haaretz is successfully implementing the New York Times’ metered paywall, and all the other big websites are just free — and struggling.
How does RGB Media as a startup help publishers better monetise their content?
We like to invent things moving from principles to implementation. I’ll give an example. One of the changes in new media is that digital products are infinite. There is no limitation on the number of pages that can be published every day. The only limitation is the production cost of these pages. This is a big change compared to old media, for which space was a very expensive commodity. This is the principle.
There are many potential implementations to this principle, one of which is The Times of Israel Partner Program. This is a concept we developed and sold to the outlet. Local Jewish newspapers around the world can now move their website to the Times of Israel platform for a certain fee per month. It’s a win-win situation: the local publishers receive a top-of-the-art CMS including many successful digital strategies, cross promotion, cross branding, syndication rights and more. The users get an ecosystem covering both global issues, by the Times of Israel, and local issues — by the relevant local partner. And Times of Israel is creating a better product for its users while receiving a monthly fee from each of the partners. We just launched The Australian Jewish News last month, so we could use the famous quote about the British Empire:‘the sun never sets on the Times of Israel’ :)
Salamandra is a new paradigm in news website design. In our view, most of the websites today have a structural problem on the face of the product — the homepage, sections, newsletters etc. The content is forced into a pre-designed template, sometimes a few pre-designed templates.
This is anti-journalism. The structure should evolve from the content, not the other way around. Salamandra is bringing the ‘print Indesign paradigm’ to the web. Each story can be displayed in any location using different templates that best fit the presentation of that specific story: news, dramatic news, features, opinion, etc. The design of the web page is constantly changing, based on the templates used for each story in any given moment.
The result is a captivating experience that significantly increases retention and loyalty. We call this a ‘news show’ and this is something that, in our view, the new media has to learn from the old media. Even today, in comparison with online media, print-newspapers and TV stations are much better in turning information into a ‘show’.
The structure should evolve from the content, not the other way around.
One of the things that we have changed in the new version of Salamandra is applying the principle ‘ready to use, easy to change’. When an editor publishes a story with Salamandra, the system now automatically offers the best template that fits the story, according to the content of that article page. If the editor chooses to change the proposed template, they can do it in seconds, but publishing it by default will always work.
Freedom for editors has a price. For one, it takes time to exercise freedom. The ‘ready to use easy to change’ principle is a great compromise for that: you can publish something very fast, and change it later, as needed.
As news media worldwide face financial concerns, do you worry that media startups will find it increasingly difficult to find paying clients? How do you envisage this relationship in the future?
People are consuming information today more than ever, and they need ‘agents of truth’ more than ever. So assuming we will not see political earthquakes in the future, such as moving away from democracy altogether, there will be a huge need for journalistic products. The only open question is, how many of the current publishers will learn to adapt, and how many will disappear leaving space for new, young organisations. Media start-ups and vendors will be needed.
Today media startups around the world develop original solutions, but once they start to compete with big tech companies, they tend to be bought by the latter or go out of business altogether. Does this trend also apply to Israel? Is there space for small players to grow and reach international success or do they have to adopt the ‘exit strategy’ from the very beginning?
The Israeli market is very strange. We have the highest number of start-ups per capita, but the digital market is not very evolved. The reason for that is the size of the market — 8 million people, most of them speaking a niche language written from right to left. So the start-ups are focused on the global market, primarily the United States, but we are a very low priority for the big Internet companies. Some end up being bought by US-based big tech companies and this is usually considered an achievement. However, a lot of startups do not come to maturity, because it is one thing to translate an idea into an original product, but it is another to develop structures and processes for a smooth transition from a small startup to a larger company.
Grig Davidovitz is the CEO of RGB Media, a company that specializes in developing journalism in the New Media age. It has clients in the US, Europe and Israel. Prior to that, he was the Editor of Israel’s Haaretz websites.