Recently, I read a post on Recode that defined the work of publishers in a way I simply cannot believe: “Publishers create and aggregate information and present it to users in return for their attention, which they sell to advertisers.”
I mean, sure, that’s what publishers spend a lot of time doing right now. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Competing in the attention game is a race to the bottom, so we as news producers should step out of that game entirely by focusing on something else: the purpose we accomplish and values we convey. The only way for news organizations to survive is to create better products that embody these things.
This isn’t a new idea, but it’s very, very important. After years of ceding control over their audiences to Facebook and Google, journalists have come to hate those entities, and their own work has become unrecognizable, with editorial decisions being driven by the tech companies’ goals. From pointless posts that are nothing but “shareable” to hyping controversy to drive “engagement,” journalism has become less about protecting democracy and more like that Recode description — emphasizing aggregation and attention-grabbing in a desperate attempt for ad money.
I think we’ve all come to learn that ceding editorial control isn’t sustainable, and now that we’re here, publishers are trying to find revenue in subscriptions, newsletters, and live events. They’re attempting to transition from capricious audiences on social media to loyal audiences who will keep coming back.
Every product we create is an opportunity to do something meaningful for an audience. Most of the time, too much of what we do is rooted in business or institutional goals rather than audience goals. Business goals are usually simpler to measure, and it’s easier for leaders to incentivize their staffs to pursue them, whether they’re pageviews, average video time watched, or “organic” shares.
Our staffs are full of smart, talented people, but when those people focus their efforts on chasing KPIs like this, we create a culture where the end goal is to please managers and investors rather than to produce something of value. A lot of journalists are great at producing social video now, but audiences don’t want to watch video when they can get the same information in a shorter form. Publications hold company-wide social copy trainings, but users don’t want to waste time clicking through to a website when a tweet could give them all the necessary information. They’ll grow annoyed if it seems you’re not on their side.
If you work in a professional newsroom, I expect you might be rolling your eyes right now: “Of course we’re chasing numbers, that’s what Facebook and Google make us do!”
But those companies have KPI addictions of their own. They crave user growth, higher rates of engagement, more ad clicks. Alignment with these KPIs — and an overemphasis on short-term gains —is likely responsible for many of the problems we identify with tech companies today. Basecamp designer Jonas Downey lamented this inability of most tech workers to look beyond how software is made to why it’s made and what users do with it, imploring them to “move slowly and fix things.” These are some questions he posed to them in a Medium post:
If you’re designing sticky features that are meant to maximize the time people spend using your product instead of doing something else in their life, is that helpful?
If you’re trying to desperately inflate the number of people on your platform so you can report corporate growth to your shareholders, is that helpful?
If your business model depends on using dark patterns or deceptive marketing to con users into clicking on advertising, is that helpful?
So it’s not just media that falls into these metrics traps — tech is there, too. (Hey, look, something we have in common!) So what comes next? We craft solutions to the problems.
I believe that design is everything. The design of our news products, the newsrooms that create them, and the business models that fund the newsrooms are all tightly interwoven and can be adjusted to achieve certain goals.
For all their vices, there’s one thing Silicon Valley firms excel at: relentlessly designing user-friendly products to achieve specific objectives. In news, all we need to do is adapt that mindset to our unique values. People want and deserve timely, trustworthy information about the world around them. Where they go to get it will depend on how well the provider fits into their lives and whether they find it easy and enjoyable to get the information. If we’re really on the public’s side, we need to communicate that in what we do and why. We need to be thoughtful. And with the right underlying values, we can be just as user-friendly as Silicon Valley while avoiding many of its negative effects.
As the delightful and insightful David Cohn said in one of my classes at USC (and this Medium post), the design of publication tools and the presentation of information go hand-in-hand with editorial strategy. If you want your product to connect with specific audiences, your values as an organization need to be part of not just your editorial strategy, but your design, too. Appearances and functionality influence users’ perception, and they can turn people away, no matter what the actual news content is. Values need to be the core of both the design and the content, and then you’ll connect with the right people.
Designers have long sought to create satisfying tools and layouts. Modern software companies like MailChimp took that one step further in “delighting” users. But embodying values is something deeper: it touches on our behaviors, our identities, our experiences. Google designer Reena Merchant calls this “designing for meaning,” and she wrote that it can have significant impacts:
Designing for meaning is not only beneficial for the user, but is also key for business success. Delivering experiences that get to the core of what customers really value means that they will identify more deeply with the brand and form a stronger bond with the company.
When a company successfully communicates its values through its products, consumers will respond. This is partly why Apple and Patagonia are able to charge premiums for hardware and outerwear, and the same is true for news. An American Press Institute survey from last year found that “for younger audiences to be willing to pay [for news], they must bond with your mission and purpose.”
Many news organizations have verbalized their values in recent months with campaigns like the Washington Post’s “Democracy Dies in Darkness” and the Texas Tribune’s “This is your Texas.” But what makes Apple and Patagonia successful is that their words correspond with tangible characteristics of their product design — like privacy for Apple and sustainability for Patagonia. News orgs’ values similarly need to have actual basis in the way the organization operates and presents information. They need to be part of our brand, and the public should understand that brand.
If your publication values local civic discourse, design places for that discourse to take place. If you value transparency, make reporters and primary source material available alongside your content. Go further and think outside the box, but regardless of what you do, communicate with your audience about the design choices you’re making and the values that are driving those choices.
It may not be possible to compete with Facebook and Google with scale or funding. But if your news product executes its purpose well and embodies values that resonate with an audience, those people will stick around. And they’ll be the most loyal, most willing to pay audience you’ve had in a long time.
This post was written as an assignment for Strategies for Monetizing New Media, a course taught by Professor Gabriel Kahn at USC Annenberg.