It’s not the tech, it’s attention

Jacqui Park
Dec 6, 2019 · 9 min read

Once we understand that we’re competing for that scarcest of modern world resources — attention — then we can really start thinking about how we respond to the digital challenge.

So, here’s what I’ve been doing: Over the past year I’ve had in depth interviews and discussions with over 80 news media innovators and thinkers, teasing out their lived experiences as they go about building the new, diverse eco-system: And I’ve been following the real time commentary in blogs, speeches and articles. Some of you are here today, so thanks to you and to everyeone who was so generous with their time and experiences.

I’ve also attended a lot of journalism and innovation gatherings, and worked with smart people to create some — like The Splice Beta Festival that brought together over 250 news media startups and innovators to share their stories in Chiang Mai in April this year! Or with Deutsche Welle earlier in the year, where we brought together media academics, entrepreneurs, and journalists across the middle east, into a process to radically reimagine journalism education.

The result has been a deep immersion in news media innovation across the Asia-Pacific, with a particular focus on Australia and New Zealand. Out of everything that I’ve learnt, I’ve crafted this report on news media innovation.

And as I’ve gone about this work I’ve been guided by the lessons I learnt as a Knight Fellow at Stanford University, particularly at their famous design school.

And the more people I talked to, the more that big orange warning light that underpins Silicon Valley’s design-thinking kept lighting up my brain: make sure you get the question right before you go looking for the answers — have as sharp a definition, as deep an understanding, of the challenge as we can.

We have spent a lot of time thinking about the changes that digital disruption has wrought like the job losses , declining circulation, loss of advertising, changing business models.

And the question we keep asking is: how do we save this news media industry that’s so important to society and this craft of journalism that we all love so much.

So our initial innovation response was to try to work out how we’d put the bundle — the newspaper, the news broadcast — on-line. And, of course, we assumed that all those ads we couldn’t imagine a media without would come along for the ride.

This digital-first phase was not without some exciting journalistic innovations — blogging brought new and exciting voices into the media, live-blogging applied an up-to-the-minute sensibility to news, we meshed video, audio and text to create multi-media.

Then — along came the advertising collapse, coinciding with the shift by our audiences first to social and then to mobile. And this shook the craft much more than did the initial move to the internet.

It broke the bundle — and suddenly each individual story lived or died on its own according to discovery among a fickle audience.

And yet, for most traditional media, the core business model thinking was still : how do we massify audiences to on-sell to advertisers?.

Then, with a tweak of its algorithm, we discovered that, well, Facebook wasn’t really that into us.

But the end of this social cycle has now made it clear what is at the core of the disruption challenge: It’s not about the tech. Or the business model. It’s about attention. It’s about the big social shift where this world of information abundance crashes into the finite amout of time each of us has to pay it attention.

We thought we well understoood the habits, wants and needs of news media audiences. The appointment with the morning newspaper over the breakfast table or with the evening television news over dinner were so solid, they could, in a practical sense, be taken to the bank. We thought we could transition those habits to the web.

But now, as we know, audiences have atomised. Time has become moveable. Habits have become fluid.

So I wanted to understand: how are people in our industry seeing and responding to this challenge?

Once we understand the question — that we’re competing for that scarcest of modern world resourses — attention — then we can really start thinking about how we respond to that challenge. And that means innovating with journalism that is so compelling — so attuned to the wants and needs of our audience — that it can break through all those competing demands on attention.

And what I found is that the most successful innovators in news media have this deep understanding of the challenge — of the audience and of the gap they can fill. They approach the task holistically — starting with the journalism, to create products that embed the business model and distribution strategy to do the job that audiences want of them — products that the audience will deeply value. building community and encouraging engagement over and over again.

This demands a product mentality, a preparedness to be constantly prototyping new things, and quickly discarding what doesn’t work while taking the lessons — almost the reverse of the 20th century “measure twice, cut once” engineering mantra.

So we’ve got the question sorted. We’ve got our product mentality. What does innovation theory suggest is the appropriate response?

Google’s Silicon Valley 10x brag is that “true innovation happens when you try to improve something by 10 times rather than by 10 per cent.” So its about self-drive solar-powered cars, not leather seats and tail fins.

But, how could we begin to conceptualise this in relation to the news media that’s trying just to be as good — or just as fit for purpose — as we were last century? To be able to do the job of informing, entertaining, connecting our communities, but in such a radically changed environment?

It makes me think of the young prince in Lampedusa’s The Leopard: “If we want everything to stay the same, everything will have to change.”

So it’s a radically conservative project . It demands both radical innovation and conservative respect for the values of journalism.

So far, so good. But what does that mean we should actually do

Audience first innovation in the journalism itself means that journalists need to start any story, or indeed, venture, by asking themselves: what’s the value in this? Why should anyone use some of their limited attention on this? This requires understanding (as Clayton Christenson would say) the job your journalism is doing for the reader, and how compelling content, engaging storytelling and a targeted market niche enables it to fulfil that job.

If what we’re after is attention — and we are — then we need a rigorously audience-focussed response — a readers first mantra. This changes a lot more than you think.

It’s gone from a B2B to a B2C business, as we shift our focus from advertising to the audience.

This needs to be internalised in our thinking as journalists: once we “sold” our stories to our editors. Now we have to always have the reader in mind asking what they want to know (sharing the commissioning editorial role) and inviting them to join the reporting process. And this is moving to the mainstream. A strong local example was last year’s ABC reporting that exposed the aged care crisis.

In my research, I found people succeeding by engaging their audience from the beginning with open communication channels. And with those deeper insights into what the audience want and value, they had confidence in their ideas, were able to work up prototypes to test quickly, and develop products that ppl value.

Some are using the new media tools (events, Twitter, crowd-funding campaigns) to listen — and talk — to their audience, getting the all important ground context that helps frame and centre their stories.

And many are looking for ways to build a more intimate relationship with their audiences through podcasts, email and events, all great ways to create intimacy, to allow your audience to get to know you.

Audience first innovation in the business model means more than paywalls and subscriptions. It means understanding your audience as a niche (or multiple niches) that’s engaged with shared passion. It’s about a relationship that may result in direct reader revenues through subscriptions, memberships or donations or continuing advertising revenues that leverage the licence that a relationship of trust gives you.

It also means exploring other ways of diversifying revenues which remain relevant to the journalistic purpose. Most innovative organisations have found this thinking leads them to events of one sort or another that contribute to the community building project.

I want to talk about a few examples I found that I think are particularly exciting:

Newspicks in Japan use comments to build on the journalism in a really smart idea of using a social platform style of aggregating news and information as well as original content that the audience can vote up and comment on. They spent a lot of effort on recruiting a community of commenters who could add journalistic value, and bring audiences, and on creating the right space for this commentary. They learnt there was a new generation of readers who were hungry for a different kind of news and the result is 120,000 paying subscribers in that elusive 20–40 age bracket.

The Tortoise in the UK, a membership news organisation, uses what it calls “think-ins” where their members join editorial style meetings which guide them on the kind of content their members want and, perhaps most important, it helps them reframe their journalism out of the conventional news cycle — critical in a news environment that is otherwise all-Brexit, all the time!

The Ken — out of Bangalore — have already attracted the attention of serious investment. They publish just one story a day, with long-form reporting on business, policy, healthcare, tech. They have an innovative paywall that works on the insight — obvious once you think about it — that payers and readers don’t have to be the same people. They’ve

Or The Spinoff — a news site in New Zealand — which is building a membership platform out of their engaged audience to shape their coverage and keep their content ad-free, without a pay-wall. As their founder Duncan Greive told me: ““We feel like we’ve opened the door to something which will have a profound impact on our business and purpose.”


The recommendtions in the report are about helping media — traditional and new start-ups — through this audience first innovation cycle, through positioning and reach, through the journalism itself, through the business of the business, diversifying revenues and building out the eco-system through open collaboration.

Here’s four big ideas. Let’s:

  • build a space for experimentation, collaboration and shared learning, particularly around audiences, perhaps through an audience lab, similar to support structures in the US and Europe.
  • bring investors together in a news media innovation impact fund and accelerator providing start-up seed for runway;
  • encourage information sharing, networking and mentoring between innovators, media, universities, philanthropists, governments through newslettters, con-fabs and virtual groups;
  • Structure training to build capacity for journo-preneurs — people who want to build new media ventures — both at the university and industry level.

Collaboration is vital. Networking, and space for experimentation that allows for failure and the learning and sharing of lessons, is required by any eco-system.

There’s only one group that can rebuild a journalism fit for the 21st century — you, me. All of us. I hope this report helps move us a little further down that road.

Jacqui Park is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Media Transition at the University of Technology, Sydney. This speech (lightly edited) was given at the launch of her report on Media Innovation at the Centre on December 6, 2019. She made a similar presentation of the report at the JERAA Conference at the University of Sydney on December 5, 2019.

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