Neal Mann is Honorary Senior Lecturer in Journalism at the University of Sheffield. He is currently on a six month secondment working on advertising content strategy at the Wall Street Journal. Previously he was a journalist for the WSJ and Sky News. These are his personal views on the journalism industry.
When I trained as a journalist, we were taught about good news judgement and sharp writing or broadcast production. As journalists we were trained to enter a newsroom, a newsroom that solely dealt with the news. We heard mutterings of places called ‘Product’ and ‘Advertising’ that apparently existed in some dark corner of the building. That was less than a decade ago and the digital world has changed dramatically since then.
The core journalism skills remain as key as before, but the future of our industry will also rely on journalists understanding product and product understanding journalism. It will also rely on both understanding the need to integrate advertising. To do this we will have to get used to a few traditionally dirty words — ‘content’ ‘monetization’ and ‘consumers’.
I recently had the opportunity to spend a year in Australia for News Corp. Working on content strategy across editorial, product and advertising. I was lucky to work with a number of very talented people tasked with transitioning nearly one hundred print based media brands to a digital first operation.
That is no easy task.
When working at a legacy media organization it can be easy to envy those at ‘digital native’ organizations such as Quartz, Buzzfeed or Vox. We are often dealing with systems, workflows and conceptional thinking that have been designed around traditional one-platform publishing. Any changes have to ensure that the original print product is retained. The same is true for those in TV news. The focus on traditional output can constrain any innovation in production style for digital — a medium where almost anything is possible.
This used to be a heavy frustration for any digital journalist. However technology has changed the way publishers work, ultimately allowing for easier innovation.
The audience now consumes content across multiple platforms. For many markets mobile currently dominates, but the Internet of Things will create a shift in how and where we could potentially engage with the consumer.
Other than learning how to cutback, backhand snap and get barreled while surfing — here are some other key points I took away from my time Down Under which have shaped my thinking on digital content.
A)APIs and Atomisation
‘For the less technical among us, know an API is how an application speaks to a server to get fresh data for users. Before we built qz.com, we built the Quartz API. (On day one, someone had already started playing with it.) Today the API’s primary customer remains qz.com, but it could go in all sorts of directions’
A good content API is a building block for digital success. Many other factors ensure that success as a business, many of which I will touch upon here. But qz.com now has the tools in place to adapt to an ever changing media landscape, constantly adapting to new potential distribution channels. This platform is something traditional media organizations are having to build retroactively.
A content API is the key for a media business to efficiently innovate. In fact it is almost impossible to innovate at a speed fast enough in the digital space without one. With a good API in place traditional platforms can continue to be serviced while allowing new products to be easily prototyped, designed and built.
A content API can also open the door to one of the most important aspects of journalism moving forward — the atomization of content. Mark Drasutis, Head of Innovation at News Corp Australia, defines this atomization as:
‘The ability to break a piece of content into its constituent parts, allowing it to be then recombined in new ways and redistributed as new products and on to new platforms.’
In its simplest form this is breaking an article into elements such as text, images, video, quotes. But with the right systems these elements can be broken down to a much deeper level. For example short elements of a text piece could be extracted to produce a feed for an Apple Watch app. Or a publishers fantasy football app could be served with elements from its relevant health stories when players are injured. With the correct technology and editorial thinking in place, the atomization of content allows publishers to reach new audiences on new platforms.
Under Drasutis, News Corp Australia runs ‘News Foundry’ a series of three day events combining developers with editorial, product and advertising staff. The focus of these events is to recombine content from across the News Corp network to innovate and build new digital products focussing on business goals.
This would not be possible without the content API.
B)Building with Brands
New technology and editorial processes allow new products to be easily designed and built. They also allow for a change in the way that advertising can relate to it. In this new world where journalists are involved in product build they need to understand how a brand can effectively deliver its advertising message through a new product independent of the news content.
For a long time advertising and monetization were dirty words in journalism and understandably so. Newsrooms didn’t need to understand the advertising aspect of the business. The advertising simply sat alongside the original news product — print, often in set formats which rarely changed. Engaging with advertising risked compromising their independence. However in the current, fast changing, multi-platform media landscape it is dangerous not to understand the advertising mission. As journalism increasingly melds into product, it’s essential to understand how that product in turn, melds into making money. This does not mean journalists should need to risk their editorial independence. It’s about understanding how brands could advertise on a new product.
Some app concepts for example, may result in a smaller audience, which may not be big enough to sustain bespoke native advertising and favor display or sponsorship. Lifestyle products built around location, may suit brands where their consumers are making physical purchases — but only in markets with a large enough consumer base to use location targeting.
It would be great to work in a startup like environment where products can be designed and monetization worked out at a later date once an audience is built. However this is less viable for large media groups who usually have to monetize sooner. A solution is possible though, with the likes of ‘News Foundry’ where departments collaborate on product build.
C)Content & Collaboration
Every day traditional media organizations produce a wealth of incredible content. It may not be the type of content which is viral in nature, but it is the content that matters to consumers. The content which moves markets, helps people stay fit, helps them decide where to eat and drink, what to watch and listen to, what to invest in and save for. The consumer will always need this type of content, and if the digital foundations are set up around good APIs and collaborative product build this content can be easily delivered to them on any platform which they choose to use.
Content will play an important part in the age of the Internet of Things, putting information in context for consumers. This is already apparent with a number of fitness monitoring apps on the market. It is nice to know that your fitness monitor says you hit the fat burn zone during your work out for 20 minutes, but do you know what that means? What if you could also be told how best to stay in the fat burn zone? Or how best to eat to burn fat?
Any major media organization has an archive that could easily answer these questions. They just need to be atomized and delivered in the right way. As journalists become more involved in product and have a better understanding of how to deliver it, they will be in a great position to be creative and business minded. Creating content with an eye on the possible distribution of the elements within. This opens up a whole new world: Journalists plucking, pulling and collating from their specialist knowledge base.
Collaboration is key.
News Corp’s sponsorship of ‘Fishburners’ in Sydney, a non profit community of startups, has allowed the product and innovation teams to engage with new businesses in a variety of markets. These new markets and platforms provide unique challenges for traditional publishers, whilst allowing the startups potential exposure to a national audience. Collaborating with them has pushed the organization to think differently about what its potential distribution platforms could be in future.
D)Data and Design
Large media companies can be slow to innovate.
What startups can teach corporates, as has happened with News Corp Australia’s ‘Fishburners’ sponsorship, is how editorial and product staff can use design thinking and create products in a lean way. It’s important to foster this culture, putting the consumer first, allowing ideas to be tested and some ultimately fail. This approach can allow minimal viable products to be easily tested, developed and tweaked. This thinking when combined with a content API, can lead down many new paths. It led to the News Corp innovation team testing content gamification and location based ‘Beacon’ technology with an app for consumers riding a number of local Sydney buses.
Journalists can also take a similar consumer focussed approach to the way they create content. The core aspects of great journalism will always be the same, but the focus is shifting to creating engaging experiences which fit the platforms the consumer is using. A key part of this is journalists understanding the data and redesigning their content accordingly. As the metrics for editorial and advertising continue to move away from clicks and become more and more about engagement, we must think critically about what we are creating, how we are designing it, where it may be distributed and consumed.
As a printer on Fleet Street, my grandfather was part of a group of people who set the production parameters for journalism. There are new parameters now and these will continue to change. If journalists, product teams and advertising work together from the start to build products, they can continue to engage the audiences of the future.
It turns out that corner of the building isn’t so dark after all.
Seriously if you ever live in Australia, Baz Luhrmann was right, use good sunscreen — the sun is ferocious down there.