(tldr; A product strategy is only as strong as its weakest link.)
The Twitter dust-up this week ostensibly about digital having been a mistake for newspapers felt a bit like Groundhog Day (the movie.) New day, same argument, same result.
Steve Buttry and Mathew Ingram both posted eloquent rebuttals:
The colossal mistake that the newspaper industry made was responding to digital challenges and opportunities with defensive measures intended to protect newspapers, and timid experiments with posting print-first content online, rather than truly exploring and pursuing digital possibilities.
Shafer’s piece assumes there was some magical Eden in which newspapers were unassailable, and that it would have been possible to remain there if not for the sin of pushing too hard into digital. But that simply isn’t the case.
Newspapers were never likely to dominate digital in the way they had print. Many of the causes are secular – the Internet is a supremely disruptive force that inherently flattens structures, eliminates middlemen and creates value at scale.
Newspapers on the other hand were middlemen built to extract local value from news and advertising. The worth of local journalism aside, the future of the print delivery business was always going to be problematic.
But blaming our travails entirely on those outside forces risks ignoring the mistakes we do own. And at the product and development level, we failed at some basic digital blocking and tackling. Those failures can be attributed to a lack of systems thinking in our strategies, and a lack of respect for just how difficult the ‘system’ of a legacy media company can be to navigate.
Developers have a concept of the ‘tech stack’ to describe the collection of software and subsystems required for a project. A typical example is ‘LAMP’ representing Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP in a common combination of operating system, web server, database and application/template software for a web site. Each component is dependent on the other and works together as a single system.
In product development, we also attempt to design coherent systems. But unlike a standard software stack, product solutions are emergent properties that reflect the desires, needs and constraints of a wide range of constituencies including humans, machines, cost and time.
- Reader Need (desirability)
- Business Need (viability)
- Visual Design (on brand and articulate)
- User Experience (function, usability)
- Development Effort (feasibility)
- Systems Integration (between disparate services and tools)
- Workflow (process for creating & publishing)
- Culture (shared assumptions that govern behavior)
Note that some of those layers (desirability, feasibility and viability) are typical human-centered design concepts. The others represent the people and processes necessary to actually bring a product to life including designers, developers and journalists. To succeed, any product must ‘pass the test’ of at least minimally satisfying the requirements for each of the eight layers in that stack. And, because the stack crosses multiple organizational boundaries, creative and strategic conflicts will typically abound.
And more to the point, each layer in the stack is entirely capable of vetoing a product decision considered ‘solved’ in any or all of the layers above it. So, solving for seven is still a failing grade.
For instance, readers would undoubtedly prefer (level 1. Reader Need/desirability) a news site with no ads. But that would violate the need for revenues (level 2. Business Need/viability.)
And the further apart the levels the more complex the negotiations and solution will be.
Imagine a preferred design that dictated the use of triangular photos on the homepage. We could undoubtedly build the template and create a script to automatically crop images and avoid manual effort. But triangular photos are such a radical departure from accepted journalism norms the newsroom would likely reject the idea. (Possibly rightfully so.) So, all of the work to develop a product solution that worked from levels 3 to 7 would have been wasted, because we failed to solve for culture (level 8.)
So why have newspapers struggled with digital?
- Our guide star is often an internal business need, not an external customer need.
- We have failed to modernize many of our backend systems (starting with the CMS) causing many product strategies to fail at that level.
- In the name of expedience we launch features and products that do not meet the minimum requirements of all eight levels of the product stack.
- Our organizations are often siloed in a way that can return ‘false positives’ in the product stack test due to the inaccessibility of data.
- We have not explicitly enough discussed the complexity of the full product solution stack, so we have under-estimated the difficulty involved.
- We have failed to invest in the product and development resources that could help identify and resolve these issues.
When we solve those issues and are building products that ‘pass the test’ then we can go back to arguing about the ‘original sin‘ of digital journalism. Until then, we are still learning how to do digital media and are not ready to write the post mortem. Time is short, but the solutions are at hand if we take advantage.