We can all agree – creating great products requires an understanding of and empathy for our users. That is a core tenet of Design Thinking and all Human Centered Design approaches to product development.
But empathy for users (readers, viewers, customers?) is not enough. The products we develop are an emergent property of the people, processes and cultures of our teams. And creating great products in any organization, especially one with a hundred-plus years of history, requires understanding ourselves as much as it does users.
We will talk about Plato’s Cave, empathy, fundamental attribution error, and the unique challenges of shepherding ideas through the complex web of intra-organizational boundaries, stakeholders, silos and workflows that are typical in modern media companies.
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.
As the old joke goes, you have three options for any project: “Quick, Cheap or Good. Pick two.”
For better or worse, at least those are affirmative choices – assuming you make them well enough in advance of the deadline. But wait till you have a month or a week left and the equation changes. Now you can only pick one. And “Cheap or Good” have already left the building.
Since it launched, Zite has been one of my favorite apps. Keying off my Twitter stream the product does an absolutely amazing job of finding stories I am 1) interested in; 2) had not seen already; 3) from sources I was unlikely to stumble across.
That sort of personalization – saving time by accurately filtering information – is of huge value to readers. If you can reduce the number of clicks (the currency of the web) needed to find stories of interest, I am likely to return. No surprise that most media organizations have recommended story lists on their websites.
But in many cases these lists are of minimal value. Browsing Salon.com just now – five of the suggested stories were more than four months old. And I was reading about the Affordable Health Care Act.
The challenge is, even the most prolific news sites (say the NYT) only publish 1000 – 1500 stories daily. Even over a week or a month, there is not enough variety to make an effective recommendation in every case. So, older or less relevant stories are surfaced. But as a pure aggregator Zite is not restricted to a single news source. A billion new pages are added to the world wide web daily. That is more than enough to recommend 50 – 100 highly relevant stories to me each day.
Doing some news math, the filtering value (or number of potential clicks saved) to the user is not comparable:
Yes, that is a farcical equation and the news site still returns a positive value — but not enough to be competitive.
For news publishers, there are three ways to improve our odds: 1) Improve the algorithms to eliminate outdated or irrelevant articles; 2) Reach outside your own CMS and aggregate stores from other sources; 3) Start focusing your metrics less on raw page views, and more on efficiency and value created for the reader ‘clicks saved.’ (See Cory Bergman’s ‘time saved’ take on this earlier this year.)
Yes, those aggregated links will need to be highly relevant (see improve the algorithm above) and they will lead visitors away from your site. But, all Zite does is send me away. And yet I return every day.
Both of those headline link-bait questions and more answered (or at least addressed) in a below roundup of somewhat recent academic research. I am not including links as most of these are behind paywalls. If you have access, the citation is below the publisher-provided abstract in each case:
Focusing on the Reader: Engagement Trumps Satisfaction.
Satisfaction is commonly monitored by news organizations because it is an antecedent to readership. In fact, countless studies have shown the satisfaction-readership relationship to be true. Still, an essential question remains: Is satisfaction the only, or even the critical, thing to focus on with readership? This research indicates that the answer is no. Two other related constructs, reader experiences and engagement, affect reader behavior even more than does satisfaction. The discussion provides examples of how to increase engagement and calls for experimental research to understand how news organizations can positively affect engagement and thereby readership.
Mersey, Rachel Davis, Malthouse, Edward C., & Calder, Bobby J. (2012). Focusing on the Reader: Engagement Trumps Satisfaction. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 89(4), 695-709. doi: 10.1177/1077699012455391
Do Satisfied Customers Really Pay More? A Study of the Relationship Between Customer Satisfaction and Willingness to Pay
Two experimental studies (a lab experiment and a study involving a real usage experience over time) reveal the existence of a strong, positive impact of customer satisfaction on willingness to pay, and they provide support for a nonlinear, functional structure based on disappointment theory (i.e., an inverse S-shaped form). In addition, the second study examines dynamic aspects of the relationship and provides evidence for the stronger impact of cumulative satisfaction rather than of transaction-specific satisfaction on willingness to pay.
Homburg, Christian, Koschate, Nicole, & Hoyer, Wayne D. (2005). Do Satisfied Customers Really Pay More? A Study of the Relationship Between Customer Satisfaction and Willingness to Pay. Journal of Marketing, 69(2), 84-96.
News Audiences Revisited: Theorizing the Link Between Audience Motivations and News Consumption
With a plethora of news outlets today, audiences have more choices than ever. Yet, academic and professional understanding of news audiences from a uses and gratifications perspective remains limited. Using a national survey (N = 1143), this study uncovers distinct news consumption patterns across 4 types of motivations, and predicts media uses across 30 sources with noticeably higher explanatory power as compared to previous uses and gratifications studies, answering the question: Who is using what type of news, and why?
Lee, Angela M. (2013). News Audiences Revisited: Theorizing the Link Between Audience Motivations and News Consumption. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 57(3), 300-317. doi: 10.1080/08838151.2013.816712
News-seekers and Avoiders: Exploring Patterns of Total News Consumption Across Media and the Relationship to Civic Participation
This study examines patterns of news consumption across multiple media platforms and relates them to civic participation. Analyzing a national sample of close to 25,000 respondents, nearly half the adult population in America is classified as news ‘Avoiders,’ and the other half as ‘News-seekers.’ Testing the relationship between civic participation and news consumption for each of 6 media platforms individually, and to an overall index combining those sources into 1 measure, the results show a positive relationship with civic participation, but the influence of Total News Consumption on civic participation is greater for Avoiders than for News-seekers.
Ksiazek, Thomas B., Malthouse, Edward C., & Webster, James G. (2010). News-seekers and Avoiders: Exploring Patterns of Total News Consumption Across Media and the Relationship to Civic Participation. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 54(4), 551-568. doi: 10.1080/08838151.2010.519808
Young Adults’ Reasons Behind Avoidances of Daily Print Newspaper And Their Ideas For Change
Focus groups in three cities were conducted with young adults (ages 18-29) to understand why they, don’t read daily print newspapers. The study examined news media avoidances, like “inconvenience” and “lack of time,” to uncover underlying meanings. Results showed prominent nonuse reasons have dimensions. Participants also suggested ways newspapers could improve. Participants were studied as two age groups, 18-24 and 25-29. Small group differences did emerge. The older group wanted less negative news, while the younger group justified it; the younger age group was more skeptical of the news and mentioned needing greater effort to understand it.
Zerba, Amy. (2011). Young Adults’ Reasons Behind Avoidances of Daily Print Newspaper And Their Ideas For Change. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 88(3), 597-614.
Exploring News Apps and Location-Based Services on the Smartphone
This study investigates how young adults use news and location-based services on their smartphones, in addition to examining how many news organizations offer mobile news apps with geo-location features. Based on the survey findings, young adults are consuming news on their smartphones. Furthermore, there is a high use of location-based services by smartphone consumers, but news organizations are only using geo-location features in their mobile apps for traffic and weather. This study highlights that a gap exists between what news consumers, particularly young adults, are doing and using on their smartphones and what news organizations are able to provide.
Weiss, Amy Schmitz. (2013). Exploring News Apps and Location-Based Services on the Smartphone. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 90(3), 435-456. doi: 10.1177/1077699013493788
Mobile News Adoption among Young Adults: Examining the Roles of Perceptions, News Consumption, and Media Usage
Using the frameworks of innovation diffusion and technology acceptance model, this study examines the predictors of mobile news consumption among young adults. The results show that the perceived relative advantage (especially content), utility, and ease of use of mobile news are positively related to its adoption. The young adults’ news consumption patterns and preferences, as well as media usage, all play a role in the adoption of mobile news. This study also validates the importance of examining the adoption outcome from multiple perspectives.
Chan-Olmsted, Sylvia, Rim, Hyejoon, & Zerba, Amy. (2013). Mobile News Adoption among Young Adults: Examining the Roles of Perceptions, News Consumption, and Media Usage. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 90(1), 126-147. doi: 10.1177/1077699012468742
Are News Media Substitutes? Gratifications, Contents, and Uses. Journal of Media Economics
Internet is generally expected to have one of two effects on traditional news media: It displaces them, or it forces them into distinct market niches. A shared assumption underlying both expectations is that news media displacement, or substitution, is a function of the degree to which news media are functional equivalents. This article explores this assumption from a niche theoretical perspective, using survey data from 2 student samples as illustrative cases. Findings indicate that, for these students, news media substitution does not depend on functional equivalence of media in providing gratifications and gratification opportunities or types of content. Post hoc analyses suggest instead that, for this particular audience, media use depends on habit and media accessibility. Follow-up studies should further investigate these relations for representative samples.
van der Wurff, Richard. (2011). Are News Media Substitutes? Gratifications, Contents, and Uses. Journal of Media Economics, 24(3), 139-157. doi: 10.1080/08997764.2011.601974