TLDR: News publishers need to be clear on the job their product is doing. Quick hits and deep dives are not the same thing and warrent different user experiences. There are particular opportunities for publishers to create products that support longer narratvies to increase loyalty and lifetime value of the customer.

The atomic unit of journalism has always been the story. This made sense when the news was distributed on paper; and lots of stories could be organised on a page; and that page could be sold as part of a whole under a brand and masthead. And it makes some sense in the digital world too. But there are some problems.

Firstly, unbundling the paper into a series of individual stories allows digital intermediaries (yes, Facebook, Google, et. al) to become primary distributors of news — they become the brands the users gravitate to.

Secondly, newspapers have/had a clear value proposition: a deep dive into the news of the day, plus some extras, brought together by a trusted brand with a particular editorial outlook. Massive shifts in consumer behaviour, the abundance of online information and the willingness of news publishers to unbundle their content to grow digital audiences, mean that type of value proposition won’t sustain many online news businesses. To create loyal digital readers, something more than a digital version of the paper is needed.

So what can be done about this? Can the unbundling of news be undone? Can the news be re-bundled?

There are at least two user needs that niche and general digital publications can answer. Focusing on user needs allows us to look at the news through a jobs to be done framework ala Clay Christensen.

When people find themselves needing to get a job done, they essentially hire products to do that job for them. The marketer’s task is therefore to understand what jobs periodically arise in customers’ lives for which they might hire products the company could make. If a marketer can understand the job, design a product and associated experiences in purchase and use to do that job, and deliver it in a way that reinforces its intended use, then when customers find themselves needing to get that job done, they will hire that product.

For news, these two jobs to be done are as follows:

  1. Tell me what stuff I need to know about that’s happening in the world right now. And make it simple.
  2. Tell me more informatioin about a particular thing: the context, the background, the players, the likely outcomes. And make it detailed.

The first job is temporal in nature. The second is thematic in nature. Here’s a neat summary from the super-smart Heidi N. Moore:

She’s right, you know: a single product, and single user experience (the default setting of most digital publishers) conflates and confuses these two jobs that readers want to get done. So, let’s break these two jobs down to see what the potential is and who’s realising it.

This one is pretty familiar to news publishers. After all, it’s pretty similar to how a daily printed newspaper works, providing updates from a trusted source on current affairs. But packaging this up for a digital audience to create a compelling product takes a bit more effort than putting print stories online.

The most obvious product in this space is the ePaper. Many publishers have them. They’re replicas of thet printed product, maintaining pagination, ads, etc. And they work pretty well.

De Standaard’s ePaper

Research from Twipe shows that ePapers do a good job for their users. When examining reader preference for two news formats: newsflow (i.e. open web) vs. ePapers, Twipe found:

  • Half of all readers prefer to read digital news in an edition format.
  • This finding holds true across all the countries we examined — with Germany standing out.
  • Contrary to popular belief, the even split holds true for younger readers

They also found that ePaper readers are typically busier people who want to take time once a day to go through a package of news. They appreciate editorial selection and finish-ability. Edition readers look less for free content and are more loyal to one news brand. Crucially, they are more loyal and more engaged.

From Twipe’s Reinventing Digital Editions, Research Report, November 2018

But there are other — non ePaper — examples of bundling. A great example comes from Aftenposten. Their customer centric value proposition explains the job they wanted to do get done: explain the news better than anyone else. To define a product experience around this mission they started by segmenting their audience into four cohorts:

  1. News lover: 4 or more visits per day, on average
  2. Daily briefer:1–3 visits per day, on average
  3. Casual user: Less than 1 visit per day, on average
  4. Infrequent user: Less than 4 visits per month

Here’s how they found those cohorts broke down in terms of frequency of visits.

And here’s how they break down in terms of share of sessions.

So what? So, they decided that the smart thing to do was focus on casual users and daily briefers. And ensure the first visit of the day to their site/app needed to show the very best journalism that explained the news of the day better than anyone else. So they created the morning brief, a snackable frontpage that explains what has happened and why it matters. It also asks users whether this précis was useful.

The result? 80% of users indicated they wanted to see it on a daily basis. And the product was particularly valuable to low-frequency users. Job done.

The Economist’s Espresso app is a very similar proposition. The job it’s doing? Giving a ‘shot of daily news’ to busy people who only have a few minutes to be informed each morning. The product is similar in nature to Aftonposten’s Morning Briefing, but also acts as a subscription driver as it comes with a free trial period.

Interestingly, for a product that has made speedy delivery of news its job to be done, speed and performance of the app matters. The Economist found that there was a clear correlation between the speed of the edition loading and commercial success of the app itself.

Digital publishers, to date have been pretty poor at this. General news publications have focused on a single user experience (article and section pages) often linked through recirculation elements — which can be manually curated or automatically generated by tagging systems.

Interested users can find out more if they want. But the products aren’t built to do this job. Many publishers have created detailed explainers or timelines for particular stories, but again, this isn’t creating a product to do that job, it’s commissioning a single piece that does a deep dive.

Knowledge Builder in action

One of the few genuine attempts to build a product or experience for this user need was FT’s Knowledge Builder, an experiment to that gave readers a ‘knowledge score’ on particular topics, and suggests what they should read to increase that knowledge score. Great idea. But it didn;t last and was subsumed into the personalisation available in myFT.

However, in the audio space many news brands — and non-news brands — have successfully built communities around ongoing themes and particular personalities (Joe Rogan, Kara Swisher & Scott Galloway, etc.) or compelling stories (Jamie Bartlett’s brilliant Missing Crypto Queen, Patrick Radden Keefe’s excellent Winds of Change, etc.).

Some publishers have had success with serialised audio content; e.g. Zetland, and of course, the New York Times, which has blazed a trail with the Daily, Nice White Parents, and more. But for many audio feels like an add on — everyone else is doing it, therefore, so should we.

But the commercial potential around creating a product that explains a topic in detail is huge. Yes, longer explanation is job that needs to be done less frequently than snacking on news; certainly for general news sites, although maybe not for niche publishers.

But when it comes to digital content consumption, business models that don’t link to individual stories have proven more successful. Evergreen and serialised content, keeps audiences coming back for more — and paying for it. This is more obvious in entertainment, where, thanks to OTT Video, serialised long-form storytelling has become dominant. Without the ability to catch up on a show mid-run, Game of Thrones and its ilk would never be able to attract new viewers and would decline in reach with every episode forever.

Screengrab from Matt Locke’s presentation on Nordic Streaming Strategies, illustrating the attention pattern spectrum.

Attention spans haven’t got smaller — as many have claimed — however, the nature of the content that drives more attention (and therefore more loyalty and revenue) has changed; everything can now be plotted onto an attention patttern spectrum. Mo’ attention, Mo’ money, baby!

By embracing unbundling, news publishers have actively pushed themselves down the spectrum. Perhaps this is due to the fact that many still feel paper products are better suited to longer sessions and more detailed consumption: Paper is for long reads; digital is snackable. Others are cannier. New media entities like Spotify and Netflix are increasing ARPU and reducing propensity to churn by creating/promoting serialised news content.

Publishers that aren’t investing in digital product development and marketing that hammers home longer, linked narratives (as oppose to individual articles) around stories of cultural and social significance, risk missing out on reliable B2B and B2C recurring revenue streams.

The good news is that it doesn’t need to be one or the other. Publishers’ content can be daisy chained together in different ways that answer these different user needs. Same content, different presentation layer, different user journeys, different jobs done.

Same stories: different paths based on user needs

Product design can hammer home the particular job to be done: giving an overview of what’s important at any given time, or creating a compelling experience around inter-connectedness of stories and encourage readers to consume the next episode, find out more, unlock new understandings, get smarter. And while product design is vital, other areas also need to lean in to realise the potential here. Cross-functional teams need to work together to achieve a shared aim. Content commissioning and formats need to be reconsidered, the power of the brand needs to be used to hammer home the utility and the job to be done. All have a role to play to re-bundle the news to maximise utility to the user, and increase loyalty. Increased loyalty means more users, reduced churn, and. a stronger brand.

Of course, individual stories are still vital. But in successful digital news products need to offer more than a series of one off stories. Understand this, build a product around user needs, and you’re starting to rebundle the news.

Digital Transformation + People + Business + Product Development & Design.