Stand out or fade away

We created a product with an opinion. A point of view about how it should be used, that wasn’t just like every other news experience out there.

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When I was at The Times and Sunday Times we set out a bold strategic shift based on insights about how our audience read the news. We would stop publishing a constant flow of stories and publish one edition a day, with a few scheduled updates. The data showed most readers only visited once a day. A lot of work was being published and left unread.

We designed a product to solve readers' problems with being overwhelmed, feeling like they were always out of date and respected that they are not journalists, surgically attached to their phones, but had jobs, families and hobbies. (You can learn more about what we did from my old colleague Matt Taylor here)

What I liked most about this, aside from the fact it was rooted in feedback and observations from our readers, was that we were clear about what we were and we're not going to be.

We created a product with an opinion. A point of view about how it should be used, that wasn’t just like every other news experience out there.

More publishers should care about how they do this. It matters more than ever now because how we find and keep readers is shifting quickly

  1. Apple news is growing, Google discover is growing, generative search experiences are coming
  2. Traffic to news sites from Facebook fell 48% in 2023, with traffic from X/Twitter declining by 27%

Platforms are becoming ever more sticky intermediaries as they send less traffic to our websites and apps.

If readers can’t really tell the difference between our app and Apple News. If we can’t explain and express to them why they would want a direct relationship with us, rather than an aggregator - why would they come back and certainly why would they subscribe?

Obsessed with our competitors, but afraid of taking steps to be different it often feels like publishers are trying to create the blandest, most generic experiences they can. These products look and feel like they were designed by committee, because they were.

A few weeks ago in The Rebooting Brian wrote “I used to joke that you knew a publishing organization was dysfunctional when it had an incredibly complicated nav and sub nav with a carousel. It was a sign that nobody had a point of view or the heft to make a call.”

So what should we do instead?

The best example I can think of is just over a year old now. In September 2022 The Verge redesigned their website - not unusual for a maturing brand on the internet. But this is how Nilay explained what they were trying to do

Our goal in redesigning The Verge was actually to redesign the relationship we have with you, our beloved audience. Six years ago, we developed a design system that was meant to confidently travel across platforms as the media unbundled itself into article pages individually distributed by social media and search algorithms. There’s a reason we had bright pink pull quotes in articles and laser lines shooting across our videos: we wanted to be distinctly The Verge, no matter where we showed up.
But publishing across other people’s platforms can only take you so far. And the more we lived with that decision, the more we felt strongly that our own platform should be an antidote to algorithmic news feeds, an editorial product made by actual people with intent and expertise. The Verge’s homepage is the single most popular page at Vox Media, and it should be a statement about what the internet can be at its best.

Wow. Just Wow. Yes they freshened up the brand, but they also asked themselves how the ecosystem was changing, how they wanted to be on the front foot to respond. That they wanted readers to have a new relationship with them. That they had strong feelings about what their own platform should be.

I’m going to quote more because it’s just too good - but you can read the whole piece here

What’s most exciting about all this is that it will actually free up time for our newsroom: we won’t have to stop everything we’re doing and debate writing an entire story about one dude’s confused content moderation tweets. We can just post the tweets if they’re important, add the relevant context, and move on. That means we’ll get back hours upon hours of time to do more original reporting, deeper reviews, and even more incisive analyses — the work that makes The Verge great.

Their new product supports the way the newsroom works, and makes it easier to cover certain stories and frees up reporting time!

It’s madness that in 2022 (and today) these are radical approaches to publishing products. This isn’t ‘oh we took out 27 publishing steps from the arcane cms we use (although, very important). It’s ‘we designed a content/publishing experience from the ground up with the newsroom _and_ readers in mind.’

This doesn’t happen as much as it should.

Too often it's one or the other: the newsroom changes a function for internal reasons without considering readers, or the product team tries to launch something for readers but has no power to change how the newsroom functions.

I’d love to know your favourite examples of products with opinions, (news or otherwise). Reply and let me know.

With thanks to TK, and others for their thoughts and feedback on this post.

News product mentoring

A reminder that I offer mentoring services

I can mentor and advise people looking to get started in the media/product/innovation space and understand the wide range of paths they could take. I can also coach those moving into their first management roles and particularly anyone who is responsible for cultural change and innovation in their organisations.

In addition I can help if you are working on new business/product/organisational strategy, newsroom tooling and applying reader data & insights in the newsroom.