Let’s build our way out of this

“By leveraging design-thinking principles and deep audience insights, we can better understand our readers on an individual level, determine the commonalities between large groups of individuals, come up with practical ideas that solve real problems, and quickly test for efficacy.”

Over the Thanksgiving holiday I somehow got sucked into watching James Cameron’s Titanic with extended family in Atlanta. I’ve never been a fan of the movie — the ship sinks — but this time around I saw it in a different light. Somewhere between Jack gambling his way on to the ship and Rose vowing to never let go, I started noticing parallels between the film and the news industry.

In a scene that foreshadows the tragedy to come, a conversation takes place between the captain and the second officer about the threat of ice. The second officer suggests they slow the ship because at its current speed the Titanic would be unable to stop in time to avoid an iceberg. Foolishly, the captain says to maintain speed.

We know what happens next. the Titanic hits an iceberg and begins to sink, suddenly jolting Jack and Rose into a fight for their lives. Jack is handcuffed to a pipe in the lowest level of a ship taking on massive amounts of water, Rose searches frantically for an axe to break him free, they rip a bench from a steel floor to break through locked gates to get to high ground, and finally take refuge on a makeshift float in the Atlantic Ocean as they wait to be rescued.

Not so long ago, ours was an industry akin to the Titanic. Celebrated. Sought after. Virtually indestructible. Legacy news organizations were the go-to destination for people who wanted to learn about what was happening in their communities, and no one else could do it better. But the fact is those days are behind us, and unlike Jack and Rose we don’t seem to be acting like we’re in a fight for our lives.

For the better part of two decades, the news industry has been in search of new and sustainable revenue models. Sure, we’ve introduced events and membership plans with varying degrees of success, but we still predominantly rely on content monetization to keep the lights on, which will only last for so long.

Despite the so-called “Trump bump” many national media outlets enjoyed in 2016, Pew Research analysis shows that print and digital newspaper circulation declined by 8 percent last year, marking the 28th consecutive year of declines. In fact, only 8 percent of U.S. households paid for online news last year according to a study conducted by the Reuters Institute.

When it comes to advertising revenue, the story is much the same. Although digital advertising revenue is trending up, overall advertising revenue at newspapers remains down. And even the gains in digital are a bit deceptive as Google and Facebook capture 75 percent of the spend leaving breadcrumbs for publishers.

As Rasmus Kleis Nielsen argued recently, “More than 20 years into the rise of digital media, it seems clear that the content bubble will eventually burst unless more robust business models are found.”

Readers value journalism as a means to stay informed. This makes journalists, at least in part, problem solvers for people who seek information. What if we used that same problem-solving ability to build new products that go beyond content and solve other problems our audiences face, as well?

Designers, product managers, and engineers are uniquely suited to help news organizations do this. By leveraging design-thinking principles and deep audience insights, we can better understand our readers on an individual level, determine the commonalities between large groups of individuals, come up with practical ideas that solve real problems, and quickly test for efficacy. Building, marketing, and selling new products is a difficult proposition, but the upside is tremendous.

We’re trying this strategy at American City Business Journals where we know our audience of small business owners is constantly looking for new ways to improve their hiring processes. In early 2018 we will introduce SelecTalent, a candidate evaluation tool that predicts an individual’s ability to succeed in a role by measuring his or her natural talents. We are confident in SelecTalent because we know it solves a real problem: An employee that doesn’t work out can cost a business as much as $25,000 in lost revenue, lost client relationships, and lost productivity. While this isn’t an editorial product, it is yet another expression of the Business Journals’ mission to help our readers advance their careers, grow their businesses, and simplify their lives.

Creating products that go beyond content will offer publishers new opportunities to keep producing the mission-critical journalism that readers expect, while helping sustain the business financially.

Unfortunately, there may not be enough people who are willing to pay for news or advertising to fund our organizations for the long haul, but that doesn’t mean we should stop the presses. It does mean that we have to look for new revenue opportunities if we want to keep the presses running. The Titanic sank because its captain failed to adapt to the environment around him. If we don’t similarly adapt our revenue models I fear our ship may sink, too. We have to do everything we can — and maybe some things we don’t think we can — to find a lifeboat and save our love.

Kyle Ellis is a senior product manager at American City Business Journals. His views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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