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Sept. 8, 2016, 10:41 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Schibsted is pooling its tech and product resources, with a wary eye towards platforms like Facebook

“That’s what we want to achieve with the embedded teams: Figure out what really works, and then if we nail it, we scale it.”

Scandinavian media giant Schibsted, which publishes titles like the Norwegian Aftenposten and Swedish Aftonbladet, is a rare success story when it comes to actually making money on digital advertising, with the continued growth of a thriving online classifieds business (roughly 40 percent of the company’s revenue).

Now it’s doubling down on its own tech and product development, wary of just how dominant giant tech platforms like Facebook and Google have been in capturing and monetizing audiences online (the two earn most digital ad spending these days).

Schibsted is combining the tech and product teams of all of its titles into a single company-wide tech-and-product group, which will help build and scale news products for all the publishing titles, from Aftonbladet to Aftenposten to its mobile-focused news service Omni. There will no longer be a separate Aftonbladet tech team, or an Aftenposten tech team; the teams will officially be considered a part of Schibsted’s global tech and product organization.

“Both in having relevant destinations for people to consume and engage with the news, and in having a sustainable business model to support that, all our publishers and brands have the same challenges,” Espen Sundve, vice president of product management, told me. “Everything that is the foundation of what our news products need to stand on is managed by one team with one purpose now, rather than multiple teams with slightly similar objectives, to avoid duplicating efforts.”

The tech and product staff currently working at at their respective news organizations will remain embedded in their newsrooms, but their work will be done with an eye towards products that can be spread across the entire company. Currently, around 200 staffers (in the main locations of Oslo, Stockholm, and Krakow, with additional teams in cities like London and Barcelona) are focused on building publishing tools related to creation, distribution, and monetization. (Specific workflows and official reporting lines are being ironed out, and Sundve emphasizes the change does not come with downsizing.)

“We’ll be doing things these teams were simply too small to do on their own before. It’s a combination of local on-the-ground innovation and being able to scale it up. Since we’d been in silos before, this has been really hard to do.”

Sundve pointed to shared issues like comments and digital video.

“Take, for example, understanding content and tagging, or natural language processing, or building technology we can share for video streaming, uploading, editing. Those are all things we can do jointly for the newsrooms,” he said. “For users, say you have a team that has done something great on building a commenting system that really works; they’ve figured out something through rapid iteration within a newsroom. That’s what we want to achieve with the embedded teams: Figure out what really works, and then if we nail it, we scale it.”

“One area we really see a need for a lot of trying and failing is to make a personal news experience,” he added. “We really push for this to be done with the intention of strengthening the editorial responsibility, as opposed to creating filter bubbles. Another tactical area is converting people in good ways into paying subscribers. Then you need ways to tell great stories on mobile. Those are all areas where we need to do innovation, fast.”

Publishing tools built by the Schibsted team aren’t yet being offered to other publishers outside the company — but don’t rule that out for the future.

“A key focus for now has been to get this harmonized between our own publishers,” Sundve said. “If anyone sees a need for parts of it, or our entire platform, we’re very open to a dialogue about that. But we’re not focusing on those dialogues yet — we want to see if we can scale within the brands we control ourselves.”

The move has been a long time coming. Schibsted has hired voraciously in the tech realm — more than 150 last year — and continues to add engineers, UX designers, and product people. It’s already moved Aftenposten, Omni, and Swedish paper Svenska Dagbladet to a shared set of publishing tools, built jointly, with other titles to follow. It’s conscious about power in numbers, having implemented, for instance, a single login across all its properties, including for its classifieds, which means more consistent data on its visitors, and eventually finer-grained targeting of editorial content and advertising.

“We really believe that journalism — not just us here at Schibsted — is in a position to redefine itself as something far more personal and relevant in the digital era. But in order to do that, you need a global scale on some technologies,” Sundve said. “But you also need fast-moving teams, where this mix of editorial, commercial, tech, product, and UX meet, to do those rapid experiments. We’re really pushing this.”

Photo of coffee and Aftenposten by mallol used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 8, 2016, 10:41 a.m.
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