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The year product leads media

“We will start to see more senior leadership in news organizations that comes from design, product, and technology backgrounds.”

In 2018, we’ve seen the acceleration of trends in which older, advertising-centric, scale-driven media models are becoming less and less sustainable, while user-centered, product-focused approaches gain traction. Looking forward, 2019 may well be the year when product-led media moves from the fringes to achieve true significance and maturity.

In recent years, we’ve seen dependence on massive scale become less feasible for many media organizations, especially as platforms like Facebook have deprioritized news items in their algorithms. In turn, advertising models that largely depend on that scale are becoming similarly implausible. These two trends are most starkly depicted in Verizon’s explanation for its abysmal valuation of its Oath media properties.

In parallel, there has been positive growth and engagement in areas that take a more product oriented approach to news, focusing on user needs in a more narrow and thoughtful way. We see this in the rise of products that develop a deeper relationship between journalists and audiences around niche topics, like podcasts and newsletters, as well as in service-oriented media products that support user needs around particular areas of their lives, like cooking or wellness. These initiatives provide better paths to success in two ways. First, they focus on cultivating specific audiences that can then be sold to advertisers while respecting the privacy and data rights of those readers. Second, strong relationships between publishers and readers can lead to natural subscription or membership models based on both product value and an affinity to a brand.

This shift has been challenging for many media companies because they tend to be led by people with backgrounds in editorial and advertising — practices that are inherently reactive, opportunistic, and ephemeral. Those skills make for good, fast reporting and effective sales pitches, but often do not provide a long-term view of how a product will evolve and grow, improving over time. Successful product development requires a proactive, holistic, and considered process with deep systems thinking. One small change to a product experience can have wide ranging knock-on effects that users have to live with — you can’t simply issue a “correction” for your app and move on.

In 2019 and beyond, it’s likely that we will start to see more senior leadership in news organizations that comes from design, product, and technology backgrounds, to provide the kind of partnership with editorial that will allow for compelling user experiences and media products that can thrive in the years to come. Those that succeed will see their readers as their primary customer base, and not their advertisers.

Alexis Lloyd is the head of design innovation at Automattic. Matt Boggie is CTO at The Skimm.

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