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This is journalism’s do-or-die moment

“Putting Chartbeat and Google Analytics scripts on your site won’t get the job done anymore. In-house data scientists instrumenting the best conversion paths from user to subscriber will become as vital to the success of a newsroom as a metro reporter’s daily file from City Hall.”

I don’t need to tell you that disinformation is more rampant than ever, that digital advertising is a duopoly that continues to choke news organizations to death, that the news industry lags far behind the tech industry in digital competency, that our newsrooms look nothing like the communities we cover to the point of moral failure.

To deny the industry’s continued failures on these fronts is like denying climate change. These things are happening whether you like it or not. In 2019, news leadership has to make a choice. They can choose to take these challenges head on and chart a path to sustainability — or continue the status quo and fail.

The path to enlightenment is through the user

Smart newsrooms will fight their challenges by putting the user at the core of their business models. Rather than chasing scale in the face of declining advertising revenue, they will seek revenue directly from their readers, either through subscriptions or memberships. This sounds simple, but it actually requires radical changes to a newsroom’s internal goals.

With a business model focused on reader revenue, the entire company can set its sights on making the best journalism product possible for the reader. No more concessions in user experience for the sake of advertisements. No more poison-pill contracts with Facebook taking sugar-high money at the detriment of long-term audience development. Instead, these newsrooms will finally make the necessary investments in technology to make a product compelling enough for potential subscribers. Freed from the shackles of advertising, news websites can finally be rid of autoplaying videos, chumboxes, and splash screen ads. Homepages can serve a purpose beyond page-width takeover ads. Reporters can focus on stories that matter to their audiences rather than trolling for outrage clicks.

A user-centric business model means you need to know who your users are. Smart newsrooms will put real effort into creating robust analytics systems and audience research teams. Rather than focusing on vanity metrics like pageviews and time on page, they will focus on discovering the best ways to convert a user from a first-time reader to a loyal subscriber. Putting Chartbeat and Google Analytics scripts on your site won’t get the job done anymore. In-house data scientists instrumenting the best conversion paths from user to subscriber will become as vital to the success of a newsroom as a metro reporter’s daily file from City Hall.

The smartest of smart newsrooms will take one more step in their path to sustainability: They will become a trusted institution in their communities by respecting their users’ time, intelligence, and privacy.

Facebook, Google, Amazon, and all the other digital behemoths became the untrustworthy monsters they are today because of a ruthless focus on technology and data at the expense of respect for their users. Journalism cannot afford to make the same mistake. Newsrooms have an opportunity to create strong digital products that are still trustworthy digital citizens. By using anonymized metrics and refusing to sell user data to third parties, smart newsrooms will get the information they need to make the best product possible without betraying user trust.

Becoming a trusted part of a community is a bigger task than just respecting digital privacy. Newsrooms committed to a reader-revenue strategy will find they want to know more about what their audience wants. User research efforts will extend into editorial operations. Reporters will talk to members and subscribers for story ideas, and the relationship between consumer and journalist will become more of a two-way street.

Why none of this is going to happen

If that all sounds like a pipe dream, that’s because it is. Who are these smart newsrooms, so committed to user-centered design and process? I don’t know. Two years ago, University of Nebraska professor Matt Waite wrote one of these predictions, headlined “The people running the media are the problem.” It’s still true. My real prediction for 2019? Most newsrooms continue the status quo. More layoffs. More closures. More failure.

None of the problems described at the top of this are new. None of the solutions I predict are particularly new either. Yet by and large, news leadership has shown little desire to change its strategy. Digital startups keep chasing venture capital money, expecting to turn a profit on ad revenue. Corporate overlords of legacy newspapers lay off staff and strip the operation for parts. Why would anything change this year? After all, everyone at the top somehow keeps making money.

My hope is the fire burning all around the industry becomes too large to ignore. This is not fine.

Here’s what I do know. I know that we’re in this together as an industry. We have to share our knowledge. That means open-sourcing technology, sharing anonymized analytics when possible, and talking about what works and what doesn’t in the open. Only a few of us will ever get to run our own newsrooms, but if we work towards a more open community, we can build a better base of knowledge to convince our leaders that we need real change for journalism to survive.

Tyler Fisher is a senior news apps developer at Politico.

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