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2020
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7

Saying no to more good ideas

“I’ve yet to meet a team in a news organization that suffers from a shortage of good ideas. But I have met teams that have clogged up their roadmaps with lots of good ideas that, cumulatively, have little impact.”

The last few years saw a much-needed focus on monetization and, as a result, the industry has seen several changes — particularly a shift away from chasing top-line user metrics and clicks and toward engagement and revenue, especially subscriptions and membership. Alongside this trend, many publishers have built great technology and product teams made of people drawn to their compelling missions.

But now’s the time for publishers to change tactics. Although driving revenue was critical, there has been only limited innovation around products, formats, and new ways of storytelling — especially when compared to other sectors such as finance and health which are seeing radical transformations.

Instead, many teams within news organizations have become obsessed with process and being agile — making methodology rather than outcomes their north star. But agile is not a strategy — it is a capability: a very valuable one with immediate operational benefits, but one that cannot permanently affect a publisher’s competitive position unless there’s a strategy behind it that helps the team take the right decisions at the right time.

Or else teams have got caught up in constant cycles of optimization (often around subscriber flows), which offers little more than diminishing returns. Organizations are not considering the opportunity costs of their work: Just because an initiative may improve a metric or the experience of a user doesn’t automatically mean it should be done. A good idea is not the same as a great opportunity.

I’ve yet to meet a team in a news organization that suffers from a shortage of good ideas. But I have met teams that have clogged up their roadmaps with lots of good ideas that, cumulatively, have little impact. Saying yes to every good idea, however small, means you’re not making time for the great opportunities.

But 2020 should be the year when newsrooms go back to basics and, rather than just focusing on process and optimization, instead prioritize industry-changing product innovation.

The first step of this will see publishers return to the key question: “How does your product grow?” It’s one of the most important questions to be able to answer. Growth is necessary for the very existence of most products and services, and it serves as evidence that you have a compelling proposition — especially if growth is driven by both new and loyal returning readers. Unfortunately, news organizations have tried very hard to distance themselves from growth as an objective over the past three years due to accusations of vanity metrics and clickbait. But growth is necessary for future success.

The best product strategies are about being different. It means deliberately choosing a path to deliver a hard-to-copy mix of value in your market. But much of today’s journalism — in terms of both content and format — feels very similar. Do publishers really understand how they deliver value? Many may say yes — but when did they last ask their readers, potential readers, or (perhaps even more critically) their lapsed readers?

As we enter 2020, publishers will begin to recognize that they need new need strategies, new propositions, and a deep understanding of how they add value for their different audiences in order to build the next phase of sustainable growth. This will require not just radical new strategic thinking, but also developing new levels of understanding of users and collaborative ways of working across the entire organization.

Tanya Cordrey is a product and technology consultant and former chief digital officer of Guardian News & Media.

The last few years saw a much-needed focus on monetization and, as a result, the industry has seen several changes — particularly a shift away from chasing top-line user metrics and clicks and toward engagement and revenue, especially subscriptions and membership. Alongside this trend, many publishers have built great technology and product teams made of people drawn to their compelling missions.

But now’s the time for publishers to change tactics. Although driving revenue was critical, there has been only limited innovation around products, formats, and new ways of storytelling — especially when compared to other sectors such as finance and health which are seeing radical transformations.

Instead, many teams within news organizations have become obsessed with process and being agile — making methodology rather than outcomes their north star. But agile is not a strategy — it is a capability: a very valuable one with immediate operational benefits, but one that cannot permanently affect a publisher’s competitive position unless there’s a strategy behind it that helps the team take the right decisions at the right time.

Or else teams have got caught up in constant cycles of optimization (often around subscriber flows), which offers little more than diminishing returns. Organizations are not considering the opportunity costs of their work: Just because an initiative may improve a metric or the experience of a user doesn’t automatically mean it should be done. A good idea is not the same as a great opportunity.

I’ve yet to meet a team in a news organization that suffers from a shortage of good ideas. But I have met teams that have clogged up their roadmaps with lots of good ideas that, cumulatively, have little impact. Saying yes to every good idea, however small, means you’re not making time for the great opportunities.

But 2020 should be the year when newsrooms go back to basics and, rather than just focusing on process and optimization, instead prioritize industry-changing product innovation.

The first step of this will see publishers return to the key question: “How does your product grow?” It’s one of the most important questions to be able to answer. Growth is necessary for the very existence of most products and services, and it serves as evidence that you have a compelling proposition — especially if growth is driven by both new and loyal returning readers. Unfortunately, news organizations have tried very hard to distance themselves from growth as an objective over the past three years due to accusations of vanity metrics and clickbait. But growth is necessary for future success.

The best product strategies are about being different. It means deliberately choosing a path to deliver a hard-to-copy mix of value in your market. But much of today’s journalism — in terms of both content and format — feels very similar. Do publishers really understand how they deliver value? Many may say yes — but when did they last ask their readers, potential readers, or (perhaps even more critically) their lapsed readers?

As we enter 2020, publishers will begin to recognize that they need new need strategies, new propositions, and a deep understanding of how they add value for their different audiences in order to build the next phase of sustainable growth. This will require not just radical new strategic thinking, but also developing new levels of understanding of users and collaborative ways of working across the entire organization.

Tanya Cordrey is a product and technology consultant and former chief digital officer of Guardian News & Media.

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