COVID-19 and the rise of journalistic product innovation

The past year, while difficult, brought about great product innovation in the journalism industry. User-centred product development, which had taken root in 2019, became the focus for big and small news organisations globally in 2020.

by Neha Gupta | January 13, 2021

This case study is also featured in WAN-IFRA’s recent report on digital subscription marketing (free for WAN-IFRA Members). Click here to read the report.

Anita Zielina, Director of Innovation and Leadership, Craig Newmark J-School/CUNY, USA, works at the intersection of media and technology leadership and is an advocate for culture change being closely related to strategy change. She joined WAN-IFRA’s recent Digital Media Europe conference to talk about how tough times can be transformative. 

COVID-19 hit the world in March 2020 and had a ripple effect internationally, forcing several media organisations to come to a reckoning not limited to the future business models, but their purpose of existing in the news space and how they could change to become more equitable and sustainable. 

Product thinking – an asset during a crisis

What is product? That this field is still emerging in the media industry is exemplified by the fact that there is no universal definition of product. 

Zielina describes it this way: “Product is a function at the intersection of editorial, tech and business, that actively ensures all products and services a media organisation creates, addresses user needs, provides an excellent user experience and advances the overarching business strategy.” 

Capitalising on a niche

The immediate impact we saw from the COVID-19 crisis was an emergence or resurfacing of news products to fulfill specific user needs.

  • CNN’s ‘Coronavirus: Fact vs Fiction,’ podcast with the brand’s Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta where he makes sense of the headlines and talks to experts.
  • Quartz’s ‘Need To Know: Coronavirus,’ a newsletter that takes a hard look at the pandemic’s effects on the global economy. 
  • Vox’s ‘Today, Explained to Kids,’ a podcast aimed at satiating the news curiosity of children. 

Several news outlets, whose primary revenue source is events, had to rethink and reorganise them online to counter the economic fallout and survive financially. The Texas Tribune is one such company that translated its annual celebration of ideas featuring policy, politics, art, and media into a digital affair, in September last year – a model many news organisations are trying to build, globally. 

Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of the largest daily newspapers in Germany, brought “München bringt’s” to its readers – a product that helped put hyperlocal shops and restaurants crippled by the pandemic, back on the map and in the minds of customers. 

“In many parts of the world, delivery and takeout is not as big as it is in the US, so hyperlocal communities are crucial,” said Zielina. “When you are stuck at home 24×7, it becomes more important what’s immediately surrounding you. So, we saw an emergence of news products. Many news organisations used this product development effort to become more holistic in how they approach user-centric product development and design.”

Traditional newsroom function vs new product culture

The transition for a traditional newsroom to the new product culture has not been smooth, considering the editorial, business and technology teams work in silos. Traditionally, journalists have worked as lone wolves, while product culture is built on inter-team collaboration. 

“The general spirit of designing digital products is a collaborative one. We see successful product development when there is a diverse team with a variety of skill sets in the product team,” Zielina said.

Skills and talent is one of the crucial points of this transformation. She said that several conversations she has had with news companies point to a big brain drain away from digital folks who know how to think about product, data, UX, UI, since they possess the ability to work across industries. 

Zielina’s tip for media organisations in this regard is to better attract and retain this talent by becoming flexible and meaningful places of work. “Even The New York Times and The Washington Post have a hard time finding product-related talent,” she said.

How is product connected to subscriptions?

News organisations must understand how to truly serve the people who they want to pay for their products through memberships, subscriptions, event tickets, etc.

According to Zielina, higher empathy and user centricity ultimately allows one to better fulfill the audience’s needs and play a bigger role in their lives, which is connected to a higher willingness to pay for the product.

“Many corona products are successful because they are built explicitly following a certain user need – a parent who has a hard time explaining to their kids what a pandemic is, or the inhabitants of Munich trying to understand which of the little shops around them would deliver lunch,” Zielina said.

Neha Gupta

Multimedia Journalist

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