March Memo: Everything Is a Product Now - 3

March Memo: Everything Is a Product Now - 3

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Maxwell Ryan
Mar 17, 2017
The news HUB at the Washington Post in a picture taken by students of the Holton-Arms School
(Image credit: Holton Scribbler)

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For the almost final section of this memo, I want to emphasize the role of "product thinking" and get to the last tough thing on the list that makes a great media company:

  • Revolutionary format/product & delivery - a new concept of how content is delivered and consumed

What was most impressive about my visit to the Washington Post last month was their central command center, which they called the Hub, where staffers continually monitored all digital activity in real time to their content on site and off. The Hub is also responsible for publishing new articles, making all changes to the front page and probably, though I didn't' get into this detail, sending and tracking the paper's emails and social updates. Everything is based on the data they are constantly collecting and feeding back to their editorial teams.

Around the Hub, as well as across the office, are many monitors, some turned vertically that allowed you to clearly read the long scroll of the digital edition. While the many departments scattered around the two floors that the Post editorial now occupies in downtown Washington are largely quiet, the Hub is bustling and the sense that the "paper" is out and circulating among millions of readers is palpable. What the readers are reading or viewing and how they are responding and how seriously the company takes this exchange is a brand new way of life for those who have been at the paper for years.

Nor is the Hub the only one responsible for watching the pot. Every writer is responsible for putting out their articles on their own social media as well as following their own comments. They never did this before. While my own sense of our sites is constrained to the two tabs that I always have open and read throughout the day (a totally private experience), at the Post I had the feeling of a living, breathing group act - visible on the screens throughout the office - that extended all the way from a reporter out in the field to the editors in the office to the Hub and out to the readers, where it then came back through their comments and all the stats that measure their engagement.

Crucial to all of this is the core understanding that a great piece of writing is meaningless if it doesn't travel through this system and find its reader, much like a package arriving on your doorstep.

The Post is a four year old start-up built inside the house of a newspaper founded nearly a hundred and fifty years ago (1877). There are many long time journalists who write stories, cover news and get scoops the old fashioned way, but now they work shoulder to shoulder with a small army of information officers, product people and developers who are pioneering how news will be delivered in our lifetime. Both are learning from the other, and they all seem to be learning from Jeff Bezos, who purchased the paper in 2013.

(Image credit: Fast Company)

My friend, who invited me to visit and set up my day of meetings, told me that if you wanted to boil all the changes that Bezos has introduced since he took over, it would be one word: speed. The most important thing for Bezos is the speed with which the newspaper can deliver its product, which is fitting for someone who founded Amazon. While newspaper executives and journalists used to have an undisputedly influential and powerful place atop of our country's major papers and didn't think too much about how their work reached such a large audience and how it was paid for, the business has completely imploded in the past decade and both have been unequipped to think their way out of the box they built for themselves. Unlike the founding impulses of Nast, Hearst and Luce, they forgot that their long and storied success relied only partially on their writing, the rest on a distribution and advertising system that had once been pioneering and was now a dinosaur.

Bezos' approach avoids any of the intellectual traps of thinking of a written story as any different than a box of toothpicks or a pickup truck - all are products and delivery, in the age of the internet, is the deciding factor.

PRODUCT THINKING

During my visit I was told that Bezos is totally hands off with regard to the writing of the Post, but cares tremendously about the many "products" that they have created and continually work on. In other words, the content is not his passion. How it is packaged, engaged with, sent and received is. Unlike the newspaper barons of the past, he doesn't care a great deal about the viewpoint of the paper or the political scoops that it goes after and which have made it a huge and controversial player in the current political scene. He cares mainly for the modern day digital "presses and trucks" that they are building which will not just make it successful, but will help it avoid death.

Product has to be as much the lifeblood of our company as editorial has been as we step into our own future (and it is already happening). While off the shelf blog technology took us far, that time is over. Product Thinking means how our creative energies become "product" and are consumed by our readers. We need to be as aggressive and as revolutionary as we possibly can towards constantly improving and iterating on the product side which affects the experience and the delivery of all of our content. This will involve all of the following:

  1. Sitewide shape, format and structure - desk to mobile
  2. Seamless community features
  3. Site load time - FAST
  4. Specific content experiences: Recipes, Tours, etc
  5. Archives accessibility
  6. Video integration
  7. Anything that carries our content to our readers in a new way

(For example, the Washington Post has two mobile versions which carry the same news but in different visual formats. They are testing both.)

This is just a starter list. There will be many things we've not thought about, and it will be the Product team's responsibility to lead in this area as we get to know our readers better.

Product Thinking would also touch on how our content configures itself offsite as well as on. Audience Development is devoted to the "distribution" of our content off-site and that alone contains a huge product piece.

In general we need to take full advantage of everything the web has to offer to shape our content in new and better ways for the habits of our readers.

To be continued...

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