Can News Organizations Learn from the Digital Innovators?

28 Sep 2015

Lucy Küng, Visiting Fellow at Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, and Professor of Media Innovation at the University of Oslo, shares the keys to digital news’ success in a recently published book.

STI Experts

'Innovators in Digital News' (I. B. Tauris and Reuters Institute, 2015), by Professor Küng, "provides lucid analysis based on detailed inside looks at five of the world’s most interesting news organizations. Everyone in the news business should read it.” - Tom Standage, Digital and Deputy Editor of The Economist.

What is your book about?

We are now two decades into the internet age. Established media organizations are struggling with technology transitions and fearful for their future. Yet a cadre of news organizations – some new, some old - has emerged who are succeeding with digital news (although success in the current tumultuous digital environment needs to be understood in a qualified sense, especially for legacy news organizations with significant investments in print-related fixed assets). 

So the basic question guiding the research in this book is whether there is also a set of common elements in how these digital news organizations go about their business. How do they operate? How do they innovate? What strategies have they adopted and why? Which structures, skills and attitudes are necessary to make digital journalism succeed? How are they financing their operations? Critically, are there particular shared characteristics that contribute to their above average performance? If so, what are they?

In addition to this core research question, there were puzzling phenomena in the news field I also wanted to investigate:

  • Why are Vice and BuzzFeed considered serious competitors by quality news organizations? Why are these newcomers investing in journalism, and why are pedigreed journalists joining them?
  • Why are established news organizations letting experienced journalists go but recruiting technologists?
  • Why does everyone – including quality news organizations - seem to be embracing native advertising?

Which cases feature in the book?

The book focuses on five digital news providers. Two – the Guardian and the New York Times - are legacy newspaper organizations that are far along the process of transforming themselves into digital news organizations. Two – Quartz and BuzzFeed - are pure play or clean sheet digital news providers. Quartz is one hundred percent news, BuzzFeed is a viral content company that has only moved seriously into news provision in recent years. The last case, Vice, is a different animal again. News is one element of a broad palette of video content, but its investment in the field is growing, and now equals that of some leading legacy players. 

These are clearly not the only organizations succeeding with digital news. There were other potential candidates including Vox, The Economist, The Washington Post, and so on. This final selection reflects an attempt to triage between the challenges of gaining access in time and balancing the sample.

So did you identify common elements underlying these organizations’ success?

To my surprise, I did. When I sifted through the detail of the case studies a set of inter-linked elements emerged which seemed to underpin their success. These need to be viewed systemically: their power lies in their combination, in the virtuous circle that is created when all are present and function together. Since publication I have presented these findings to a many senior figures in the news industry, and gratifyingly, they seem to concur with them.

So what are the 7 Elements integral to success with digital news?

At the core of these are three interrelated elements which are standard practice for high-performing organizations – a singularity of purpose about the role of the organization and the ‘value’ (in management terms) it creates for its users, high caliber leadership from smart individuals who have developed a viable strategic path forward and have credibility with the culture of the organization, and a clear and unequivocal strategy that sets boundaries, allows prioritization, and avoids distractions.

Then come two elements specific to some to the emerging digital news industry and to the nature of competition and consumption within it.

The first is a blending of journalistic, technological, and commercial competencies, involving a deep integration of tech into editorial processes, the presence of digital editorial thinkers, and content creation processes that are response and data driven.

Second comes a ‘pro-digital culture’ that views the digital news arena as an opportunity (albeit a highly competitive field), that is not particularly nostalgic about the old legacy days, and which is open-minded about using the functionalities of digital technology to reinvent quality news.

The final two common elements are not easy to acquire or replicate. The first is an early start. The longer a news organization has been active in the digital field, the more it has learned about how this functions, and the more attuned it is to the pace of the industry and how innovation is best approached.

The final element involves autonomy – the ability to innovate and respond as directly as possible to opportunities and threats in the digital news market. This is directly influenced by ownership arrangements (and the priorities of those stakeholders) and by the financial resources available, both elements that a digital news organization has limited opportunity to influence.

And did you uncover why quality news providers are embracing native advertising?

Native advertising is a priority for leading digital news providers - this was a striking finding from the research for the book. Striking and surprising, since sponsored content is risky. It punctures the Chinese wall between editorial and commercial activities, and if done clumsily can damage credibility with audiences.

The reasons for the trend are straightforward. First, returns from other forms of digital advertising - online display, banners, pop ups, etc. – are insufficient to sustain serious content creation in the long term. The so-called ‘analogue pounds to digital pennies’ phenomenon means that alternative revenue sources need to be found to support digital journalism (and native is just one of the new income sources the companies profiled in this book are pursuing). Further reducing revenues is the fact that audiences don’t like banners and pop-ups and are installing ad-blocking software to them from their screens.

Further, none of these forms work particularly well on mobile platforms, the digital news consumption context of the future. As BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti points out, banners do not work on mobile, but viral ads do, which is one of the reasons BuzzFeed is profitable. And the more consumption shifts to social and mobile, the more BuzzFeed will thrive.

And did why are journalists are being let go while digital technologists are being hired?

Many have been puzzled by the apparent anomaly of cash-strapped legacy newspapers shedding journalists, yet at the same time running adverts for expensive digital specialists. This looks contradictory – but in fact is symptomatic of the fundamental realignment taking place in the relationship between content and technology in news journalism.

New ways of story-telling that are emerging in the digital space, ranging from infographics and interactive features to listicles, quizzes and apps. The era of repurposing from print to the homepage is waning – this was one of the shocking findings from the New York Times’ internal Innovation report. The format protocols developed over centuries for print readers do not work well on mobile devices, and don’t build on the advantages of the new platforms for story-telling.

As an increasing number of readers reach digital news sites through social media, providers of digital news need to ensure that their content is present on those platforms and presented in a way to maximize consumption and sharing. This means they need to ensure they have enough digital editorial thinkers – individuals who combine a mastery of journalism with an understanding of tech. These are the individuals who news organizations are hiring – and they are in short supply and high demand.


The first chapter of the book and Executive Summary can be downloaded here

Purchase the book at Amazon

A podcast of the panel discussion at the launch event at Google UK featuring a panel discussion with James Lamont (Financial Times), Aron Pilhofer (Guardian), Kevin Sutcliffe (Vice) and Lucy Küng is available here:

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