It’s about the content
The product function at publishers filled a void created by the church-and-state construct that, however well-intentioned, led to dysfunctional businesses that did a poor job of serving any constituency. Publishers were roughly divided between editorial and “the business side,” a rickety arrangement made for a different time of static distribution techniques like newspapers and magazines. Organizing the publication of a magazine is no mean feat, but bringing that challenge into digital media made it insurmountable.
The internet obliterated such artificial divides. Product management, pioneered in Silicon Valley, was adopted by news organizations as a way to bridge that divide. It wasn’t editorial, it wasn’t sales, it wasn’t tech, it wasn’t design, it wasn’t marketing. And it sounded… innovative. On the surface, the role is about how to move organizations forward, enable change and lead projects to serve audiences and the business better. In effect, the product group played the role of traffic cop, trying to balance a series of conflicting priorities and loud voices. Talk to the sales group, advertisers need to be satisfied because they pay the bills. The subscriptions department has quotas to hit. The edit group just wants to lose the autoplay video. And the platforms all have algorithms to be fed, while the tech department has pet projects to launch.
Many news products are simply reflections of organizational dysfunction. You can see it in the compromises made to keep one group happy. I used to joke that any homepage with a carousel had a messed-up organization because the carousel was the cop-out to keep several groups happy, or at least only mildly grumpy. Same for overly complicated nav bars and sub-navigation. Same for competing overlays to sign up for a newsletter, get desktop alerts and sign up for a membership program. More complicated organizations produce more complicated products.
In the mid-2010s – is there a name yet for this decade? – there was a rash of news startups that looked to format as a differentiator. This was a time of BuzzFeed envy for many publishers. For Circa, it was the “atomization” of news. The Outline took cues from Snapchat. As “product” became what Max Willens called “the new pivotal role at publishers,” it was very focused on packaging. The New York Times Innovation Report in 2014 was a lamentation of all the ways the Times had fallen behind in creating innovative products. Digitally native publishers during these times bragged about their custom content management systems with absurd names from Greek mythology. Remember the Quartz app that was going to deliver the news through a chat bot?
I’ve been thinking about the role of product in publishing companies since reading Troy Young’s latest newsletter on “good product,” I believe the role of product in primary-engagement media will be far different, more rooted in thinking first about the community and focusing squarely on the content itself. It’s no surprise that the first hire of Justin Smith and Ben Smith’s Semaphore was a head of product.
A lean media organization is only possible with a simpler structure, so the products themselves will tend to be simpler. The reasons most news product suck as an experience is not a lack of tech; it’s because of bad business models with too many masters to serve that often treat the audience as an afterthought if not an outright adversary. Compare the experience on the regular Forbes site to its Forbes Advisor, which makes money off taking cuts from transactions as opposed to jamming in more ad units. You’ll notice that Forbes Advisor is a superior product experience. Business models matter.
In order to have lean media that’s meaningful, most of the investment needs to go into content, not in trying to build software. Stitching together solutions will be the way to go for most organizations. The simple truth is many simple Substack newsletters are superior products to those put out by institutional news organizations. That’s because Substack strips away the frippery of content products and narrows the focus to what the actual product is: the content itself and what the community needs.
That’s going to require being embedded in the community, not studying it like an anthropologist. Data is great, but it’s often used as an excuse not to have a point of view. Troy quoted a “product person” who summed up the problem well:
“Everyone is trading in numbers and not ideas because it's the common language. There is no difference between art and design. Just a different intention. A great product designer understands the value of their intuition. He or she needs business acumen. And is curious enough about technology to have an opinion about how things are built. Or what can be built. It’s feeling matched with the skill to realize it. Like all creative works. And in this case it’s deployed technically. You can’t make a marble statue without understanding marble.”
What I’ve found is that intuition is often missing, usually due to a lack of experience in making the product. One of the unique things about being a publisher is you recreate your product every week or even every day because what you publish is your product. I’d always say that even if we didn’t do a great job that day, we had another shot tomorrow. I believe we’ll see more publishers led by people with deep experience in personally creating content. Otherwise, you get lots of growth hacks and shortcuts because you sit in meetings where the answer to the challenge is to improve the content, but the people in charge can’t do that. I suppose it’s possible to have that intuition without ever doing it, but I have to think that’s rare. You only understand the dynamics of content products by making them yourself and understanding the value created in the community.
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Referral programs are a challenge for me to understand. Do normal people share newsletters in the hopes of getting a mug with a newsletter logo? I don’t think that’s quite the best way to align incentives and enable community involvement.
The office needs to be reformed because it was always a very inefficient and blunt tool. It’s good for some things but not others. Meeting people in person is important, without a doubt, as a collaboration tool and a way to build relationships that are critical for trust. But centering work on the office in many professions is just a way to reward the middling administrative and “strategic” work that’s not actually, well, work.
Jason Kilar’s “exit interview” with the WSJ after two eventful years leading WarnerMedia has an interesting tidbit: WarnerMedia’s top video game for the year generated more revenue than its top movie.
Substack is expanding further into podcasts. Podcasts have grown nicely as an ad-supported medium, but they’ve never quite taken off with subscriptions. Substack is hoping to change that – and showing how its ambitions are far greater than “just email newsletters.”
You know we’re in a weird place when a radio company is doing an “NFT podcast network.” The Be Smart from Axios had the opposite effect on me: The goal for “iHeartMedia is to create a new layer of content leveraging the IP across several different NFTs under one umbrella.” I have no idea what this is, and I feel like I’d need a full dose to understand.
That’s all for this week. I recorded a great conversation yesterday with Andrey Boboykin, executive director of Ukrayinska Pravda. The podcast is coming on Monday. In the meantime, let me know your thoughts on today’s topic – and whether the lure of a TRB hat would encourage you to share this with colleagues. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.