In this article I'm going to be talking about product in news and specifically our company's recent journey to a product-centric mindset.
I'm going to be covering why the local news industry has been paradoxically and self destructively slow to focus on digital product, why that's starting to change, and the Dallas Morning News's imperfect but burgeoning progress in the last couple of years as we work to transform our business, seeing that as a bit of a microcosm of what you see across the industry today.
I'm hoping to frame this not just in the context of media, but with some thoughts that may be helpful for any industry that is product deficient and attempting to transform. I'm the self-proclaimed Chief Product Officer at the Dallas Morning News - more on that later, and a board member at the local media consortium, which gives me a bit of an insider view on what's happening across our industry as a whole.
You'll notice the matters theme in the slides, which ties to a marketing initiative that we launched in tandem with our product relaunch, so I thought it was appropriate to use it here.
A little bit of my journey to the current role. I've always worked for a media company in diverse roles from editorial to sales to circulation to operations and now product, and I went digital as soon as that was the thing.
I started out in high school as the editor of my paper, doing manual paste-up with glue. Our big achievement was getting profitable enough to buy an original fishbowl Mac and printer so we wouldn't have to send copy out to typesetting anymore.
I then ran the student publishing operation in college. In my early career, I single-handedly built the first city magazine website in the US.
I did a stint in B2B publishing with a high cost, high-value subscription business.
In the early 2000s, I launched a pure-play local news site that grew to be one of the biggest startups in the space by traffic volume, and I sold that and then later stayed with it for a while. After that, I did a content marketing agency as a joint venture with the Dallas Morning News, and when we eventually rolled that up into a bigger agency group, I took the opportunity to hop back into the news business properly.
When you think of digital products that have a great user experience, I can almost guarantee that the news business doesn't cross your mind.
We have been a haven of terrible ad behaviors, broken search, counterintuitive navigation, and a kitchen sink mentality that gets in the way of doing what you actually want to do, which is to find out what's happening around you.
Sensibly we aren't idiots. So why did this happen? Here's the phenomena I've observed.
The biggest is the legacy structure of our business. From early handbills right up to the first digital services, product was pretty simple. You put words and pictures in ink on some paper and delivered it to people's homes. In doing that, for the better part of the last century, we maintained strict divisions to maintain objectivity or at least the appearance thereof, and that's a good thing.
But that meant that the news gatherers, the ad sellers, and the subscription sellers all lived in separate silos. If they communicated at all, it was probably to fight for turf. So then comes the internet, and not only was there not a common ground for these three parties to meet on the user experience, the print business, now a monopoly in most markets was so fat and happy that this new platform, the interwebs, seemed a minor annoyance at best.
The original sin
So without much fanfare or thought, the newspaper got replicated online and put out for free. Thus training consumers to expect free digital news and leaving advertising as the only vehicle to monetize the channel. This is what many of us in the industry called 'the original sin', the misstep that made it so much harder to sell subscriptions once we wised up, and once we got disintermediated in the ad market by Facebook, Google, and other social advertising.
Even though we've evolved over the last 20 years, in many organizations, digital is still 'the other thing'. Even though print is declining fast, more of the revenue is still there and it's only in the last few years that most organizations have made digital-first more than a half-hearted slogan.
Ownership of product
Part of the problem is that none of these children of the silos - the editor, the marketer, the seller - are in a position to be the owner of the product, the leader. Each has their own reasonable goals that don't necessarily overlap.
Worsening this is a technological Tower of Babel. Dozens of CMS's, not even counting news organizations, own proprietary Frankenstein's. Not even counting the need to coordinate with ancient print systems, hundreds of pieces of ad tech, myriad paywall, and CRM mechanisms.
These have all made it harder for the industry to learn transferable lessons, you might be able to become an expert in Dallasnews.com, but it's hard to impossible to be an expert or even conversant, and knowledge share across the industry. At least that's been the state of things.
The result? Dysfunction in news sites
That's the setup for where we found ourselves. This is what we wind up with.
This cartoon by Brad Colbow nails the current state of dysfunction in news sites. Look at the date, we've known this was a mess since 2011. Yet, we're still reticent to link to other sites. We shove print stuff online and hope you don't mind. Videos autoplay, share buttons clutter, most of the page isn't content. We play cat and mouse with ad blockers. We aren't fully mobile responsive. And then we ask you to pay for it.
Based on my observations and checking in with my friends, Aron Pilhofer and Damon Kiesow both of whom are leading the product-focused charge from universities and engaging with current business practitioners, I pieced together a rough history of product-led thought in news.
Product history matters
Before the last decade, most of the investment was at the big nationals, like The Times, The Post, and The Wall Street Journal. Locals started talking products in the early 2000s but it largely amounted to changing the job title or adding work to editors or marketers, one or the other.
Most companies picked one and you see the impact good and ill of both sides in that approach. About five years ago, the Nationals really started getting serious about product, and the locals followed slowly.
Jeff Bezos's Washington Post started referring to itself as a tech company. Smaller publishers with smaller budgets and less resources, well, they did less. But silos still kept there from being a unified product.
For instance, some would form a real product team for the news site, but then they'd have the paywall built in a separate silo by marketing with no synchronization at all. Yet in the last few years, we're starting to see some change.
Why is that? Traditionally, newspaper revenue has been 80% advertising and 20% subscriptions. Those rev ratios have been gradually changing, partly because of the growth of the subscription business. But more, sadly, because of the decline in advertising.
For many of us, these lines finally crossed around 2018. We believe that ultimately, we'll see a total inversion of that 80/20.
Obviously, this brings a change in focus, where before our livelihood depended on shouting advertiser messages at an audience, now the relationship with the customer is supreme. It doesn't mean that advertising doesn't matter. 20% is still a critical revenue channel for any business. But the 80% is where our attention goes.
Our competitors then
Where before there were newspaper wars and competitors within cities, niche publishers, local TV, magazines, alternative media to focus on, their decreasingly our competition, if we're smart we collaborate with them.
Our competitors now
Now, in the subscriber first world, we're competing with Netflix, exercise companies, video games, dating apps, music, and national publishers. If we're honest, we come up pretty short. That's not a swipe at our journalism but does anybody engage with even the best journalism on a monthly basis as hard as they play Fortnight? Seek a mate? Binge-watch TV? Have you ever heard of anybody binge-reading local news?
If we want to charge what Netflix does, we have to figure out a way to make that so - and most of us charge more. This is not idle speculation on my part, research shows that the average household will only tolerate five paid subscriptions, all in, not just news.
That includes cable, all the broadcast, music, video gaming, and the average price they're willing to pay is $10 a month, where we charge a premium in our industry of about 12 dollars and 41 cents. Only 16% of the population is even willing to pay for one news service and that's up dramatically from the so-called 'Trump bump' of the last few years, which has largely benefited the national media, but believe me has done little good for local news orgs, particularly those in a deep blue city that is an island in a county and region of bright red.
70% of that 16% will only entertain one news subscription, put bluntly, that means that the New York Times wins and the Dallas Morning News loses, and that's on top of HBO Max eating out one of the five total positions already available.
Based on where we are today, we're practically the last choice for your only subscription. At the Dallas Morning News, we don't believe that is tenable. We're the oldest continuously operating company in Texas and we intend to make our community stronger and more prosperous for another 135 years at least.
So a couple of years ago, we got religion and decided to transform in a lot of ways across our entire business. But this is the story of how we started our internal product revolution.
Our ten-month journey to product
It's a misstatement to say that we got there in 10 months. But we went from zero to above average in that time, and built a platform, hopefully, to become more. That's the journey I'm hoping might be of some use to you.
Where we were
As a small single title publisher, we owned our own tech, we had thought we would build a platform that we could license to other publishers, but were only able to invoice a tiny, tiny fraction of what pure SaaS players could. Even then we were counting on an outside agency to lead the product charge.
We only had one developer in the house who could troubleshoot and deploy code. He was much more skilled than that but that was his role. No one owned the product, so everybody threw their own pieces in across advertising, marketing, and editorial.
Our sales team had literally given up on selling ads on our own site because they could offer much better targeting and value in their minds by reselling Google and Facebook. To go back, this is not a state that our business is used to over the large scheme of things.
As we started our process we did a look back at 1999, which was the last year that we had really great numbers from, and Google was an infant, Amazon only sold books, there were no smartphones, no social media.
At the time, we were able to cover everything that happened in the area. We were the paper of record, we had eight bureaus across the state and even the world so our business had changed dramatically, and we had to find a way to catch up without necessarily going back to the paper of record mentality.
Something had to be done.
Like any good product team, we started with research. We did the largest quant study we'd ever done in our company's history, focusing on what would move the lever on payment versus just what was consumed.
We studied our print readers, we studied our digital readers, we studied people who didn't read us, we studied subscribers all across the spectrum. Very critically, we layered in path to conversion data, showing what content was making people subscribe. It was critical because it routed out false negatives and false positives in our research.
For instance, in research people tell us they're interested in national news, I don't think we've ever converted a subscription though off of a national news story that wasn't reported locally from our local news site. On the flip side, no one told us that they were clamoring for commercial real estate information, but our path to conversion data shows that with a small group of people, it's so paramount that it's our top subscription driver.
Respond to the data
Even before we started changing our product, it enabled our newsroom to start responding to the data and value content that converted subscriptions. Our business intelligence team, which I also lead, started finding correlations between content consumption patterns.
We learned that for instance, changing sections - if you leave sports and go read a news story, or you start in dining and you move to entertainment - was a huge indicator of willingness to subscribe. That's one of the many types of research that we layered into our model.
Net promoter study
We also did a net promoter study and I want to stress that the numbers I have here come from customer guru, they may not match the company's actual internal scores. But this is the closest to public we have for a lot of companies.
What we found was there was an amazing delta between our print and digital customers.
In print, we had a higher net promoter score than what we'd seen published for the New York Times. But in digital, we were bottom dwellers with the same content and it was getting worse - our brand lovers were in decline.
That led us to a product revolution.
Road to a product revolution
This was our roadmap.
I'm not going to claim that this is right, I certainly don't endorse it for everyone, but based on our set of conditions, it's what made sense.
First, I went to our publisher with a plan, and this is not to make me sound smart, I make mistakes aplenty, but the point here was that I was already a C-level leader in our organization.
Creating a new product function with me at the helm and changing my title from Division President to Chief Product Officer was a message to the organization that we were serious about this and that we were serious about busting the silos.
On top of that whatever existing goodwill my team had in the organization was able to carry over to help us in our mission.
Then we took a step back and we got broad input from across the organization. We've all seen the sticky notes and the dots, but we really made a meal of it. I mean, everybody got a say, everything was considered, and that's really key because of the next somewhat controversial step in our roadmap.
We suspended democracy. We agreed across the board that from that point until launch day, which was approximately seven months, the product team had the only vote. Until September 1st if you had to change, a suggestion, a new requirement, you were told to sit on it until September 2nd.
That may sound harsh, but what it did was enable us to take a plan and move quickly without scope creep, and without total focus. It also meant that the team building the new site wasn't responsible for maintaining the old one, so they could 100% drive towards the goal.
I don't endorse this as a way to do business in general, in fact, we overturned it the second we got to launch, but I do endorse this as the only way I know to truncate your launch time when the job is to get from deficient to above average at lightspeed.
Most importantly, we spun up a great team fast. We brought in an experienced product lead who vibed well with the org, and then we backed her up with credible folks from inside the organization. Our one developer became an amazing lead.
We took a trusted and popular newsroom employee, sent him to scrum master training, and made him our ambassador. Then we built out a development team of early career, but not entry-level devs and designers, most importantly, all of whom had a passion for news.
We've been told by prior regimes in our organization that we couldn't find devs who would find our work interesting. Instead, we found devs who found our work meaningful. We quickly found ourselves pushing product and iterating.
Looking at this comparison between us and some unnamed peers in the industry, going toe to toe in terms of the amount of work that we were able to get done, versus more highly resourced companies.
Product fever hit
The larger organization got product fever. When our agency group separately needed to do a retooling they adapted an agile framework from watching us. The Content Trap, a product-centric book that every media person should read found its way onto almost every desk in the building, and ad hoc bookclubs self-formed throughout the organization.
It was clear that internally at least we had product fever.
With the organization on board, we brought in partners to carry the pieces that we couldn't or shouldn't. Instead of pushing forward with our own back end technology, we went to the Washington Post's Arc and now use it as our CMS, our add enabler, and soon our pay meter.
Where before we handled the plumbing and counted on others for interface and vision, we flipped the model. Now, we were doing the front end, we were doing the innovation, and we let Arc handle all of the back end for us.
We work with Alley, a forward-thinking design firm in the industry, who led us through the dots and stickies and got us to our new design. And then we partnered with our friends at the Philadelphia Inquirer, who had a similar tech stack to share tech like reskinning their apps for us, sharing some of our tools with them, and to make sure that neither of us invested our resources in solving the same problems.
This allowed us to innovate on meaningful features. Instead of worrying about the plumbing we built Localgraf, a Knowledge Graph product behind our new site. It's a collection of people, places, organizations, and events and that's very broad.
A person can be the mayor, a person can be the principal of a school, a person can be a football player, a chef - people, places, organizations, events. This allowed us to put info cards into stories to show even more information and draw people in deeper. It created an easy way for us to build local guides. It allowed us to pivot amazingly quickly.
So for instance, when Coronavirus hit we with a minimal amount of development, were able to create a database of restaurants open for takeout in our market. It increases stickiness and subscriptions and really makes all of our products more interactive and evergreen.
I want to show you some of these, not because you need to see all of our features, but hopefully as an example of how this has allowed us to innovate.
What you see here is a navigation to a story on our site.
Now as we're reading the story, we have a card with information about the county judge. That leads us to a page in Localgraf about him, including some basic information, and we're continuing to augment that data, and then all of the recent and top stories that we've written on that person.
It's allowed us to create something that we're just releasing this week, with some help from a grant from the Google News initiative, we're launching a comprehensive school guide with data on every one of a couple of thousand schools in a seven-county area.
To go back to the whole concept of people, places, organizations, and events, this school is a place, it's part of an organization, a school district, and it has organizations affiliated with it like a football team. It has people affiliated with it like a principal. And this is the basic place page.
Now every time we write about or mention the school on the site, there are breadcrumbs leading people back deeper into this data.
It's allowed us to build a platform to track high school sports, we actually do live play by play on football games on Friday nights - because Texas.
Putting that into Localgraf has enabled us to make that a stickier feature on our site. It's also allowed us to create ad product.
In this instance, on the right of the image, our food hub is sponsored by a local grocer. Local Rep is driving the events carousel at the top and because they've been flagged as the sponsor, their event shows up first in the scroll every time and on every page related to food.
What this does, it's allowed us to iterate really quickly and create new features. Another one that we've done is we've started doing deeper suburban coverage, and creating newsletters and individual pages for each individual town around us.
Again, we're able to bring in local events, we're able to bring in local political data, and it all syncs up with the stories about that community. It's allowed us to create a model that we call the Stage-Gate Model, where we're constantly now trying to launch new products, whether they're in verticals, MGOs, and we start out with just local graph data.
If we get a little traction there, then we start putting some news resource behind it. If we get more traction, then maybe we hire additional staff behind it. Ultimately, if it gets to the peak of success, it becomes its own online community. We haven't gone to that stage-gate yet but that's the model that our product development has allowed us to create and follow.
We've got a long way to go but I think we can at least look back on our initial relaunch, and already we see some momentum.
It's early days, it's six months in, our traffic is up dramatically, our net promoter score on digital is up, our site speed is up, which is maybe as much a commentary on the slow speed of our old site.
Where we used to crash anytime we had a traffic spike, with the help of our friends at the Washington Post and Arc, we had zero crashes during the spikes in traffic during the Coronavirus crisis.
Revenue is up
Remember how our sales reps had given up on selling our own website? Our direct digital ad revenue is now up 78%, newsroom satisfaction with our tools is up 71%, and we overall now are in a position where we feel like we have the platform to begin to be the product that can compete in this marketplace.
It's not just us, there's a lot of progress across the industry - news orgs are doubling down on product and there's now organization and information sharing, some of it through conferences, some of it from impromptu meetings on Zoom and in dedicated Slack channels where we collaborate across our companies, both on the day to day and in the case shown here on the Coronavirus crisis.
We're often convened by our friends at Temple University and News Catalyst, the University of Missouri, City University of New York, the local media consortium where I serve on the board, the local media association, and others, we're working together.
That shows collaborative responses to a crisis - we built out a widget in conjunction with a volunteer platform called BOMO and wound up sharing it with hundreds of news orgs around the country, in a way that we were all able to implement it within a few days of the launch of the platform.
Dallas Morning News: serious about product
We're getting serious about product, we even benchmark against each other. This is a leaderboard that we use, and we measure speed.
We all know that site load is paramount, and we're measuring all the publications against each other. Through the LMC we're even starting to create new products that go across companies and organizations.
One example is The Matchup which is a project I'm leading to leverage sports content for many local news orgs, and the design workshop we held in Dallas in the early days featured product leaders from over a dozen media companies and organizations collaborating, just start building product.
All of this is so important to us at the Dallas Morning News, we see it as critical to our survival and even a future thriving of local news and information in our city and all over the world. You may not be a media company and your organization will have its own reason why.
What is universal though is that product is increasingly central to everything we do. A product-led organization is at its best future proof and disaster-proof.
What I hope I've done today is spark some thoughts on how to jumpstart if you feel behind, finding some quick routes towards an evolution, or even a revolution.
Thanks for reading.