One secret to the success of Quartz, BuzzFeed and Gawker: They look at news as a service

On a recent trip to New York, I stopped in to see a series of new and not-so-new media entities, including Quartz (the business-focused site that is part of Atlantic Media) Gawker, BuzzFeed and Tumblr. And one thing that struck me about each of them — apart from the fact that they are all expanding rapidly — is that they are increasingly thinking about what they do as providing a service, not just as a business that generates content and then delivers it to people.

That way of describing it may sound jargony or deliberately obtuse, but the distinction is an important one — and it’s one that many traditional media outlets such as the New York Times have largely failed to recognize or have been slow to adapt to. And that failure could be their undoing.

Many media companies and publishers do occasional customer surveys or focus groups. But these tend to be primarily marketing exercises, and ultimately just reinforce existing design and content decisions that have already been made by editors. For the most part, such organizations see their job as coming up with great ideas and producing great content — a process that usually takes place with zero input from readers — and then delivering that content on a variety of platforms. In effect, a one-way relationship.

Even the NYT’s innovation report, as valuable as it is, makes it clear that as far as the newspaper is concerned, the web and social media tools are useful primarily because they are new ways of distributing and promoting all that great content its journalists produce, not because they change anything about the journalist-reader dynamic or allow journalism to occur in new ways.

New York Times innovation report

It’s all about what the customer wants

Thinking about news or journalism as a service or product, however — especially a digital one — changes the way you think about your job. If you are Zach Seward, who has taken on the role of product director at Quartz, or you are in charge of the Kinja platform at Gawker, or you are building a news app at BuzzFeed like Noah Chestnut is, you are thinking about how to understand what it is that readers want from you, and how to provide it to them in the best way possible.

In order to do that properly, you have to experiment, and iterate rapidly, and most of all use data to watch what your users (or readers, or customers, whatever you choose to call them) are doing with your product.

Take Snow Fall as a cautionary example — the wonderfully designed, wildly popular multimedia project the New York Times released in 2012 about the aftermath of an avalanche. It was obvious that dozens of designers and developers and writers and editors had spent thousands of hours on the article, and it showed. It was beautiful. But according to comments made recently by former NYT digital strategist Aron Pilhofer — now director of digital at The Guardian — despite the massive investment of resources, the newspaper had no analytics attached to the project (Pilhofer later clarified that the paper tracked pageviews and unique visitors, like it does for all its pages, but had no other analytics apart from that) .

In other words, this was a great piece of content that the NYT dreamed up and then pushed out the door, assuming — as it and so many other traditional media outlets always do — that it would somehow be guaranteed an audience. But as the paper’s own innovation report noted, nothing is guaranteed an audience any more. The balance of power between publisher and reader has been fundamentally altered.

Snowfall cover image

Cultural change is never easy

Getting a media company that thinks of itself primarily as a content generator to act like a product company isn’t easy, as Nick Denton noted in a recent discussion with me about the struggles he and Gawker have had with Kinja, the company’s attempt to build a platform that takes advantage of the levelling of the playing field between author and reader. Journalists and media executives aren’t used to thinking about agile development or rapid iteration, and other such concepts.

But mostly, they aren’t used to thinking about putting the reader (or the customer) first. Journalists often seem to believe that  their job is to tell the reader what they think is important or relevant, rather than thinking of journalism as a service that they are providing, one in which the reader’s needs or desires are paramount, rather than the journalistic instincts of the author. Approaching news as a service or — even worse — as a product is seen as somehow beneath them.

How do you make that kind of cultural change within a traditional media organization? I don’t really know, but appointing half a dozen longtime newspaper insiders to senior jobs, as the NYT’s new executive editor recently did, doesn’t seem like a great start to me, to be brutally honest.

There are some hints of evolution even at the Times: apps like NYT Now are an attempt to do things somewhat differently, and even incremental efforts like putting links to other websites on the front page — a top-secret project that no doubt took months to plan and approve — are worthwhile steps, tiny as they may be. Cultures don’t change overnight. But the clock is ticking, and more flexible players like Quartz and BuzzFeed have a head start.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Surkov Dmitri