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

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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

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

  1. As the article stated, many traditional outlets are viewing Twitter purely as a means to promote their content. What they seem to be overlooking is that Twitter is where stories often originate and develop (Ferguson, ISIS, ALS Ice Bucket Challenge etc). Paying attention to ‘social’ isn’t about giving people what they want (more cat videos), it’s about discovering important events in real-time.

    • Veasey Conway

      Ferguson and ISIS didn’t originate on Twitter, and they developed on Twitter AND in real life. If you followed Ferguson on Twitter (like I did) and ignored the professional journalists on the ground doing original reporting, your perspective of the event would be severely limited. Both events (if you want to call them that) demanded — and received — professional reporting mixed with social media accounts.

  2. Hampton K. Stephens

    The problem for Gawker, Buzzfeed and Quartz is that their business models are not aligned with the conception that you say they want to have of themselves. The best way to ensure that an organization serves the reader, and thus thinks of itself as a “service,” is to align the economic interests of the organization with its readers’ needs. But Gawker, Buzzfeed and Quartz all make the vast majority of their money through advertising, so the real audience they are serving is the audience of sponsors. In the long run, then, no matter how much cultural indoctrination they do to the end of prioritizing their readers’ needs, the organization’s economic interests will militate against that culture. Thus I predict that the New York Times – which now gets a very large and growing chunk of its revenue from reader subscriptions – has a better shot in the long run of having a true reader-oriented “service” culture than any of these other three organizations.

  3. As someone who actually reads articles from both sides of this comparison, I can definitely agree that companies like Quartz and The Verge are doing a much better job of creating quality, curated content than the “old guard.”

    If what your readers want is tabloid articles and cat videos, you’re angling your publication towards a poor audience that already is heavily saturated with content on the internet. But quality and original news is something that sites like Quartz generally excel at above papers that tend to report the same stories (or worse, fill space with AP content.)

    • Veasey Conway

      Good points. I agree with a lot of what you’ve said. Something to grapple with: if papers are knocked for using AP content, what does it mean that Gawker and Quartz uses the AP for 99% of their featured photos?

      Also, I’ll admit that I’m not a daily reader of Quartz (only occasional), but I kind of saw their individual stories as little different than good Wall Street Journal articles or a high-quality NYT blog. (Their design and ‘obsessions’ are unique and exciting, though.) From what I’ve seen of Quartz, it stands in a hilariously small group of online news outlets that produce regular original journalism. Most of these publishers mentioned concern themselves with ‘takes’ over anything else.

  4. Krim Delko

    News as a service has been around for long time, it was called porn, tabloid and sports. Iterating around what “readers want” will get you there unless you inject something more sensible like the art of writing a good story.

    • Veasey Conway

      Yeah, that’s my fear as well. Obviously there’s room for improvement in the newsroom “I know what’s best” mentality. But Matthew Ingram doesn’t really get into the idea of “quality.” Yes, Buzzfeed is devoting resources to journalism and news apps. But aren’t the vast majority of its warm bodies still devoted to GIF-sticles? Doesn’t that matter? (Granted, the sheer number of cat GIF-sticles probably subsidize its comparatively minimal original journalism pieces.) How is Buzzfeed’s ‘cats AND real political reporting’ strategy different than traditional news corporations that own both respected journalism outlets AND People magazine?

      Matthew Ingram treats this issue as a no-brainer, one where change is stubbornly avoided by an old guard. I think framing this topic like that makes sense on paper (no pun intended): It’s an argued thesis that selectively includes some aspects and excludes other aspects for the sake of a concise and tidy argument. It makes for a good blog post, but glosses over what’s at stake in favor of a wildly general and idealized notion of the future of news.

      • Buzzfeed aside (because I do agree that their journalistic quality is sub-par on the whole,) there is a number of digital-only journalistic organizations that produce quality articles that are also more relevant to their readers than the former industry leaders.

        The point that Matthew Ingram is trying to make is that these former leaders are going to have to pay better attention to their markets like the new leaders if they want to succeed in the medium that business has moved to. While yes, there is no simple solution for the old leaders, he points out that having both good reporting and publishing through the internet is visibly possible. It’s not a very new idea, but still a valid point.