Now that software is “eating the world,” original content and quality journalism have become even more important for social media platforms. Publishers are left with a simple choice: Either lead the charge to redefine journalism and their products, or become mere content providers for external platforms, making them the de facto publishers of our time. Schibsted, for its part, is choosing to reimagine publishing products once again. This is the story of why and how.

If you think the step from print to digital was challenging, prepare yourself: The next leap for publishing and journalism is far bigger, more complex and way more exciting. This next leap isn’t like going from desktop to mobile, or from mobile to a watch. It’s not adding off-the-shelf recommendation engines to our digital products and claiming we offer personalization, or assuming there is a quick fix for site speed and ad-blocking.

The next leap will be going from broadcasting (one-size-fits-all) journalism to 1:1 journalism—to get there, publishers have to fully integrate the newsroom with tech and unite across brands. This is the story of why we at Schibsted think so, and what it means.

Our Dilemma

All publishers are at a crossroads, whether they want to admit it or not. To put this in Matrix terms I know my tech peers can relate to, publishers need to choose between the red pill or the blue pill.

Taking the blue pill means moving deeper into a role as pure content creators for third-party platforms—platforms that dictate the editorial and business rules without claiming any editorial and financial accountability for independent journalism (a cornerstone of our democracy). The drawbacks of this direction are pretty clear—in particular, this results in a great concentration of power around the platforms—but publishers are left with little to no choice. Emily Bell summarized this well in her analysis for Columbia Journalism Review recently: “The ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse’—Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon (five if you add in Microsoft)—are engaged in a prolonged and torrid war over whose technologies, platforms, and even ideologies will win. In the last year, journalists and news publishers have therefore unexpectedly found themselves the beneficiaries of this conflict.”

Taking the red pill means facing reality and creating an alternative—a reality in which the publishers reinvent their established products to remain relevant as destinations for their readers. A reality in which accountable editorial voices define the technology, and algorithms are used to serve and fund independent journalism.

At Schibsted, we choose the red pill. We’re determined to take the leap and reinvent our established products—from our current line to a new publishing suite that will be successful in the user engagement battle for years to come. We think of these as our Next Gen Publishing Products. But we’re no longer big enough to do it alone. None of us are. Either we all make this leap together, or we all — whether we like it or not — end up swallowing the blue pill.

I’d like to share our vision for Next Gen Publishing Products. But first, we need to take a step back and talk about how we need to change before we can take that giant leap towards the future.

Our Digital Legacy

It’s not like publishers have completely missed the mark with our established digital products. On the contrary—many of us have managed to build strong digital positions for our established brands.

At Schibsted, we’re proud of how VG in Norway and Aftonbladet in Sweden have managed to cement their positions as their nations’ primary destinations for news—reaching 52% and 47% of the digital population respectively on a daily basis. We’re also proud of how we’ve managed to reinvent strong subscription brands like Aftenposten and Svenska Dagbladet into premium digital news experiences with high willingness to pay among their audiences—and of how we’ve both succeeded and failed when daring to innovate in niche categories. In fact, we’re bigger online than ever before, but our current success also hides our biggest threat—namely, that the digital product experience we offer is a result of old rules, rules that slow us down in the innovation race for user engagement.

Let me share a few of the established “rules” that seem to prevent us from radical leaps towards a more engaging user experience:

  • We create pieces of content meant for everyone, and manually curate our front pages. This works very well when everyone is on the same level and are interested equally in the same content—but they’re not. People consume continuously, and have different prior knowledge, interest, context and user modes.
  • We have adapted the old print user experience to a desktop format, and later the desktop user experience to mobile (with responsive pages and hybrid apps).
  • We’re content-centric in all that we do, not user-centric. One example: The user interaction model is to navigate by topic or format (not by user mode), and we primarily care about pageviews (not user events).
  • We originate all content ourselves, making the idea of being deeply relevant to a very broad audience a very expensive affair (e.g. if we wish to offer relevant content by geography or interest area to specific user segments, our current setup requires that we either extend our newsroom or buy that content).
  • Advertising (that we of course depend on to make a living) is produced, served, presented and tracked outside the editorial content and technology solutions — resulting in a cluttered and slow-loading user experience.
  • Journalists, business developers, designers and engineers devise and implement ideas to improve aspects of the product without working together, with no one (such as a dedicated product manager) responsible for the total product.

When we look at trends in consumption of online content and the “rules” holding us back, we can sum them up in one major bottleneck: We are still broadcasting journalism, while new digital content distribution platform players such as Facebook and Google are offering deeply personal experiences.

From Broadcasting to 1:1 Journalism

Going beyond broadcasting may sound like a cliched catchphrase, but it’s far from trivial. Publishers have, since the beginning of journalism, created and curated stories with a one-size-fits-all mindset: One voice at a marketplace, dozens of bystanders; one article, hundreds of readers; one newspaper, thousands of subscribers; one radio show, millions of listeners; one video, billions of viewers.

All that we do and create in publishing is designed to be one-size-fits-all—even our digital products. Front-page articles and videos meant to appeal equally to all visitors. Display banners sold by placement and reach. Apps with a uniform experience independent of the user. A Justin Bieber push to everyone. The list goes on.

Instead of merely throwing out the buzzword “personalization” and pretending that we’ve found the solution, we believe it’s essential to start by asking ourselves why we engage in journalism in the first place. How can our journalism be 10x or 100x more relevant if we could tailor it to each individual reader?

Being a technologist and somewhat new to the media industry, I’ve spent a lot of time recently trying to understand the true purpose of journalism. This is important, because if we technologists do not fully adhere to the foundational principles of journalism, we can never truly join forces with the newsroom to radically improve how journalism is delivered and consumed. Through long discussions and quite a bit of reading, I’ve realized I can express the purpose of journalism in a way that will resonate with any technologist—as an optimization challenge:

Journalism exists to minimize the gap between what people already know and what they should and/or want to know — so that people can make informed decisions about their personal life, community, society and governments.

To help close that gap, we can simplify and say we do three jobs for the end user:

  1. We connect the user with a story.
  2. We tell the story.
  3. We engage and involve the user.

To make the leap from broadcasting to 1:1 journalism, we have to innovate along all three of these dimensions of journalism.

In connecting a user with a story, we currently broadcast by showing the same front page to every visitor. Some stories do need to reach as many people as possible, ensuring a collective raising of awareness and insight, but other stories are more suited for smaller segments. It’s important to challenge readers and broaden their horizons, while at the same time remaining relevant and providing depth when needed. With a one-to-one relationship with each (logged in) reader, fueled by data collected on their behavior, context and preferences, we should be far more sophisticated in optimizing what we show to whom, and when and where we do it. We have two major advantages in this game vs. Facebook and the like. First, we can be fully transparent in how we curate. We embrace editorial responsibility, so while tech platforms leave the user in the dark as to how content is filtered (with all sorts of resulting implications on privacy concerns and echo chambers), we can dare to be open about why and how we curate to close the gap between what you know and what you should (or want to). Second, we have journalists and editors and their inherent curatorial skills: While Facebook pays 30 contract workers and have 700 reviewers around the United States that assess and train the news feed algorithm, the publishing industry collectively has thousands of the world’s premier content experts—the journalists. By incorporating their assessment and know-how into algorithms defined and owned by publishers, publishers should be well-armed in the fight for user attention.

In telling stories, we currently create a single story for everyone. We believe media and journalism should break with this and invent a new form of adaptive storytelling. As the creators of content, we can and should capitalize on the competitive advantage we have over players like Facebook. The Facebooks of the world do not produce their content, they primarily focus on how to personalize the filtering of it (and getting users to interact with it). Publishers, on the other hand, can start to personalize down to the level of content creation. Ideally, the stories I read should match my level of insight, interest, and past behavior within every topic, my preferred way of being informed (say, pictures over text), my current context and more. If newsrooms dare to rethink what they produce (such as leaving articles behind for something more granular), we believe journalism will be far more effective in closing the gap between what people know and what they should know.

In engaging an audience, we’ve always invited them to contribute with opinion pieces and tips; recently, we’ve begun offering share buttons and comment fields next to our articles. Beyond that, we’ve mostly outsourced engagement to social media. Technology companies are great at bringing users on a journey and connecting them for discussion. If media companies had better insights and data on their users, they could be far more sophisticated in how they tailor engagement options to users depending on their behavior, preferences and context. This would not only increase distribution and reach of the content, it could also provide valuable audience input to enable the newsroom to create even better journalism.

Our ambition for Next Gen Publishing Products is to reinvent the product experience on all three of the jobs we do for our end users. We can close the knowledge gap by connecting the user with stories, telling each story and engaging the user.

Our Vision

For our next-generation products, we have formulated a vision:

Next Gen Publishing Products should deliver and tell news in a way that makes users feel like they have their own intelligent personal editor.

Let’s pause for a moment on the word “editor.” The rise of pure tech platforms as a primary source of journalism and opinions presents us with a serious societal challenge. Tech platforms inherently neglect editorial accountability, and also do not curate content with any mission to challenge individuals with what they should know.

Trei Brundrett, Chief Product Officer of Vox, put it nicely in an interview with Aftonbladet’s Jan Helin when he said: “All code is political.” This is the vision of next-gen publishing: a vision in which publishers step up and actually dare to define the algorithms and the total user experience. As editors, we’ve always had the guts to claim responsibility and accountability; that is our strength.

To define an intelligent personal editor, we mean:

  • An editor who optimizes her algorithms to close the gap between what people know and should (not just want to) know; for example, making sure some news reaches everyone, while other news reaches only the right niche audience
  • An editor who can help people understand complex, contemporary issues through personalized storytelling, matching each individual user’s preconceptions to understand and engage with the story
  • An editor who intelligently guides the user through a world of information overload, selecting and presenting relevant content from various sources
  • An editor who can be trusted to give users a balanced view of the world, avoiding filter bubbles (isolating users in their own cultural or ideological ideas through over-personalization) while fostering dialogue and discussion
  • An editor who knows how to surprise and entertain users, not merely challenge and enlighten them
  • An editor who allows advertising to have the same great user experience as journalism (as opposed to today’s display banners, which clutter the experience and encourage ad-blocking)
  • An editor who ensures that the user has a seamless experience across any device

Our Path Forward

Let’s be clear: We do not yet have the magical roadmap that shows how we’ll get to 1:1 journalism. But we’re determined to build, test, validate, and fail or scale new products, processes and experiences. In the process, there are four major hurdles we still have to overcome:

  • Our content is far too narrow
  • Our curation process is manual
  • We’re stuck in one-size-fits-all formats (i.e. articles)
  • We simply do not know who the users are

If any of us are to be successful at curating relevant experiences for each individual user, we have to be able to pull from a wider volume of content (as opposed to the tens or even hundreds of articles a day we can produce by ourselves). And not just any kind of content, but quality journalism, which can only be achieved by media companies making all content available to all other publishers. Furthermore, only by sharing user engagement data collection can we gain the full user insight we need to rival the data power of tech platforms like Facebook. I find it fascinating that even today, journalists and media companies often think of each other as enemies. Not only do we need to collaborate on capturing data to be competitive in the advertising market, but we also need to allow the free flow of content between our brands to be more relevant and to maximize our collective reach.

This leads me to the second hurdle: Our curation process is still largely manual. Moving from print to digital, we invented “front editors.” Now we have to do it again, but this time, our front editor needs to tune algorithms rather than words and pixels. Instead of defining placement and format in curating content, they should be concerned with defining user segments. Let’s use a national news site, the VW scandal, and a story of how an Oslo car dealership reacted to the deception as an example. The current way of ensuring users are informed about this story is by placing the article on the top of the front page until the click rate suggests that it’s saturated (i.e. we assume “everyone has seen it”). Going forward, the front editor should be able to tell tech that this story should primarily surface to users who we already know have read about the scandal and who live in the Oslo area.

The third hurdle lies in the way we create our content. In particular, we need to go beyond articles. The key issue is that our current formats don’t allow for adaptive storytelling—storytelling in which we adapt to users’ knowledge (what they’ve already read), interest level, context and more. Circa News paved the way for atomizing news, and the NY Times has written about particles in their blog. Furthermore, if 2016 turns out to be the year of the bots, with conversational news apps paving the way, our old article format simply won’t cut it. As tech platforms compete for user attention by redefining content distribution and engagement, our greatest weapon in the fight for relevance could lie in our core task— content creation.

Fundamentally, if we want to be better at engaging each individual user—bringing them on a journey from fly-by readers to a loyal and actively engaged audience discussing and adding value to the stories, we have to know who our user is. As of now, we don’t. The challenge to solve here is to give users compelling reasons to be identified (logged in). In doing so, we have to move beyond mere vanity features (“save this article for later”) and marketing campaigns (“log in to win an iPad” or “get premium free for a week”). We have to make our product experience better if you’re identified, and this requires making journalism personal.

Summing Up

We are at a point where media and journalism have to take a stand. Publishers either must submit to the new rules defined by the pure tech platforms, giving them our content and data and making them stronger every day, or they must decide to evolve journalism into something that truly embraces the opportunities we have in 2016—the chance to invent true 1:1 journalism.

Quite a few technologists are bullish about the future of journalism (myself included), but as far as we can see, a leap in journalism still requires some radical changes in the newsroom mindset:

  • Reinventing broadcast journalism as deeply personal journalism to win the battle for user engagement. One-size-fits-all journalism belongs to the past. The future holds discovery and presentation of stories adapted to each user, where engagement is maximized on an individual basis. We need to be personal and logged in by design.
  • Fully integrating the newsroom with product & technology to have any chance at creating 1:1 journalism. This is particular important when it comes to rethinking how we discover, create and curate content, and how product management grows as a critical interdisciplinary role across editorial, commercial, user experience, software engineering and data science.
  • Leaving our old competitive worldview behind to unite publishers as a collective force in the fight for user engagement. Collective content and data about users are both essential to create differentiated and personalized experiences for readers and advertisers. We’re not big enough alone; instead of making tech platforms stronger, media companies have to unite to stay ahead.

As we have evolved to move from print to desktop and from desktop to mobile, we now, together, must decide to embark on the mission to reinvent ourselves once more—at our core—before someone else does it for us. That is why we are investing in Next Gen Publishing products, because journalism is not disrupted by digital. It’s enabled.

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