Guest Post: Three Areas for Innovation in News


The following is a guest post by Nick Crocker, MD of Native Digital and co-founder of We Are Hunted.

Thanks to Murdoch’s paywall plans and the recent shrinking of the news industry, what happens next for news is a topic attracting some interesting debate.

I recently Tweeted: “The Punch expected 80k readers in its 1st month. They ended up with 206,281. Nice work @penbo – its a great story for innovation in news.”

To which Ben replied: “might sound like a dumb question but how is the punch innovating?”

I answered via email, saying:

“Innovation = creating new wealth from new or existing resources.

The Punch is a new resource aimed at generating new wealth.  It’s a new way of delivering news, of engaging readers and of producing content.  It’s often great content at very low cost with very high engagement.

While it’s not perfect, I support it, because lots of people will be waiting for it to fail.  And, if it does fail, it will be much harder to justify news innovation in the future.

I want it to succeed so people aren’t afraid to commit resources to figuring out how news is sustainably delivered online.”

This post expands on my original email response to Ben and outlines the three areas of online news ripe for innovation:

  1. Distillation.
  2. Depth.
  3. Delivery.

Distillation

One of the roles of a journalist is to filter the mass of information that floats around us and distil it down to the stories that need to be told.

It turns out that online you can automate the distillation, democratise it and give it scale. Google does it.  Digg does it.  Services like Wotnews offer it.  The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast both use it as a key component of their news offering. 

But the best, most valuable kind of distillation is still human.  Whether it’s a great Tumblr, a great Twitter account, or a blog – Kottke’s distillation of the liberal arts is a personal favourite – there’s value in finding someone you trust to distil the world’s information for you. 

The breadth of information online means that regardless of your taste, you should be able to find a content distiller that suits you.  And if you can’t, you’re just a few clicks away from becoming one yourself.

Depth

The majority of news online is text-only, a few hundred words and offers only surface-level insights.  Online news is dominated by headlines referencing sex, murder and/or celebrity.  It’s low value, shallow, churned, press-release rehashes

As John Hartigan says, it’s content that is “ubiquitous rather than unique”.  This kind of news works, to a point.

But it’s very hard to argue that you can charge people to view it and even harder to imagine people paying for it. 

That’s where depth comes in.  What you can reasonably charge people for is deep, rich, multimedia content delivered in a customisable or premium way.  An article summary, a full article, multiple hi-res images, audio streams of the source interviews, video footage of the interviews and background pieces on the story’s multiple sub-plots.

As an example, journalist and blogger Jeff Weiss wrote an excellent piece for the LA Times recently about ‘Jerkin’, LA’s new dance craze. Along with a long, well-written article was a short documentary about the kids who started it.  If Jeff did that kind of work on a regular basis, I would pay to read it.  When it comes to charging for news, it’s reasonable to expect people to pay for similarly rich content.

Delivery

Go to any news site and let your eyes sit, for just a moment, and take in the visual horror.  As a general rule, news sites – overloaded with links, content, ads, videos and multi-size text – are an eyesore.  They make you want to get out as fast as you got in.  For all the smart brains in the news world, none seem to have given much thought to the way that news is delivered online.  http://www.slideshare.net/NativeDigital/news-delivery-diversity

There are simple fixes.  There are sites that make you want to look at them and explore them.  The Big Picture is a case in point.  But let’s look at news through a design lens and try and imagine an alternative, more intuitive, more aesthetically pleasing way of delivering it. 

+++

You never know which innovations will work.  But you do know that 100% of the innovations you don’t make will fail.  That’s why I like The Punch and why I’m looking forward to seeing news organisations start innovating in news distillation, depth and delivery.

Nick Crocker is MD of Native Digital and co-founder of We Are Hunted.

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16 responses to “Guest Post: Three Areas for Innovation in News

  1. “Innovation = creating new wealth from new or existing resources.”

    While the numbers look good on paper (200k+>80k) these don’t necessarily mean increased ad revenue, which is still the model for the Punch. They’re still going to have the problems that the rest of the news organisations are facing – getting more ad revenue than your content vehicle is costing you.

    How are the Punch’s ad sales targets going? What are their costs?

    So have they created “new wealth from new or existing resources”? Only if they’re not paying their writers that they would have if they would have at news.com.au.

  2. I’m really interested in how the traditional organisations make the transition, because in the switch they’re not going to need as many people but as they build up again in niches they will grow again.

  3. Also Paul Graham and YCombinator are looking for startups from the angle of “what would a content site look like if you started from how to make money—as print media once did—instead of taking a particular form of journalism as a given and treating how to make money from it as an afterthought?”

    Applications close October 16 Nick!

    http://ycombinator.com/rfs1.html

  4. “That’s where depth comes in. What you can reasonably charge people for is deep, rich, multimedia content delivered in a customisable or premium way. An article summary, a full article, multiple hi-res images, audio streams of the source interviews, video footage of the interviews and background pieces on the story’s multiple sub-plots.”

    YES. THIS.

    I partially agree with you in that it is important to support innovation in online news, but The Punch is still delivering comment and rants in a text-based form – not something I’d personally be keen for.

  5. talkingdigital

    hi ned,

    i didn’t write the post but have done some estimates around the punch’s revenue potential somewhere in this blog.

    on 200k users and the pageviews they have it’s not much … the key for these plays is to deliver new audience not just distribute existing audience. right now i’m struggling to see if this is bringing new users to NDM.

  6. Great post Nick.

    I like what The Punch is doing and agree that it is innovative from a few different perspectives. I think one thing they have innovated on quite well, is where they are drawing their content from.

    Traditional media employs journalists and content writing specialists. The punch, instead, has gone to people present in the currently growing social media scene and gotten them to write instead. I have heard of at least 4 people in my network who now blog for them. That’s inherently more interesting to me (personally) than reading what some journalist from standard media has to say.

    I also hope we give them enough of a break to really test what they are doing. I think they have started well and look forward to seeing how they can continue to keep the hits up.

  7. Nick, I appreciate the considered thought (when so much of the digital news debate isn’t). But I disagree entirely.

    Put aside the worth of the writing – and there have been some excellent posts, no doubt – ultimately this is digital op-ed. It’s a blog. There’s nothing new about the concept, nor major print-based players doing it.

    So just what is the goal here? As Ben has written, it isn’t and never will make great loads of money. It captures more attractive demographics, no doubt, but they’re not making money on them nor are they converting them to print products where the majority of the ad dollars still are. It’s not setting any sort of agenda news wise, so it’s contribution to the journalism space is virtually non-existent.

    Ultimately, as I wrote about the semi-rival Fairfax National Times recently (http://mumbrella.com.au/national-times-offers-nothing-new-9422), these websites are, at best, a half-arsed attempt to answer the ONLY goal news companies should have right now – figuring out how to support a similarly-sized journalism workforce when most eyes will be online and not in print.

    The Punch doesn’t even go close to answering the question.

  8. thepunch was poorly architected – asif they were thinking blog when it doesn’t have much to do with blogging at all. So it’s ended up like the daily telegraph opinion pages with realtime letters to the editor.

    Huffpo is the model and thepunch has already begun the slow walk to the innovative fusion of political, movie star and noble prize winner essayists with celebrity trash culture that huffpo has pioneered.

    Hope they’ll take it all the way and are already working on v2. Could work quite well in the local market.

  9. talkingdigital

    the punch to me seems like a digital version of talkback

    cheap opinion pieces

    which drive lots of user soapboxing

    which then drives more users contributing …

    builds a personality around the opinion columnist …

    it’s cheap-ish, appeals to the ego of bloggers and amateurs who will write for free to get their name in lights and doesn’t deviate too far from what a company like News knows.

    That said, I still don’t see the business case around it or how commercially it will bring something new to the table.

    I guess that shouldn’t surprise me – it’s the Internet. Rarely do people think before doing about how to operate at a profit.

  10. Just coming back to this, I see where all the above arguments against the Punch are going and tend to think they are right. But that still doesn’t mean the Punch won’t succeed.

    I forget the stat, but was told recently that last year the internet generated a lot of data (for an easy example, lets say 1TB). This year, largely due to the increase in social media applications, that figure has grown to something like 100TB. Thats a huge increase in the amount of ‘stuff’ that is now floating on the interwebs. Most of it, is social.

    Don’t be confused between total innovation, and Blue Ocean Strategy. You don’t need to innovate on every aspect of a business model to be successful – you just need to innovate on the right ones. BOS is useful for this. Cirque Do Soliel is amazing because it is STILL a circus. Wii is fun because it is STILL a game. The iPhone works because it is STILL a phone.

    So I think that The Punch has done a great job targeting a specific niche in it’s innovation. It has targeted people (yes, be they ranters or otherwise) who have significant social networks and something interesting to say that is not necessarily adding to the social-media-echo-chamber.

    They are taking advantage of a current trend (which is more and more people logging, creating and diffusing data on the internet through social networks) and they then create revenue using standard methods (which we, the users understand and are happy with).

    Many organisations are currently trying to ‘re-invent’ old media or create the next news format. Guys, it’s already here. It’s called the internet and at the moment, the internet hums best when you integrate it with social people.

    The Punch wins in my view. They’ve made a great start, with a subtle difference in scope to the standard new-media org and have a competitive advantage others can’t replicate easily – Their authors, are their authors. And, I know their authors, personally.

    I look forward to seeing how the cultivate it from here on.

  11. Innovation is not about creating wealth. Innovation is about creating new ideas, or using old ideas in new ways. Innovation can not be about wealth at all, or can destroy wealth. In this case, inovation has already destroyed a lot of wealth for News and Fairfax, which is most of the reason this article had to be written.

    I disagree with the ways that News and Fairfax have attacked the problem. News tried importing foreign brands via Netus, and while the likes of Lifehacker and Gizmodo are fine titles, they’re not innovative and will not save newsrooms. Fairfax has exhumed an old brand in the National Times which represented larrikin disrespect for authority, but the new format is painfully conservative and sullies the memory of the old rag.

    On The Punch, at least it looks like the News people are trying something different, and are open to new directions. If you don’t pay your contributors, though, all you’re going to get is glorified press releases. The Punch needs some actual journalism.

  12. @Paul – Innovation has to be about creating wealth, or it’s not justifiable commercially.

    @Jason Whittaker – Thanks for the kind words. To me though, it will be impossible to “support a similarly-sized journalism workforce when most eyes will be online and not in print.” The news industry is going to get smaller and smaller. Murdoch’s -$4B should see to that.

    Thanks @ned @steve @sophie @Ben @Jerry @Ross for the comments.

    Interesting that the comments have been about subjective disagreements re: The Punch, rather than a discussion on ways we can innovate in news.

    And if you are looking for entertainment, be sure to watch the video on ‘Jerkin’ linked within – it’s amazing…

  13. There is a way to profit from niche online plays but it’s not from pure advertising and it’s definitely not from charging for content.

    The key is in diversification. You cannot be solely reliant on advertising for survival. You need a strong, credible, established brand (this takes many years not months). You need a deep understanding and knowledge of your audience and you have to be the definitive leader in that niche. If you have achieved all of the above then you can begin to diversify into other income streams.

    As an example we operate dance music site inthemix.com.au which is approaching it’s tenth year in business. We generate revenue from ads, sponsorship, ticket sales, merch, consulting, research, creative and web design services, events, music sales and memberships. Ads & sponsorship make up half of ITM’s revenue.

    But we’ve been in the game for almost a decade.

    Niche verticals are not a quick fix instant profit business. And that is always going to the challenge for News, Fairfax or any major publisher – they (and the market) expect instant success.

  14. But thepunch isn’t about actual journalism in a nostalgic sense. Like so many of the new new journalism ventures its’s about the meta aspects of journalism – attention, distribution, reptition, reflection, packaging. Copy is cheap especially if it’s freeish – talk radio meets talk tv on the page.

  15. “Niche verticals are not a quick fix instant profit business.”

    You are spot on Neil.

  16. Phew – sad that I got to this late but excited by the debate taking place.

    Jason is right – the Punch has not achieved a significant innovation in terms of the revenue model it is pursuing, but this doesn’t mean it hasn’t innovated at all.

    The move for traditional media businesses towards more effectively embracing online can’t happen overnight, so the Punch for me represents an incremental step forward towards the delivery of some form of journalistic product.

    The fact that they are sourcing a slightly broader range of voices is encouraging but without a more sustainable revenue model not relying solely on display advertising – agree with Neil on this one) it’s hard to see the Punch as much more than a transitional play by NDM.

    Revolution is hard to enact when it involves destroying yourself in the process, so the best we can hope for from the established media players is incremental innovation.

    Evolution takes time and whether the Punch as a masthead survives or not, it has contributed already to the slow redistribution of consumption patterns around news.

    Thought-provoking piece by the way Nick. Keep it up.

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