The future must be 'digital first'

Digital innovation means building unique digital products and services to replace our mass product, the traditional newspaper, that is becoming increasingly less valuable

A US publisher some time ago described the situation in his newspaper as follows: “We have two houses. One is on fire and the other isn’t built yet. So our problem is that we have to fight the flames in the old house at the same time we’re trying to figure out how to build the new one."

The house on fire referenced by the US editor is built on the foundation of media’s old business model, which is centered around the volume of copies sold traditional advertising revenue, volume, unique users and online clicks. This house is destined to devalue continuously as the abundance of news that are accessible anywhere turns them into a commodity and online competition drives their price towards zero.

As if this were not enough, the abundance of access to websites from search engines and social networks turns the news into unbranded material. People are increasingly struggling to determine the original source of an article they read or a video they downloaded. This is a dangerous downward trend that devalues the value of a brand and often finds its roots in indistinct editorial products which have the same content and use a similar format.

This is why it is imperative to start building the future of newspapers by finding innovative models capable of building NEW RELATIONSHIPS. Relations that are on a large enough scale to support a newspaper and allow our work to truly have a social impact. In my opinion, these are the foundations of the ‘new’ house. We have to attempt to contain the flames, while simultaneously constructing our future. . .

I consider building NEW RELATIONSHIPS the basis of everything else, but this requires learning new skills:

  1. listening to communities to discern their needs;
  2. empowering the newspaper’s internal teams to develop products and services that are more targeted to the needs of these communities and how they use information;
  3. building user profiles so we can gather, analyze, and act on data;
  4. finally, building new revenue from new lines of business.

Let’s be honest. Most of the newspapers’ (human and financial) resources continue to be spent on reporting what just happened, serial and/or medium content. Instead of simply creating a product called content and attempting to attract readers to sell to advertisers (our old model), we have to transform and conceive journalism as a platform for editorial services that can help, interest, or help solve problems for our readers’ communities, by bringing them together in informed, civil and productive conversations. By doing this, the newspaper would receive data, loyalty and income in return.

This, in my opinion, is the only useful definition of "digital first" and digital innovation: building unique digital products and services to replace our mass product, the traditional newspaper, that is becoming increasingly less valuable.

The importance of communities

Another important aspect is the fact that we can no longer operate by taking for granted that our public will always continue to come to our news organization. This is no longer true. We have to go to them and we have to build editorial content and services that are appropriate to the needs of each community. Let's imagine that we want to serve the commuter community (but it could, just as easily, have been the SMEs community or the community of accountants). Today, a journalist could, for example:

  1. Listen to the passing conversation and add journalistic value
  2. Go to the police to discover things
  3. Analyze Waze traffic data to bring dangerous traffic spots to public attention
  4. Getting answers to commuters’ grievances from transit officials

What is the marginal advantage for the company as a whole? By learning where a commuter lives and works it can propose more relevant content and advertising. The best way to collect such data is not by forcing users to provide them through registration or by compiling data from privacy-pillaging services; but rather by making an open transaction and compact with users, delivering obvious value in return for data.

Moreover, news companies today are no longer work in isolation. They operate in a media, information, and technology ecosystem which might necessitate creating something complementary to what already exists, collaborating and/or sharing with other news outlets of all kinds (radio, social media, agencies, Google, Facebook, Netflix, institutions, associations, etc.). With this kind of community-based design and services, I think we could start building the rooms in the new house:

  1. building more relevant and valuable products,
  2. resetting our relationship with the public we serve, gathering and acting on signals of interest and need (that is, user data),
  3. exploring new revenue streams (membership, events, data, commerce, advertiser service)
  4. reinventing our businesses.

Editorial services

In order to build the "new house" in my opinion we must progressively exit the commodity news business, investing as little as possible in terms of resources and time. These are items the reader can find at no cost, everywhere and at anytime: they are hyper-inflated and the market no longer recognizes them any value. The truth is that Internet is brutal with mediocrity and the recent relevance of online traffic has placed media organizations in the difficult situation of having a “large audience and scarce revenue”.

The time has come break from the past and attempt to build relationships with designated communities and through premium, unique and extraordinary editorial services.

Below is a list of some of these services which could truly serve our community of readers and enrich our subscription proposals:

  1. Newsletter & vertical curation services. Large international media organizations such as Nyt, Wsj, Politico, Ft are implementing dozens of vertical and customized NLs, which enrich a mosaic of premium content subject to subscriptions. No media organizations has yet done this in Italy in a systemic way. When there is an overabundance of information, curation services become essential compasses to navigate everyday life and also extract economic value. This is particularly true for professionals and entrepreneurs who have little time available to inform themselves and must immediately go to the point of things to make decisions.
  2. Events. Many publishers are succeeding in summoning people to a wide range of events: interviews, conferences, panels, round tables, lectures, concerts, festivals. The New York Times has built a stage that it uses for its most important interviews. The Texas Tribune earns more than $1.5 million a year from its festival and also its weekly, sponsored public interviews with politicians and officials. A newspaper like Il Sole has a myriad of possibilities to ‘create’ events and conferences in its auditorium. It’s almost an embarrassment of riches.
  3. Local events. I'm sure that around Italy there would be many companies willing to pay to bring Il Sole “into the company." The journalists of Il Sole could host ‘open’ factory events where they could organize and manage debates and meetings with industry experts, local stakeholders, local communities and people curious to know how the cycle of a given company or district works. Take a moment to consider just how much material and how many journalistic hints can come from such events.
  4. Video partnerships. Imagine creating a documentary or a stunning video inquiry in partnership with global players such as Sky, Netflix or Amazon. Imagine producing 3-4 movies revolving around our local economic-financial background (similar to Too Big To Fail, the HBO film on the 2008 financial crisis) in which the Il Sole’s editorial staff would be responsible for providing materials and content as well as skills.
  5. Long form journalism. Why not create an ad hoc section dedicated to long form journalism, similar to what the Guardian and Ft have already done? It could contain inquiries, stories, reports, new trends, long interviews, but also re-propose old articles and re-tell great events. An app could be created from which readers/users can download the various long form articles (either individually or by paying a Netflix-style monthly subscription.) This formula would meet the no-longer mediated consumption habits of our communities.
  6. Millennials and Generation Z. We could create partnerships with online banks or some of the key players of the financial-technological revolution to co-develop educational editorial services for millennials and young audiences that currently are not engaged by the websites of traditional newspapers. We could create an app like CNN’s Great Big Story where everything is told through short videos (less than 2 minutes on daily economic-financial issues) or explanation content, infographics and/or videos, like or the FT’s Millennial Money. Furthermore, there’s the possibility of creating Il Sole-branded economic education courses in high schools. It would be a place to learn about the the new information needs of the younger generations and where to ‘breed’ new potential readers. Pushing this concept further, Il Sole could create a sort of ‘factory’ or ‘academy’ for new talents and startups in a disused warehouses in one of our many industrial districts.
  7. Business intelligence. I find that developing business intelligence services, especially for SMEs and local public agencies is consistent with Il Sole’s mission. The FT and The Economist generate much of their revenue through similar services. The brand’s strength combined with Il Sole’s journalists’ synthetic and analytical abilities would make all the difference in the world (Radiocor, for example, would be perfect for these services).

As you can see, these are all very innovative forms of format and user experience that are capable of turning digital technology into a truly new tool to access information. The BBC News Lab (see the table below) identifies at least 12 different types of innovative content that can be created to distinguish oneself from the pack. To this dozen I would also add Podcasts, which are experiencing a new spring (think of all the good things that could be done with Radio 24).


Marco Alfieri @alfierimarco
Caporedattore Il Sole 24 Ore Online