Prioritisation: How do news organisations decide what they must do?

Since leaving The Guardian last April and striking out on my own, I joke that I’ve become an occupational therapist. I’ve had the chance to speak to journalists, editors and media executives around the world and hear the issues and challenges facing them. Most of them are instantly familiar, but one issue that I first heard about in Norway in 2009 and heard with increasing frequency in 2010 was prioritisation. In digital, there are a myriad of things we could do, but in this era of transition and scarce resources, the real question is what we must do.

In the comments on my last post covering the opportunities for news organisation in location services and technologies, Reg Chua, the Editor-in-Chief of the South China Morning Post, had this insight:

Kevin’s point on prioritization is a critical one. We can’t do everything well; in fact, we can’t do everything, period. I’d argue that we should think about the product we want to come out with first – and then figure out what data is needed to make it work. I realize that leaves some value on the table, but I suspect we all need to specialize more if we’re to really create products that have real value.

For the news organisations that I’m working with now in developing their digital strategies, one of the things that I look at is where they have the most opportunity. I agree with Reg that there are a number of opportunities in terms of creating products using data, and I also think that data is important in determining which products to develop. News organisations need to get serious about looking at what their audiences find valuable, digging into their own metrics. Right now, we’ve got a lot of faith-based decision making in media. It’s critical that we begin to look at the data to help determine what new products we should deliver and how we can improve our existing offering.

For a good start on this kind of thinking, Jonathan Stray wrote an excellent post last year, Designing journalism to be used. He wrote:

Digital news product design has so far mostly been about emulation of previous media. Newspaper web sites and apps look like newspapers. “Multimedia” journalism has mostly been about clicking somewhere to get slideshows and videos. This is a little like the dawn of TV news, when anchors read wire copy on air. Digital media gives us an explosion of product design possibilities, but the envisioned interaction modes have so far stayed mostly the same.

This is not to say that the stories themselves don’t need to change. In fact, I think they do. But the question can’t be “how can we make better stories?” It must be “who are our users, what would we like to help them to do, and how can we build a system that helps them with that?”

Josh Benton of the Nieman Lab says that we have an opportunity to rethink the grammar of journalism during this period of transition in the business. Jonathan and Reg are definitely thinking about rethinking the grammar and rethinking the products that we create. Digital journalism is different, and the real opportunity is in thinking about how its different and how that creates new opportunities both to present journalism and support it financially.

3 thoughts on “Prioritisation: How do news organisations decide what they must do?

  1. Kevin,

    Thanks for the shout-out, and I’m certainly on the same (digital) page as you (and Jonathan and Josh) here. We’re too fixated, as Jonathan notes, on simply trying to improve what we currently do – itself a product of certain industrial and logistical processes.

    Although, to be fair, that current product is still what pays the bills. So an ideal solution is one that builds off what we currently do (at least for legacy organizations) while building brand new (sustainable/profitable) products.

    But just to go on a bit on prioritization: Our example would be WhoRunsHK (, an interactive database of key people in Hong Kong and how they’re connected. We had to decide to what we wanted to include, and that means by definition what to exclude. To do that we started with a sense of what we wanted the product to look like, and what information mattered, and eliminated anything that wasn’t important to it and was too hard to do.

    It didn’t come up too badly – but of course we don’t know what we could have built if we had made different decisions. That said, the good news is that once you’ve built it, you can iterate and start trying to change things around the edges. Plus, as Kevin notes, you can start getting real data on how people are actually using it and depend less on faith. It’s only a real problem when you discover that you made so many bad decisions to start with that you have to burn down the whole thing and start again.

    Which also points, I suppose, to taking relatively small steps/manageable projects and failing quickly.


  2. Reg,

    Just to respond to the point about the legacy media whether that is print, radio or broadcast, and I don’t mean to mean that in a disparaging way, just a bit of shorthand. In the developed, English-speaking world, we’re in this challenging position where the legacy business still generates the great majority of revenue, but for a lot of newspapers we’re reaching the point where despite a high percentage of revenue, it is not enough to support the existing business. Now some of that isn’t simply down to the decline in revenue in print, it’s down to other business issues such as debt service. The growth side of the business has been digital, although people will be right to point out that is from a low point in real terms.

    Ideally we would try to grow both sides of the business. In some ways integration has got in the way of this, but that’s another post for another day.

    To build on the point about prioritisation, I think one of the issues that we need to take into account is the value opportunity provided by various options that we have. (I initially wrote commercial, but then realised that I was actually talking about a value exchange between audiences and journalists.) In the Newspaper Next project, they looked at issues raised in the Innovator’s Dilemma. Steve Yelvington was involved, and he points out that the problems that newspapers used to solve are now often solved better by other services. Thinking beyond the civic mission of journalism, what problem do different kinds of journalism solve? How can we create digital (or print for that matter) products and services to solve those problems and capture some of that value to support journalism?

    I’ll write more when I’m not on the iPad. Any errors I’ll blame on the d*$m auto-correct. 😉

  3. I think some of the problem is that news organisations are not used to asking their readers what they find valuable/looking at ‘boring’ data – quite rightly (in many cases) they feel their editorial judgement is enough so that they know what readers want. However in changing times where papers need to develop online tools & products the fact is often they do not know the detail required of what information readers need. Eg is parents want info on school, what info exactly, and how can what you offer be better/different to others? Its a big change hence why they take their time. This is an area where B2B is streets ahead in my experience.
    Also quite a lot of prioritising based on what the tech allows you to do, or what platforms allow you to do – rather than starting with the content value discussion first and seeing what platform/tech can deliver it for you.

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