For the legacy Economist and start-up FactorDaily, product is key to newsroom culture
Newsroom Initiative Newsletter Blog | 04 August 2022
Welcome to the latest INMA Newsroom Initiative newsletter.
First up, the second part of my interview with Tom Standage, deputy editor of The Economist. If you missed the first installment — which dealt with digital transformation, newsroom culture, and much more — it is in the Newsroom Initiative blog. Sign up for the newsletter here.
Tom is cogent in his explanation of the special culture underlying The Economist — a flat organisational structure with no division between “grand thinkers or minions” and the tradition of anonymity in the newspaper that is somewhat challenged by a push into audio.
He also talks about how The Economist embraced product thinking and ways to get the newsroom taking part in innovation and achieving a sense of progress. Tom is also an alarmingly good and prolific author of books on technology and society. Links below the interview.
This week I also talk with Pankaj Misha from the Indian non-profit technology and society news site FactorDaily. He has some radical thinking on the story itself as a product.
Read on also for a collection of media industry must-reads and my recommended Twitter follow for the week.
The Economist embeds product and digital transformation in its culture
The Economist — the venerable source of intelligent news and views on world affairs, economics, business, science, technology, and culture — is on a journey to embrace audio and expand digital reach and capabilities, sometimes challenging long-held traditions in the 179-year-old publisher.
Tom Standage, the deputy editor, has been at the forefront of that effort for years and has seen it gather impetus under a new chief executive officer and editor-in-chief.
Recently Tom talked to me about the transformation, some of the success stories like The Intelligence podcast, and how a big focus on audio from stories to podcasts is being embraced by the newsroom as a critical driver of the business and new ways to reach an audience.
In this second installment, Tom talks about embracing a stronger approach to product and engineering, how the historic anonymity of Economist journalists is evolving, and his approach to a new content management system.
Here are a couple of critical takeaways I took, but there are many more nuggets below:
Product and editorial need to align on business goals and focus on audience needs.
Media companies need to increase the perceived value of subscriptions (such as including newsletters) and remind subscribers what they are entitled to as part of the package they already take.
Goals need to align with historic culture if they’re to be taken seriously.
INMA: Tell us about “product thinking” has developed at The Economist.
Tom Standage: We didn’t have a proper product organisation a decade ago. We just had journalists talking to engineers. So I have seen the emergence of the product organisation as a very, very helpful coordination between journalism [and engineering].
That’s what it’s meant to do, of course. But the problem before was that because we have a very strict Chinese wall within The Economist and the engineers did not sit in editorial, they didn’t report to editorial. We were constantly frustrated by the fact that we didn’t have ring-fenced engineering capacity.
When you have proper engineering teams and product teams and it’s all run properly, this is much less of a problem — because the business understands that it is a priority that the Web site works and that the app works and that you execute and deliver on the roadmap.
The growth of a proper professional product organisation has been really good because it means there is proper discipline in actually engaging all stakeholders.
INMA: What metrics do you share with journalists to help focus on the business goals?
Tom Standage: We’re not big on giving analytics to journalists in more than a quite general way. We just think this whole kind of feedback loop where you say, “People really like it when you write about Elon Musk, so write more about Elon Musk,” we think that's dangerous.
Our readers pay us to decide what we think is important and tell them about it. That’s our job. They are paying us to decide what’s important for them. They’re paying us for the curation.
INMA: You do track the propensity to subscribe from story level though, right?
Tom Standage: One of the metrics we have for every story is how many subscriptions arise from it. Obviously, you have a big attribution problem, which is that most people subscribe by just going to the subscribe button on the Web site. But even if you know only 10% of the subscriptions come from stories, it’s still useful to see which stories are more effective at conversion.
INMA: You also talk about enhancing the value of subscriptions by putting some things that are now open behind an Economist subscription.
Tom Standage: We want to make the subscription more valuable. I thought The New York Times did this beautifully: They moved several newsletters behind the paywall, and the way they telegraphed it was: “Your subscription has just become more valuable.” That’s the right way to do it.
INMA: The Economist has idiosyncrasies such as no bylines on most stories. What’s the impact of that culture on your digital efforts and this shift to making journalists audio personalities?
Tom Standage: The Economist has a very, very flat structure, and nearly everyone is both a writer and an editor. There are no sub-editors and there are no leader writers. We don’t have this idea that there are grand senior people who think lofty thoughts and then there are minions who make it all fit on the page. We really all swoop up and down the scale of A: thinking lofty thoughts and writing things and B: fixing the hyphens and running the spellchecker.
It’s a very lightweight process that relies on the fact that we were just in the same room, and I think it’s transferred reasonably well to Zoom and Slack.
INMA: What about anonymity in an age of social media and podcasts? It used to be just your special reports that carried a byline.
Tom Standage: The anonymity makes us collectively responsible. Originally, anonymity was used to make one person [the founder, James Wilson] look like many, and it’s now used to make many people look like one.
The anonymity has been fraying because of social media, because of podcasts, and because of newsletters, because we quite often have authored newsletters. People are used to, very often, the authorial voice of The Economist and the institutional voice of The Economist … but we’ve found this pulling back the curtain to show that real people, not robots, write it is extremely effective.
Similarly, we’ve had this very successful series of subscriber-only Webinars on Friday afternoons where we have, you know, senior editors tell you what’s going on … such as in Ukraine. That has proved to be extremely popular with subscribers.
It’s a drawing back of the curtain. We get to have it both ways, which is that we remind people that The Economist is written by humans, and they can get to know who some of them are. But at the same time, we have the continuity of the authorial collective editorial voice.
INMA: You’re implementing a new content management system (CMS), but your model is a bit of a twist from the approach of going digital-first and the paper second, right?
Tom Standage: Our workflow is the other way around from most people. At The Economist, the print stories are the stories of record, even if they are published early on digital. It’s a print editing process, which we don’t really think of as the print editing process. It’s actually the weekly edition editing process.
That’s the crucial thing. It means we’re not doing the kind of continuous flow and then taking stuff out of it that daily newspapers are doing, which is what most CMS are built to support. The point about our articles is that they’re written with a weekly perspective, they’re meant to be stepping back. If you’re reading us digitally, then more than 20% of the stories are running early online and that’s been ticking up.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Books by Tom Standage (well, some of them)
- A Brief History of Motion: From the Wheel, to the Car, to What Comes Next: “With A Brief History of Motion, Standage overturns myths, considers roads not taken, and invites us to look at our past with fresh eyes so we can create the future we want to see.”
- Writing on the Wall: Social Media — The First 2,000 Years: “A fresh, provocative exploration of social media over two millennia, Writing on the Wall reminds us how modern behaviour echoes that of prior centuries — the Catholic Church, for example — faced similar dilemmas in deciding whether or how to respond to Martin Luther’s attacks in the early 16th century to those that large institutions confront today in responding to public criticism on the Internet.”
- A History of the World in 6 Glasses: “Each drink is a kind of technology, a catalyst for advancing culture by which he demonstrates the intricate interplay of different civilisations. You may never look at your favourite drink the same way again.”
Every story is itself a product
Pankaj Mishra founded a non-profit news site in India, FactorDaily, having launched it initially with venture capital funding and an expectation it could build a new model.
That model has come full circle, and Pankaj now thinks we need to think of every story as a product.
Each story needs its own attributes, assets, and potential to morph into something else — be it a script for a movie, a documentary, or a piece of graphical storytelling.
“An individual story may break out into multiple areas,” Pankaj said in a Zoom call from Bangaluru. “We signed up a producer to one story and it is going to become a movie. So when we were doing that contract with this production company, it made me think about how can I look at a story as IP [Intellectual Property]. How can I break it down? So that key learning is that every story is the product for us. It can be a book, it can be a song, it can be a movie, it can be anything. It can be a street play. Two of our stories are now on the assembly line.”
The point Pankaj is pushing, I think, is to get to the essence of what is being said in the journalism, not just what will click now.
He goes further in a rather didactic or poetic way: “The ‘why of journalism’ is at the core of every pursuit here, including looking at stories as products. These potential avenues would empower us to look beyond the ad, subscription, and branded content-supported business models.”
Of course, this isn’t a completely new idea. But often the rewards from the story have either travelled with the reporter or someone else and not accrued to the publisher in any way. That requires a delicate balance of interest, investment, and, ultimately, ownership.
“Not every story is going to go that way, but one in a dozen might. That’s the venture capital approach. What I learned when I became venture-funded is they would put money in a range of e-commerce start-ups, for example, because they didn’t know which one was going to make it. But one will pay for everyone else if it works. So the VC mindset helps here, because you make those bets, basically at the story level. It’s a really interesting approach.”
I intend to develop this conversation with Pankaj further in later newsletters.
Ben Mullin @benmullin is a media reporter at The New York Times with a history of major industry scoops dating back to his old job at the Poynter Institute, which he took on to The Wall Street Journal and now to The Times. Just this week, Ben reported that CNN was expected to fall below an annual profit level of USD$1 billion for the first time since 2016.
Here are a couple of must-reads — this time all about Meta and Facebook
- Facebook wants to be more like TikTok. That’s a bad idea is an opinion piece in The Washington Post by Megan McArdle, who looks at the extraordinary shifts at Meta with its Facebook and Instagram products both becoming more like rising star TikTok.
- “This marks more than one company displacing another in the hearts of youths; it is a massive social shift, akin to the rise of social media itself,” she writes.
- Do Facebook and Instagram even know what they want to be anymore? is an interesting take on the same subject from the New Zealand site The Spinoff, which sees grave risks to news and publicly valuable information in the remake of the Meta brands.
- Scoop: Meta officially cuts funding for U.S. news publishers, by Axios media reporter Sara Fischer, shows that Facebook and Meta are serious about cutting exposure to the news industry – especially financially. “The deals were worth roughly $105 million in the U.S., sources told Axios. In addition to that, the company spent around $90 million on news videos for the company’s video tab called Watch,” Fischer reported.
Tell me what you want to read and what you like or don’t like in this newsletter, please. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. I also plan a Slack group. Interested?
About this newsletter
Today’s newsletter is written by Peter Bale, based in New Zealand and the U.K. and lead for the INMA Newsletter Initiative. Peter will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of global newsrooms.
This newsletter is a public face of the Newsroom Initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail Peter at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org with thoughts, suggestions, and questions.