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Titanic vs speedboat: four tips for publishers in the digital age

It's topical to look at the evolution of the news organisation following Pierre Omidyar's $50m investment in his and Glenn Greenwald's joint venture, First Look Media, that happened in December.

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With Greenwald being the former Guardian journalist responsible for breaking the Snowden/NSA surveillance stories and Pierre Omidyar the founder of eBay it’s a formidable team.

This interesting announcement launches another competitor into an increasingly crowded space. Existing outlets are increasing their focus and investment on digital and organisations such as Buzzfeed, Huffington Post and Vice continue to grow pace and authority.

Along with this increasingly competitive landscape is a different consumer. Recent research by Pew suggests the younger audiences consume news differently. They spend less time engaging with the news but are also less likely to visit news homepages, instead being exposed to headlines through social.

So if these changing times can be likened to dangerous seas can the old players be likened to the Titanic and if so, what’s the alternative? Could a speedboat ie a more agile organisation comfortable with exploration be more effective?

Here I share some thoughts on how Omidyar and Greenwald could build their speedboat using some examples of some others.

1. Develop a clear value proposition and point of difference

With a busy market the importance of having purpose and clear, differentiated values is greater than ever. It’s easy to claim quality journalism, integrity and access/scoops but traditional outlets aren’t alone in that.

The recent examples of Buzzfeed hiring senior jounros from the Guardian and New York Times or of Vice media gaining access to Kim Jong Un, future leader of North Korea demonstrate this.

2. Simplicity and utility win

People are busy, have a lot of distractions and a short attention span.

A Norwegian study found legal streaming services like Spotify and Netflix have led to a decrease in illegal downloading which to me demonstrate that simple, quality user experiences are valued.

Services like Instapaper, Flipboard and Atlantic Media’s offer real utility and ease of use resulting in fast growing audiences.

3. Test or be toast

I remember a great quote from Paul Berry, former CTO of the Huffington Post, which went something like "Lets have an idea on Monday. Instead of having lots of meetings about that idea, lets just effing do that idea. By Wednesday we’ll have realised the flaw and iterated … and by Friday it’s either executed or almost done."

That mindset is such a contrast to "With our brand we could never launch a product in beta" which is what I heard a Senior Newspaper Exec say at a conference last year.

Exploration is key in such a fast moving space. News organisations need to take their leads from tech companies who have the "always in beta" and "prototype or die" mentality.

Companies need to get comfortable with experimenting, know their measures of success and reduce their experiment cycle time.

4. Know your passengers

This should probably have been the first tip but media companies need to be really close to their readers. Not just to understand their changing behaviours, landscapes and needs but also to enable regular testing of their new ideas.

James Haycock is founder at Adaptive Lab

This article was first published on

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