Be Nimble, Adjust and Think 'Small,' Media Experts Advise for 2020

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"Publishers [need to] return to the key question: 'How does your product grow?' It's one of the most important questions to be able to answer. Growth is necessary for the very existence of most products and services, and it serves as evidence that you have a compelling proposition—especially if growth is driven by both new and loyal returning readers."

That quote comes from Tanya Cordrey, a product and technology consultant, and former chief digital officer of Guardian News & Media. She is spotlighted in one of my favorite annual features—NiemanLab's Predictions for Journalism 2020—where they round up forecasts from prominent media people (including Columbia's Mario Garcia who keynoted for us at BIMS!). I remember checking back during 2019 on more than one occasion and nodding my head about a prediction coming true.

Here's a sampling of 2019 predictions that apply to niche publishing:

Think "small" first. "Mobile-first means that every reporter conceptualizes and writes stories to be consumed on the smallest of devices," said Mario Garcia, also founder of Garcia Media, a global consulting firm. "In a mobile-first environment, we go from small to large, not the other way around. Everything is created for mobile consumption, then adapted to other, larger platforms. When mobile-first becomes essential, the way a story moves adapts to the requirement for constant updates as well as for the inclusion of audio and video. Premium content that readers will pay for can be generated more readily across platforms, but with an emphasis on linear mobile storytelling."

Take advantage of the shift to first-party data. "The maturation of GDPR and launch of CCPA—not to mention the numerous browser and platform updates aimed at putting control over personal data back in the hands of consumers—means ultimately saying goodbye to the third-party cookies...," said M. Scott Havens, global head of digital and media distribution for Bloomberg Media. "A new cookie-less world will present an incredible opportunity to innovate our digital media ecosystem; a new system rebuilt on a sound foundation of quality, first-party data. This shift will not only enable marketers to finally trust the effectiveness of their targeted spends, but will also allow publishers to strengthen relationships with their readers."

Creating value is key. "Though there are certainly circumstances under which traffic is the goal, the news industry cannot be both motivated and sustained by exposure alone," writes author Kathleen Searles. "Long-term success requires attention. In other words, we need to start thinking about what happens after the click to truly leverage the greatest economic value of digital news. Mistaking clicks for attention distorts demand... A story that earns attention, on the other hand, elicits more thoughtful engagement with the information and increases recall, likely motivating other desirable attitudes and behaviors like trust and return visits."

Adopt a more nimble product approach. Successful news organizations will adopt a more nimble product approach—building a culture and habit of quick experimentation and establishing that expectation with readership, opening channels for conversations about those experiments and how they might improve," writes Emily Withrow, director of R&D at Quartz. "Our readers will feel like they're a part of the process, not a part of the product. Audiences will learn to trust us more because we will transparently strive to serve them better, and we will listen when they speak."

Fail. Talk about it. Adjust. "We must learn new things and try new things," writes Elizabeth Dunbar, a reporter at MPR News in St. Paul, Minnesota. "No, not just the project team over there. Not just that digital whiz. Everyone. I wish I didn't have to say that in 2020, but the reality is that too many newsrooms are still failing to innovate in ways that will sustain journalism into the future. We all can—and should—get better. So you start small and test things out within the boundaries of your organization. Or you seek out the journalists who are trying out stuff that excites you and find ways to contribute. Whatever the context, we must create a healthy environment for learning, reflection and growth. Fail. Talk about it. Adjust. Communicate it. Succeed. Celebrate it. You're on your way."

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…