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Wicked problems in the business of journalism

Wicked problems in the Rittel/Buchanan sense of having fundamental indeterminacy

What problems are we actually solving for our subscribers?

What do people actually want to pay us money for? Why do we exist as a sustainable business? The answer is not as straightforward as just ‘the provision of information’. For any well-established news company, there are bound to be multiple answers that are valued differently by their different customers: We help people make decisions. We entertain. We help build a better society. We help form and express your self-identity.

None of these are new: We have long held certain implicit assumptions about what problems we solved by delivering our print newspaper daily to people’s front doors. The issue is that it has been too long since we were forced to consciously consider this question, and it is unclear both how many of these problems still exist, and whether they are still being solved by our products.

What should we do when our customers no longer look to us to solve some of those problems for them? Or when there is no obvious way to digitally replicate past solutions (For example: Giving customers a way to be seen as the sort of financially literate, serious person who would carry a copy of the Financial Times newspaper in the subway)?

On the other hand, we can now, in theory, better understand our customers. We can untangle their morass of mixed motivations and target specific problems with custom solutions. (For example: Some people have a fear of missing out and wanted a reliable daily catchup/roundup they can complete to assuage that fear, and so the Economist’s Espresso newsletter and the Quartz news app were born.)

All business model innovations are either bundling or unbundling. The history of established companies succeeding at unbundling their own existing products (and rebundling them) is … not great.

What platforms and formats should we optimise for?

Should we only be on platforms that we are optimising our content for, or are we ok putting our content out on platforms without specifically optimising for it? (For example: Just use the article headline as the tweet text). Resource-wise, how many platforms can we afford to optimise for?

Should platform and format decisions be made on business model considerations or on storytelling considerations?

From a purely storytelling perspective, formats are not equal or fungible: some information and experiences are best conveyed through certain formats.

Are we, then, the sort of news organisation that starts with storytelling and finds business model solutions to support and monetise that, or do we start with fixed formats, and fit our storytelling around that?

A news organisation that knows clearly what problems it is solving for its customers should find that question relatively easy to answer: “It depends, and actually, it doesn’t really matter.” Any solution is bound to include both content and delivery, and whichever side you start from, you should end in the middle with a happy compromise that best solves your customers’ problems.

In reality, the question is often answered haphazardly, and in favour of the latter view (prioritise finding fixed answers for format/platform/distribution and fit storytelling around it).

This is partly because the people making business model decisions often come from the commercial rather than editorial side of the organisation. Even more importantly, it is also because storytellers don’t know what opinion to voice, because we are still groping our way towards an aesthetic/grammar of digital storytelling. How many journalists have the skill to take a story idea and be able to say definitely: “This would work best as a podcast or a video, but it definitely shouldn’t be told via a piece of data visualisation or as a longform written narrative”?

Newspaper editors make these sorts of judgments daily about text formats (“This story should be a 750-word feature and not a 400-word news story”). It’s not just that few have skill and experience working across media formats, but also that we lack a mental framework for making cross-media editorial judgments.

The vast expansion of storytelling tools that come with digital will remain a mostly unrealised opportunity until we can figure that out. Until then, news organisations will continue to try to solve their customers’ problems through formats in ways that are fundamentally disconnected from storytelling.

How do we get from here to there?

Especially when we can’t rely on ever having a clear view of what ‘there’ is before we start acting and changing? How, in other words, do we get better at experimentation, building up incremental improvements, and applying design thinking?

How should we be organised?

For most large news organisations, the starting point is a waterfall workflow within clearly defined desk structures. That won’t go away overnight, but what now needs to be handled in a project team?

What does that project team look like and to what extent should it draw personnel from, and co-ordinate with, the non-newsroom parts of the organisation? (For example: marketing, customer acquisition, technology infrastructure) How do we fill the gaps in skills and expertise (i.e. project management) that traditionally were not needed, and therefore not valued in the newsroom?

What to read next: Why newsrooms need project managers