Building a successful product is a collaborative process requiring inspiration, intuition, user research, business savvy and technical know-how. This is one of two case studies in this series showing how product thinking can be applied to the development of a news or journalism product. This one was written for Knight Lab by Styli Charalambous, Publisher and CEO of the Daily Maverick.
The media world did more than lift an eyebrow when, after many publications announced they were cutting their print editions, the Daily Maverick announced it was launching a weekly newspaper. As a digital-only, investigative and long-form news outlet based in South Africa, we have made a habit of contrarian moves in the decade of our existence. But was this initiative as crazy as some would believe?
It wasn’t crazy for us at all – thanks to product thinking, a discipline we have developed over the years.
Over the years, we’ve never been short of grand ideas or a willingness to experiment. We know the terms “fail fast” and “fail often,” the mantra of technology entrepreneurs. But the part of “fail fast and often” that fails to make the headlines is that without a system to hypothesize, monitor and measure the outcome of your experiments, you’ll miss the target. I think that’s what happened to us for much of our first eight years.
Not everything we tried failed, mind you. We have produced some great journalism, won international awards and created a membership program, Maverick Insiders, that’s been showcased as an example for others to follow. We’ve doubled our newsroom size in the past two years.
The foundation of everything we do is the bedrock of quality long-form journalism and newsletters. But with slow progress on developing revenue, we had to experiment with a small budget. In a way, that helped us avoid chasing after all the “bright shiny things” that were supposed to save journalism. Our experiments were always lean. But eventually, we suffered under the weight of projects that were started with gut instinct and little research, and no pre-defined measures of success, project plans or roadmaps. We were like those naturally gifted athletes who got to the big leagues and found that talent can only get you so far.
How we decide on new products
In a media world of limited budgets, talent and resources, choosing which new projects to pursue is critical. In our resource-constrained world, the Japanese concept of Ikigai has been useful in helping us determine which ones fall into our sweet spot for consideration.
Ikigai has been used to help people figure out what work they should pursue to achieve happiness in their personal lives. Adjusting Ikigai slightly for an organization, we should be pursuing projects that:
● we are passionate about
● we are good at
● the world needs, and
● can be funded
While this might seem to be common sense, that is why it’s effective. Do your new projects hit the sweet spot of the Venn diagram? Companies that have institutionalized an innovation culture have developed scorecards of how to assess new opportunities. If your organization doesn’t have this yet, we have found that Ikigai can help guide your efforts.
Product thinking is a methodology that sits at the intersection of journalism, business, data and technology and the user experience. Stacie-Marie Ishmael, head of product at the Texas Tribune, defines it as a “a framework for identifying, defining, and approaching business-critical opportunities.” This lens reminds us that product development is a mindset and a practice.
Why a newspaper? And why now?
It can be easy to get swept up in the negative outlook about the news industry. To assume that hopelessness applies equally to all. But if the last decade has taught us anything, it’s how to make survival look palatable. For a while, things got pretty dark – fighting for economic survival while battling a corrupt government. But through it all, we were spurred on by the growth of our audience and the reputation of the brand.
Our venture into digital-only publishing came at a crazy time. Focusing on politics, in the era of Google and Facebook in a country whose major organs of the state had been captured by nefarious influences seeking to loot national and provincial budgets, wasn’t an environment conducive to innovation. But we always had the suspicion that our brand of long-form analysis and investigations would do well in printed form. Over the years, we reached out to existing print publishers with offers of collaboration that never went anywhere.
In the end, we decided to take control of our print ambitions ourselves. After the launch of our successful membership program, aided by philanthropic support, we were able to double the size of our newsroom in 24 months. Now we felt it was time to try to move ahead with a print product.
Start with feelings. End with facts.
Most new product decisions start with a gut feeling that this could be a worthwhile idea – a pursuit that is worthy of our scarce resources. That was where the idea started for a weekly print edition. But what did the research say, before we bet a lot of money on something that so many other companies were abandoning? While industry data on circulation and advertising showed that the print business was declining 8 to 10 percent per year, there were some anomalies that we needed to adjust for.
Leading South African newspapers had suffered a string of embarrassing reports caused by incompetence and political influence. Readers had responded by abandoning print.Styli Charalambous, publisher and CEO of the Daily Maverick
Firstly, while paid-for titles in South Africa had shown a drop in circulation of around 50 percent in the last 5 years, free-distribution publications remained strong. Another bit of data that surprised us was the results of a large digital consumer research panel that we participate in every year. This survey of 30,000 respondents showed that 82 percent of our readers, and those who follow the biggest news website in the country, still regularly read a newspaper. But 34 percent don’t pay for it. A separate reader survey found that the main reason people stopped reading print editions was a loss of quality and trust in those publications. Leading South African newspapers had suffered a string of embarrassing reports caused by incompetence and political influence. Readers had responded by abandoning print.
Of course, digital media had sped up this process, but we concluded that there was still demand for a quality print edition. Armed with this data, we began to think we could find an audience for a quality weekly title produced by experienced journalists and available for free.
Understanding our users
New print publications our team had been involved in before would have taken shape with little reader research or consultation, and a big push to launch with the perfect version after many delays and blown budgets. This time around, we focused on the “job to be done” for readers, based on their various information needs.
What would this newspaper seek to do for readers, and how would that inform the many product decisions to be made? What would a weekly print offering by a digital-first publisher look like, and how would it serve our readers given what we know about their online reading habits? How do we inform, educate, inspire and offer diversion in a curated weekly information service delivered in print? These were the jobs the print edition needed to do.
For readers, this newspaper would be about reigniting the lost ritual of the weekend read, something that came up strongly in our one-on-one discussions with our team and readers.Styli Charalambous, publisher and CEO of the Daily Maverick
For starters, the content mix had to take into account the weekly nature of the product, incorporating both the biggest stories of the week past as well as new, previously unpublished investigations. This would mean reorganizing our editorial efforts to align the timing of publishing online and in the newspaper. For readers, this newspaper would be about reigniting the lost ritual of the weekend read, something that came up strongly in our one-on-one discussions with our team and readers.
The decline in quality and trust of other newspapers had killed the deep reading experience that many people had come to associate Sundays with. By offering a product worthy of their time, we could rekindle those experiences, missed even more at a time when our attention is being constantly raided by notifications on tiny screens. The job it needed to do was give people a reason to take a break from the digital deluge with enough quality journalism to create new weekend rituals.
A collaborative partnership
We decided to call our newspaper Daily Maverick 168 (a reference to the number of hours in a week). We wanted it to be free. In a country with 30 percent unemployment and 40 percent poverty, Daily Maverick does not operate a paywall on its website. Instead, we have a voluntary membership program through which we encourage people to join our community of committed readers to help us “Defend Truth” in a country plagued by corruption. So we have kept our work free for those who might not be able to afford it.
We wanted to extend this thinking to print. Our printers suggested we take inspiration from the Pick n Pay Supermarket group, which published the largest circulation magazine in the country by offering it free to their loyalty cardholders, but with a cover price of 30 Rand (about $2.00 US) for others. With 8 million registered cardholders, the company’s Smart Shopper loyalty program is the biggest and most advanced in the country.
We have a voluntary membership program through which we encourage people to join our community of committed readers to help us ‘Defend Truth’ in a country plagued by corruption.Styli Charalambous, publisher and CEO of the Daily Maverick
As sponsors of our food newsletter, Pick n Pay was already a commercial partner of ours. We began a series of discussions that led us to offer the product free to loyalty program members, and to incorporate shopper behavior data into our product decisions.
Initially, our intention was to take on the market-leading Sunday Times head-on with Sunday distribution, but we changed to Saturday once we found out that this was the top day for foot traffic in the supermarkets. Once we had agreed on terms to offer the print newspaper free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers, the company let us use their audience data to help us market the paper and provide audience insights and sales data. Distributing on Saturdays also meant that we could reach cities far away from our printers before the weekend was up. It also meant our team wouldn’t have to work Saturdays, which was also a plus.
Testing our ideas: A member survey and a pilot project
The success of our Maverick Insider membership program had already helped us grow our organization over the past two years. Apart from the financial benefits of a growing membership base, we had begun engaging with members in ways that began deepening our relationship with them. We asked for and found volunteers willing to provide their skills and expertise, and we held feedback sessions, embracing a more collaborative relationship with our members. By the time of the newspaper launch, we were “engagement fit.” We asked prospective readers which Pick n Pay stores they wanted included at launch. We got more than 10,000 votes in two weeks, enabling us to gauge reader demand and plan the number of copies distributed to stores.
The survey also enabled us to capture email addresses of prospective readers whom we could invite to participate in reader surveys and notify of product announcements. By the time the pilot weekend came around, we could select 20 stores, in two cities, and test demand based on a combination of reader votes, past newspaper sales data from Pick n Pay and some wildcard elements. Once the pilot was concluded, we had sales data per store to determine which ones had leftover copies. A post-pilot reader survey and sales data from Pick n Pay helped us debrief the pilot effort with some important findings:
● 72 percent of copies were distributed, almost all to loyalty cardholders
● Some stores sold out by midday
● 80 percent of readers had made a special trip to the store to get the paper
● In some pilot stores, people walked out with eight times as many copies of our print edition as other papers available there
● We achieved an average 8/10 net promoter score
Once again, all this data helped us validate our hypothesis that a free, quality newspaper could be successful and would help us plan the stores to select for launch and the volumes to allocate per store.
OKRs: Starting with the end in mind
Since October 2019, we’d begun the process of incorporating the use of OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) as a project management framework. Starting with the membership team, OKRs have been encouraged when planning and managing projects and teams. With the newspaper project, OKRs were set in January and re-evaluated when lockdown due to COVID-19 forced delays.
As with all businesses, we had some serious thinking to do about whether our strategies would hold in the face of the pandemic. But with both journalism and food retailers being deemed essential services, we knew that even in a lockdown, we would still be able to print and distribute a product. Advertiser support would be the great unknown, and April saw a 70 percent drop in print advertising in South Africa.
Our response was to push back our pilot date by 3 months and use the time to deal with the new demands of the pandemic and work on our designs. All the other goals using the OKR framework remained the same and helped us stay focused. Our objective was to launch the best newspaper in the country, with key results that we could measure: circulation, net promoter scores, awards and attention from other media.
The launch - and our conclusions
Daily Maverick 168 launched Sept. 26. Demand has been strong, and reader feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
Our new print newspaper shows how a news organization can innovate by using practices that have been commonplace in other industries. Marketing, product and technology are functional areas that are critically important to designing more audience-centric news businesses. Core to that is designing products with a human focus and driven by the needs of the ultimate consumers of those products.
These practices move us away from how products were designed and launched in the past. We need to test assumptions, use data to drive decisions and iterate in increments to keep improving our products. These concepts, while born in technology companies creating digital products, can even be used to launch a print newspaper.
This article is one in a series exploring product thinking as an emerging discipline in journalism.