Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Becky Pallack, product manager for the Arizona Daily Star, about innovation in publishing.
If you’d like to listen to the interview here it is on the Digital Media Growth Podcast.
We discussed how and why she uses the lean innovation framework to create thriving news products for the Star’s audience, and how publishers can learn a thing or two from the start-up community.
Becky is a veteran journalist and long time beat reporter at the Arizona Daily Star, located in Tucson AZ. Becky “stumbled” into product management, which has occupied her for the last three years.
Product managers have become key figures in the digital publishing world in recent years, and their mission to spot new opportunities and revenue avenues is becoming increasingly crucial as the space becomes ever more complex and integrated with the broader tech world.
Lean Innovation in Publishing
Discovering lean innovation
Becky first learned about Lean Innovation through the local startup community. She was invited to a final pitch session after an intensive weekend workshop.
“I didn’t know anything about innovation frameworks as a journalist – so after that I learned all I could on my own”
Becky educated herself on the important concepts through free workshops, library books, podcasts and websites. She then took her newfound knowledge right back to the newsroom and started applying it in her role.
As the first product manager in her organization – Becky faced some challenges along the road.
“It was an education for myself but also for newsroom leaders who needed some convincing about the benefits of innovation projects”
They were convinced in the end though – as Becky has driven multiple successful projects since which we’ll discuss later.
What is Lean Innovation?
Moves The Needle defines lean innovation as:
“Reducing the waste in the discovery, creation and delivery of new value to customers”
They also break down the core principles into ‘The 3 E’s’:
Let’s take a deeper look into these three principles and see some practical examples of how we could apply them.
“It really starts with empathy – building empathy with your audience”
Empathy in this context is taking the time to really put yourself in your audience’s shoes.
By developing a deep understanding of your readers – or potential readers – you’ll be in a much better position to uncover new opportunities and insights, and ultimately build products that will truly engage them.
Becky illustrated this concept with a story.
At the Star, Becky’s executive editor had challenged her team to reach a key audience that was under-served and missing from their metrics – millennial women.
How do we build empathy?
Using the lean innovation approach Becky’s team went out into the local community and talked to women from that demographic, seeking to answer questions like:
- What are their unique information needs?
- How do they currently get their news
- What information is hard for them to find?
- What could we do to be helpful?
Taking the time to understand your readers really pays dividends when we move on to the next stage, and is the foundation of innovation in publishing and beyond.
“We took what we learned from that, built a few prototypes, and took them back into our communities for testing”
This was a new way of working at the Arizona Daily Star. A key part of the lean innovation process is testing hypotheses formed during the empathy work in the form of prototyping.
Data collected during the testing phase in the form of qualitative and quantitative feedback from the audience works along with ongoing empathy work and helps you to zero down on what your readers really want.
In practice this is going back out into your community and sharing prototypes and ideas for feedback.
This is supposed to be a cyclical and iterative process, the more you test assumptions and hypotheses the closer you’ll get to the truth of what your audience really needs – and the more evidence you’ll have to convince internal stakeholders of the correct path forward.
Evidence is the culmination of the previous empathy and experimentation work.
As we can see, lean innovation is similar to the scientific method – gathering information on which to form hypotheses, then testing those in an effort to get further toward the truth.
When you have enough evidence to make a strong case for a specific direction or project, this is used to persuade partners and stakeholders in a direction that provides ever more value to your audience.
In Becky’s case – empathy, experimentation and evidence gathering pointed the way to a new and thriving product.
“Long story short, we built a local digital media brand specifically for that user group (millennial women).
It’s called This is Tucson – and we built all that under the umbrella of our legacy local newspaper”
Why Journalists are really weird news consumers
“Often with news teams we need to remember that we are not our audience – what we’re building is not for us”
Media professionals often read news all day and from a lot of different sources – which is not typical for their audience. It’s important to really step out of your role and really ask the important questions to build empathy.
One of Becky’s favourite questions to ask is simply – “how do you get your local news?”
She’s constantly surprised by people’s answers. If you take the time to build empathy with your own audience you may be surprised too!
Newsrooms have an advantage with user-testing and empathy work because they can use their existing audience
During empathy work – Becky saw a problem in the local community.
“Parents find it really hard to find information about the best summer camps for their kids.
When we talk to them about that they roll their eyes, throw their hands up in the air and tell frustrated stories……. We knew there was a way we could help them”
Becky and her team built out a prototype of a product that could help them. They were able to get 90 user testing volunteers in 24 hours. This allowed them to be picky about who they tested the prototype on – trying to find the exact right targets.
“When you already have an engaged audience like so many newsrooms do, and your products are a part of their lives – you can ask them for help and they’ll often say yes”
“We’re often looking at an engagement metric as the measure of success – shares is a big one for us. If you’re willing to tell your friends about something that’s a big victory”
Meeting People Where they are
It’s not about just trying to fit your existing content into new channels – part of the empathy work is finding out where people like to get their news and then tailoring your strategy to that.
“For our products aimed at younger women – we host a lot of our content on Facebook, Facebook groups and Instagram – but we’re not on twitter because our audience isn’t”
Do you know exactly where your target audience hangs out online? Is that changing with the shifts in platform popularity and the emergence of new ones? These are simple but powerful questions to answer.
Where is everyone nowadays? Well, mostly on mobile. According to the latest Reuters Digital News Report:
“The smartphone continues to grow in importance for news, with two-thirds (66%) now using the device to access news weekly (+4pp)”
(For an overview of this year’s report – check out this write up)
At the Arizona Daily Star – they try to build everything “mobile first”.
Becky, along with a team of three developers, were responsible for developing apps for the local audience.
She was responsible for user testing and making sure that the apps were bringing a lot of value for users.
Many top publishers have seen positive results from investing in a solid app strategy.
The apps have been a success for Becky’s team too.
“The number of active users is pretty good – although we’d obviously like to get more! One of the biggest challenges is ‘discoverability’.
It’s hard to get someone to download something – but if your organisation already has a trusting relationship with the community that goes a long way”
How you can apply Lean Innovation in your Newsroom
Start teaching yourself everything you can about the Lean Innovation process. Only when professionals in our industry learn about these methodologies will we truly get more innovation in publishing.
Becky’s story is inspiring. She took a proactive approach to learning through library books, online resources and podcasts. Check out the resources at the end of this article to expand your own knowledge.
Get involved in your local start-up community
“I’ve learned so much by stepping out of my industry and thinking about innovative products and start-ups from other industries – and how the lessons they’ve learned can apply to journalism”
What can publishers learn from the start-up community?
Testing, iterating, prototyping, testing again, failing quickly and trying again – this is a new mentality for many in an older industry that far pre-dates the current age of digital disruption.
“This is a new way of thinking for a lot of legacy news organisations – for a long time we’ve done things with the ‘build it and they’ll come” mentality. Lean innovation really can help newsrooms to innovate without a lot of waste. We don’t have time and money to waste and this framework can help us get to the future faster”
Lean innovation is at its core a philosophy that seeks to eliminate waste and identify risks early in the process.
Becky and her team are currently applying the framework to build products for local sports super fans. They’ve built an app, a newsletter and a podcast for this audience and are looking at ways to tweak their engagement strategy and make the content more fun and interactive.
They’re also looking ahead to the 2020 election, and soon will start the empathy work to build a voter guide that really helps their audience to make informed decisions.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this piece and got some ideas about how you can apply lean innovation principles to your own work.
If you liked it, why not subscribe for more interviews and case studies with interesting people on the front lines of digital publishing.
For more information and inspiration, check out the resources we’ve put together to help you.
Here are a few of our top picks for learning more about innovation in publishing and applying the lean framework.
- A great article about self-education and teaching yourself new concepts
- An excellent free course about how to quickly and efficiently learn
- Inspiration from publishers applying innovative thinking to their business
- A good article by Steve Blank on what Lean Innovation is and how it changes everything
- Reading list for those interested in innovation
- A free course on applying the Business Model Canvas