Computer on Desk

The #1 Way To Improve Your Workflow: Know Your Readers

Have you ever asked how well your workflow serves your readers?  Most publishers maintain a model in which information arrives in some version of a legacy package that best suits the publisher (and its workflows).

But readers seek out news and information in many different ways. Publishers and content marketers need to understand readers’ explicit and implicit needs, then organize their work in ways that meet those needs.

Readers aren’t thinking about the way the information was created, but publishers act as if they are. By focusing on formats rather than uses, publishers miss an opportunity to serve readers’ interests.

This is a point I have made in presentations like “Context first“. I came back to it when the Tow Center released a report, “Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present“, that specifically addressed the damage done when we rely on the tools favored by traditional approaches to media:

One section that stood out for me: “The Dilemma of Institutional Change” (pages 57 to 62). In it, the authors maintain that “the very success of newspapers at doing what they do makes changing them difficult”. This, of course, sets the stage for disruption by other entities. [Authors] Anderson, Bell and Shirky describe this challenge as the “presence of process”. Appropriately, they consider workflow to be the combination of tools (technology), process and organizational design. In an elegant and understated way they note, “Tools put in place to manage process also put in place the assumptions used to design the tools.”

To better understand how pervasively we think about formats, consider Mathew Ingram’s post, “It’s a lot easier to say you want to move from print-first to digital-first than it is to actually do it“. In it, Ingram addresses the “one step forward, two steps back” nature of change management, in this case at Digital First Media, which “provides management services to Journal Register Company and MediaNews Group.

A presentation by Digital First Media CEO John Paton describes his company’s plan to go, well… digital first. Take a look at the guidance they have been providing staff at their papers when it comes to “community engagement”:

The chain’s papers need to engage with their communities through a variety of tools and techniques, including social media, blogs, crowdsourcing and live events. “The editor explains newsroom decisions and developments regularly in a blog, social media and community appearances.”

“The editor explains …” It doesn’t say “the editor listens” or “the editor seeks to understand community needs”. Instead, the editor “explains” decisions already made, with a presumption that the local paper already understands what its readers want and need.

Ingram’s post also describes what he calls a “terrific analogy” by the late New York Times reporter and columnist David Carr:

Newspaper companies are in one room, he said — the print room — and they know they have to get to another room (the digital room) but at the moment most of them are stuck in the hallway, and it’s dark, and no one really knows how long it is or how they are going to get there.

The analogy may be clever, but it falls well short of ‘terrific’. Publishers aren’t “stuck between rooms”, one “print” and the other “digital”. These “rooms” – a proxy for format, rather than reader interests – exist only in publishers’ heads.

Content providers need to build workflows that serve the reader as she chooses. While many of those workflows may end up being digital first, their promise is not obtained by focusing on delivery of cheap content to a specific platform.

Well-designed digital workflows make sense because they are agile: their outputs can be customized to readers interests and intent. It’s a mistake to migrating to digital in ways that perpetuate the existing model, in which information arrives in the package that best suits the provider (and its workflows).

People ready to consume news and information aren’t thinking about the way the information was created. They have explicit or implicit needs. Our job is to understand those needs and organize our work in a way that meets them.

If you need further convincing, look again at Digital First Media. Several months after Ingram’s profile appeared, the company threw up its hands and declared it was open to being acquired. Since then, hedge funds like Cerberus and Apollo have been kicking the tires ahead of a sale.

Whoever wins the bidding is likely to focus on reducing costs to improve cash flow and pay down debt. That’s not a bad financial strategy, but it will once again miss an opportunity to redesign workflows to serve readers’ needs.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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