My good friend and crack news developer Matt Wynn and I made an argument a few months ago that, with the benefit of reflection, I think bears revisiting.
The gist was this. Newsrooms have been investing big time and money lately in hiring developer talent. In return, they expect a return on that investment in the form of what I have come to call the Three P's: Pageviews, Praise and Public Service. We argued that the Three P's weren't enough – that we should add a fourth one, Products, in service of a fifth: Profit.
To be clear, I still stand behind our argument. I think news apps are starting to run up against the ceiling of newsroom culture, which holds that the narrative story is and shall always be the center of the universe. The next step, in my mind, is still for more news apps to break out on their own as standalone Products. But lately my focus has shifted from the idea Profit as money to a broader concept of Profit as return on investment – something that, in the world of news apps, can take many forms.
I'll skip over the idea of public service as ROI here because as critical as it is, I think it's implied. The ROI I'm talking about is much more bottom-line focused: reducing costs, spurring innovation and gathering useful intelligence we can use to make our products better.
USING DATA TO IMPROVE PRODUCTS
I'll start with the last one: Useful intelligence. I've already blogged about the benefits of using your data to make more data – namely, data about your users and their behavior. A lot of us are at least running simple analytics suites on our news apps (If you're not, you should be), but how many of us actually look at those analytics and use them to make decisions?
I'd venture to guess not many. Part of the reason is because event tracking is still a somewhat foreign concept in the newsroom. Sure, we know what people are clicking on. We know how many visit and how long they stay. But how does that make our next application better? Entrepreneur Eric Ries (he of the Lean Startup) makes the distinction between actionable metrics and vanity metrics. Most of the time our bosses care about the latter, when really it's the former that pay bigger returns.
One quick example: As I wrote before, we built a simple searchable database app that launched on Christmas Day. It was a dead simple project, so we tried to graft on a couple experiments to make things more interesting. One was a simple feature that used similarity algorithms to show people some links they might be interested in. The other was a joint distribution experiment: We ran the app both on our site and on the site of our reporting partner, the Sacramento Bee.
Using a backend event tracking system we quickly threw together, we learned that people liked our recommended links, to the tune of about about a 20 percent traffic boost within the app. We also got more evidence to confirm what we always suspected: Far more people use our apps when we embed them in partner sites.
These weren't earth-shattering revelations, but they were useful, actionable, and will help us make better decisions. Apart from the Three P's, this app's ROI was helping us build better applications.
One of the most insightful comments I've heard lately came from a Silicon Valley data scientist who was angry at himself for not blogging enough. As he lamented not putting enough of his ideas down in writing, he said: “Blogging helps your ideas scale.”
That's absolutely true. There are only so many hours in the day, so many projects we can take on. Giving up our ideas to others is a great way to help them become reality, even if we're not the ones to execute them. Of course, the same can be said for open source code and data APIs – both of which make for more great ways to generate return on your investment in news apps.
One reason news apps teams at the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and New York Times are so brilliant is because they share. They open source code, share data, blog their thoughts and otherwise push their ideas and capabilities out in to the world. They help their ideas scale.
Now while all this sharing might sound like warm, fuzzy Kumbaya, it can also pay real dividends. A healthy open source community will happily devote resources to solving problems that matter to you. And even if they don't matter to you, they probably matter to journalism. And let's face it: At this point, what's good for one of us in terms of innovation is probably good for us all.
News organizations are rightfully obsessed with new ways to generate revenue. But I've long found it curious that so much less conversation has been devoted to creative ways to make news production more efficient. I have to think there are better ways to save money in a newsroom than laying people off.
In the news apps universe, some of those savings can come from building apps in ways that can solve bigger problems.
Before we sit down and build an app, we should be asking ourselves what generic problem our work might solve. You can spend a few days building a searchable database, or you can spend a little longer building a utility that allows you to create not only that single searchable database, but any simple searchable database you will ever need to build.
All of a sudden, building a search app takes an hour, not a day. The ROI on your project is the precious gift of developer hours. And now your team suddenly has more time to work on cool projects that can really make a difference.
I don't mean to sound like a bean-counter with all this talk about ROI and efficiencies. The point is, the Three P's – Pageviews, Praise and Public Service – still don't provide enough return on our news apps investment. Products are still a good idea, but Profit is only one part of a much bigger ROI picture.
We're journalists, not businesspeople. We're in this line of work because we value public service. But that doesn't mean we can't be smarter about how we spend our resources and what we get for them.