Process innovation

Time to change how it's done

Reminder to product people: Please take this 10-question survey that will form the basis of a research report The Rebooting is doing in collaboration with Wordpress VIP. We’re undertaking this research, as well as the Media Product Forum on July 11 in New York, to understand how media products need to change to meet the moment. Take the survey here, and get in touch by hitting reply if you want to be considered for an invite to the event. Attendance is limited to those leading product groups at publishers.

Content Matters 2024 Report

For our annual Content Matters 2024 Report, WordPress VIP surveyed over 1,000 content and media professionals to find out how they’re using content, analytics, and AI to drive business, retain customers, and prepare for the death of the third-party cookie. Here’s what we learned.

Process innovation

This is a singular moment for the media industry, in particular for news publishers. Axios CEO Jim VandeHei calls it “the most difficult media moment ever.” It’s safe to say the business needs a jolt of innovation. 

One of my recent takeaways from discussions with those running media businesses is a focus on process innovation that makes their organizations more efficient, focused, adaptable and competitive. 

This is often the unsexy form of innovation. Everyone loves a product launch. Only the Boss Class celebrates the cost savings demanded by a ruthlessly competitive market. Process innovation is more foundational than flashy. It’s a reexamination of how an organization operates, rebuilding it from the ground up to be more efficient, productive and adaptable. Typical examples are Ford’s embrace of assembly line techniques, Toyota’s implementation of lean-manufacturing process. Starbucks’ customer-focused mobile ordering system.

Delta has gone from what I considered America’s least worst airline to a category leader by a series of product innovations. But it began with process innovations like a focus on on-time arrivals, not losing people’s bags and fixing maintenance issues. Paul O’Neill turned around Alcoa by focusing on worker-safety processes as a North Star. In many news organizations in transition, the focus is on distinctiveness. That means a sharpened output as well as reallocation of scarce resources. 

It’s little surprise that many of the healthiest media businesses are relatively new. They are starting from scratch with their organizations and processes. They benefit from seeing what doesn’t work in legacy structures. They can avoid creating the structures of those they seek to replace. I have cast a wide net for a business operations lead. I don’t want to replicate outdated structures and processes in the name of “that’s how it’s done.” (Get in touch if you want to discuss the opportunity.)

I keep asking publishing CEOs what their businesses look like in five years. Most admit to not knowing because of the rapidly changing environment. In that kind of situation, you have to reorient around adaptability to build resilience.

People tend to dislike change. It’s disruptive and seen as a threat to their interests. And sometimes it is. Many jobs have been cut in media companies in the past year and more will be lost. The guerrilla war within The Washington Post and lower-grade resistance within The Wall Street Journal, Politico and many other organizations point to how resistant organizations are to process innovation, whether that’s the “third newsroom,” use of AI tools or efforts to implement performance measurement tools. 

Newsrooms, in particular, are small C conservative. As Semafor’s Ben Smith said to me, they tend to work for the guild more than the company. The church and state divide is often weaponized to resist process innovation because there’s leverage on that high horse. 

Historically, unions have favored product innovation to process innovation because the latter often is explicitly designed to save on labor costs, even if the long term goal is to enable higher quality. One person’s efficiency gain is another’s layoff. The current situation for most publishers will require both product and process innovation. 

Driving this kind of change will be easier for founders than managers. Over the late pandemic, when most publishers had empty offices, I visited a bustling Bloomberg headquarters. Mike believes in office culture, I was told, and he still badges in. There’s no leverage like when your name is the brand and is on the tower. (This is more limited if you’re a princeling put in charge by birthright. As Obama said, you didn’t build that.)

The challenge for leaders will be in communicating these process innovation efforts as beneficial to the overall organization, even if they will result in individual dislocation. “People aren't reading your stuff” isn’t going to win many hearts and minds. O’Neill was savvy to focus on worker safety as a way to get organizational buy-in rather than focus on cost savings. That kind of deftness will be needed for these leaders to meet the moment. 

How Al Jazeera Built Their Digital Experience Using Headless WordPress

All Al Jazeera America Digital CTO David “Hos” Hostetter wanted for the media network’s new content management vision was “elegant simplicity,” seamlessness, security, and lower cost of ownership. Learn the parts WordPress VIP and headless CMS played. Read the case study

On this week’s episode of People vs Algorithms, Troy and I discuss how Perplexity made a classic mistake of leaving the banana in the smoothie. You can be sure AI companies will make sure the content they slurp up is blended better in the future. Plus: The hard work of creating distinctive events and managing change within media companies. Listen on Apple | Spotify | other podcast platforms

Thanks for reading. Send me a note with feedback: Also, send me a note if you want to talk about partnership opportunities. We have several initiatives in the second half of the year, including an event we're putting together to build a sustainable news industry.