Product Journalism: Moving beyond computer-assisted reporting to building public-service products

What is product journalism?

It’s the merging of product development/management and journalism to create long-lasting solutions to ongoing challenges that help users make decisions, build community and potentially take action to improve outcomes.

Unlike traditional journalism where the launch of an article, infographic or even interactive application is largely the culmination of a project, product journalism is about using the reporting to build public service solutions that are designed to deliver value to the business, the community and the users over long periods of time, i.e. years.

Despite the rise of computers and interactive databases with infinite storage and powerful search tools, journalism is largely stuck in a model which arose from the development of disposable handbills in the 16th century. Newspapers, radio and TV news are fundamentally based on impermanence, where the product literally disappears after the program ends or when the newspaper goes into the recycle bin. In the traditional model of journalism, the value of information decreases dramatically over time, with half lives measured in hours and days, not weeks, months, and years. 

Product journalism embraces the fact that well-managed information grows in value over time, that a reporter is really a market/UX researcher looking for problems in need of solutions, and that an article, photos and even interactive databases are rarely enough to truly move the needle in regards to solving the problem. 

Product journalism embraces the fact that news organizations are active participants in the community, and that knowledge alone isn’t power, but that our job needs to be about facilitating action. 

The Atlanta Constitution Journal’s Unprotected searchable database of violations at senior assisted living facilities in Georgia is a great example of something that could easily become a long-lasting product/service in its own right. The AJC gathered data over two years about facility violations, and then not only wrote a series of stories, but created a searchable database.

My assumption is that now that they have released their findings and published the database, that there are no plans to continue updating the database, enhance the application, or explore opportunities to expand and monetize the application. 

As a product journalist, here’s how I would look at what the opportunities are to transform their initial work into an ongoing business.

Is there an ongoing need for this information? Is this a one time even, or an ongoing challenge? And how big is the opportunity?

As someone with elderly parents currently living at home, but who will most likely need to move into a senior care facility, I can tell you, while I might not need the information today, I absolutely will in a year or two from now. And so will millions of others.

Who else is providing similar information and solutions?

If someone else had already been in the market, then there would have been no need to conduct the investigation to begin with! Regardless, it’s important to understand who the players and what sources of information/capabilities exist, to either incorporate into your offerings or compete with.

What are some of the different use cases/ information needs? And how could you best meet those needs? 

Not only do people need information while researching where to place their parents, they want to make sure that the facility is treating them well while they are there, so your users might want alerts if new issues arise, or regular reports showing how a specific facility compares with others.

What other types of information could you collect and tools could you use to help users make informed decisions, insure adequate oversight and improve the overall quality of senior care facilities?

A product manager is always looking for ways to improve the value and customer experience they deliver. As the Hungarians say, a miracle only lasts 72 hours, so while users may be ecstatic with what you originally offer, inevitably they’ll begin demanding more, and other competitors may come into the market, especially if you’re service is lagging.

 A few examples, I’d explore are:

  • Is there an opportunity to survey facility residents and families regarding the quality of the facilities, so not only do you have the government data, but data from residents and families? 
  • Are there scorecards you can create to help users find the best facilities at the lowest costs for their family members? 

What are the business opportunities and models required to sustain the service?

Ultimately, you’re going to need to figure out what resources it will take to maintain the service, and how you are going to pay for them.Since you’re dealing with a multibillion dollar industry where people’s lives are literally stake, that means there are plenty of revenue generating opportunities. Many facility residents and their families should be willing to pay, facilities themselves and other organizations serving seniors will want to advertise, and foundations may be willing to underwrite the venture.

 Regardless, you’re going to need to have an organization devoted to the care and feeding of the product/business, and that all needs to be factored into the model.

Can you scale the solution to other communities, either nationally or globally? 

Oftentimes once you build the core application infrastructure, e.g. your data models, data collection processes, user interfaces, etc. it’s relatively easy to scale the solutions beyond your immediate geography. In fact, oftentimes in order to make the initial investment worthwhile, you need to be able to build a product that serves a much larger market than your traditional market. 

Where does it fit within your current portfolio? 

Since news organizations and their products are built around impermanence, where does something like this fit? Or does it become a standalone product that is linked to from your core site? 

How do you define success from a user, community and business perspective in such a way that it also aligns with your public-service mission? 

While news organizations need to make money to survive and thrive, they are fundamentally supposed to be public-service organizations, so it helps to develop robust metrics and guidelines that enable you to show progress toward your mission, and help prevent you from straying in pursuit of profit alone. 

Making the leap to product journalism won’t be easy, but it is necessary for the long-term survival of news organizations, and for journalists to successfully achieve their goals to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable in the Internet era.