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Our latest Third Wave Commentary:

Introducing a Digital Framework for Media Companies

By Johannes on 19 Mar 2015 11:46 am

Since releasing our Future of News Publishing report last year and since actually putting it together about two years ago, we have been observing the news publishing industry continually. Collecting weak signals, we were trying to spot the behaviors that seem to be helping publishers not only to survive but to move forward. Taking a step back, we saw similar patterns emerging again and again. So it was time to put them into a framework.

The purpose of this framework is to put the most important aspects of a publishing company in the digital world into a model1. It’s not a how-to guide for building a news publishing product. It’s a mental model how to think about and develop core parts of the business.

The Key Components

audience content business product

The model itself is simple. It’s a triangle that connects the three main areas of a media company from our (current) perspective and puts the audience in the middle.

1. The Audience

Every media company needs to start with and evolve around its audience: the readers, viewers, listeners, commentators, community etc.

2. The Content

This is not only all the stuff that is written, produced, recorded, filmed or created in any way. It’s also the talent: the writers, the journalists, the photographers, the film crews, the fact checkers and researchers. Also the formats: articles, slideshows, listicles, quizzes, clips, interviews, op-eds etc.

3. The Business

All the ways that the company makes money. We’ve touched on a lot of the new possibilities and business models for media businesses to make money in the Future of News Publishing report. From advertising and sales to events to consulting and much more.

4. The Product

This is the infrastructure. It’s how the audience perceives the content: websites, apps, email newsletters, magazines, newspapers, PDFs, ebook readers, etc. But it’s also how the content is created: the content management systems, the communications channels, the analytics dashboard, the tools and gadgets for reporting, writing, recording, maintaining and distributing.

The Key Insights

So far, nothing new. Most media businesses have always consisted of these aspects. So what’s the difference in a digital world? Here are the two main insights:

1. Collaboration

All three areas of the company and their connected departments must be not only constantly in contact but actually collaborating. The days when the product development was cut off from the newsroom and journalists never spent a thought on where their salary came from are gone.

Much has been said and written about the wall between the journalism side and the business side of news publishing entities also known as the divide between church and state. And we’re most certainly endorsing a transparent approach to native advertising and the likes. But in a time when fresh ideas are in desperate need, we think that too much is lost by people from the different departments not thinking and working together.

We think that one of the best ways to set up a media business for the digital world is to not separate the three aspects into different departments but to hire people who feel comfortable in two or more areas. The best way to avoid silos is to have them breached by individuals who have clear goals that span more than one area.

All three areas also need to be perpetually connected to the audience. Content needs to know what they are interested in, what’s their take on things and what’s helping them in their day/work/life. Business needs to know where the audience’s money is going, what they are willing to spend and how they value the content. Product needs to continuously update its understanding of the audience’s consumption behavior, their favorite tools and devices and how they prefer to pay.

Some of this means being in a continuous conversation with the audience. For other insights, it means looking a studies, reports and conducting individual research. A lot of it means just prototyping and testing.

2. Iteration

iterating content business product

The complexity and rapid progression of the digital world makes it hard to just plan, implement and then run with a finished product. One of the core principles of the digital context is to have a small idea, test it, improve it, test it again, improve it again and so on. It’s all about perpetual iteration.

This insight is the biggest change of how media companies are working in the digital world. It’s also the part that current media companies and even a lot of the ones “born digital” struggle with.

Some media companies iterate their content. They try out new formats, writing styles, video story lines etc. Others are experimenting with new business models like opening up an event space, releasing special purpose apps or starting an agency business. But only very few media companies iterate in their product development like continuously working on making their websites work better and optimizing the CMS and the publishing process.

We think that to be successful as a publisher in the future, a company needs to iterate in all three areas of our model all the time. And it shouldn’t keep the iteration loops inside each area. Every iteration in one area should be shared with the other areas to inspire the iterations there. The result is a constant renewal of the whole company.

iterating media company

An example: A company comes up with a new idea for a content format. It will prototype it and test the idea with its audience. The audience feedback might also inform new ideas for business models that might go along with this format. If the company doesn’t have an in-house design-and-development team, this prototyping would be difficult and expansive. But if the project team consists of members who are connected to all three areas, they can iterate towards a viable new outcome rapidly.

That’s why we see a lot of good initial ideas fail. The product development is outsourced and only involved until the launch. And we think that it is impossible to create a successful digital media product without iterating it constantly.

What’s next?

That is the basic concept of our framework for digital media companies. So what can you do with it right now?

  • Use it to analyze different media companies and see how they cover the different areas…or not.
  • Check the viability of your own (media) company and discover blind spots that you hadn’t thought about in this context yet.
  • Investigate the core digital paradigm of constant iteration and ask yourself what that means for your company and team structures, your processes, your project planning and your business model(s).

This introduction to the framework has only been one step for us. Next up is collecting lots of feedback and, of course, iterating the model. And we are writing more in-depth articles about all the different aspects of the framework.

If you have questions about or feedback for the framework, please get in contact.

Update: We’ve already got some very helpful feedback from Florian Steglich from the NZZ Labs. Check out his clarified model. We will wait for more feedback and publish our revised framework on Monday.


  1. We’re not talking about digital companies per se as in companies, which have a digital product. When we talk about the “digital world,” we mean a world that is heavily influenced by the characteristics of “the digital.” A media company might only sell a print product. But it still has to deal with “digital aspects” like growing complexity, shorter attention span, internal communications based on email and much more. In the digital world, every company is also a tech company. 

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