For a year, I didn’t have a good answer, because publishers either ignored the most rapidly adopted electronics product in history — now owned by roughly a quarter of the population, according to the Pew Research Center — or slapped together retro renditions of their websites or print products for this state-of-the-art environment.
A miracle occurred in spring 2011, when The Orange County Register introduced a spritely, purpose-built app called The Peel that, exercising the full multimedia and interactive capabilities of the iPad, was explicitly designed to be as un-newspapery as possible.
The miracle was short-lived. A little more than a year after it was launched, the Peel was killed when the newspaper changed hands, and the new owners throttled back most of their digital initiatives to double down on print.
It’s too soon to assess the wisdom of the bold, if counterintuitive, print-first strategy at a time when digital media are vigorously siphoning readers and revenue away from newspapers. While we wait to see how that plays out, the tale of the Peel offers an excellent case study of the good, bad, and ugly aspects of innovative product development in the legacy newspaper environment — a skill that every publishing company needs, but few have mastered.
The perfect man to tell the Peel story is Douglas Bennett, who until September was the top digital officer at Freedom Communications, the parent of the Register. Bennett, who exited the company when the strategy shifted from pixels to print, has five important tips for editors and publishers hoping to develop innovative products. We’ll get to them in a moment. First, here’s the background:
“The Peel was proposed in July 2010 as a lean-back, media-rich experience, to be delivered at 6 p.m. each day to the sort of 24- to 44-year-old individuals who typically don’t read newspapers,” Bennett said in an interview. “Our research showed that the younger readers we wanted — but didn’t have — were not necessarily interested in conventional newspaper content but, rather, were interested in the weather, personalities, or what to do on the weekend. So, we went heavy with video and graphical stories and left out most of the stuff that normally appears in the newspaper.”
Although the app intentionally was designed to be nothing like the newspaper, it initially carried the Register’s name and was marketed primarily through the print and Web editions of the paper. This led to two big problems, which immediately came to light in focus groups. First, the app, which largely had been downloaded by the over-50 folks who make up half of newspaper readers, hadn’t attracted the desired audience. Second, the early adopters were angry that the app lacked the traditional newspaper content they were expecting to see.
“We knew immediately that we blew it,” Bennett said. “So, we launched a contest to find a new name and moved our marketing to such channels as Pandora, Twitter, and social media.”
Renamed The Peel within three months of launch, the product generated a few hundred thousand dollars of revenue in the first year, but it wasn’t making money, said Bennett, who is prohibited by his severance agreement from discussing financial details. Although Bennett said the losses were in line with those anticipated in the two-year launch plan adopted at the outset of the project, the Peel was scrapped when the company switched its focus back to print.
Reflecting on the venture, Bennett identified the following tips for developing a new and novel product:
1. Do your homework. “Make sure there is a market there,” Bennett said. “Be able to prove it’s there for the people in finance and sales — and the CEO.”
2. Get the CEO ’s backing. “Have a plan that the CEO buys into, supports, and guarantees,” Bennett said, so he or she can “run interference” with finance, the newsroom, the ad sales department, or anyone else who wants to kill the project if it is losing money in the early days — as almost all new ventures do.
3. Field the right team. “For iPad development, you need people who understand HTML5, video, and design on a screen environment,” he said. “You don’t have those people in today’s newsroom.”
4. Recruit a sales champion. “Newspaper salespeople already have too many things to sell,” Bennett said. “You need a leader who buys into your project.”
5. Build on your failures. “The plan you put on paper never happens the way you thought it would,” he said. “Recognize that you are going to make mistakes. When you do, make changes fast.”
Alan D. Mutter is a newspaper editor who became a Silicon Valley CEO and now serves as a technology consultant to media companies. His blog is Reflections of a Newsosaur at tiny.cc/newsosaur.