Audience Engagement Top Stories
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“Don’t do everything at once”: How The Washington Post builds its products

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At the recent WAN-IFRA World News Media Congress 2022, Kat Downs Mulder, Chief Product Officer and Managing Editor of Digital at The Washington Post, outlined how the news publisher builds, develops, and launches its products. Key takeaways? Understand your audience, observe the competitive landscape, create a minimal delightful product, keep evolving and developing, but DON’T do everything at once.

During the second day of WAN-IFRA’s recent World News Media Congress held in Spain, Kat Downs Mulder took the stage to outline how The Washington Post builds its products. Mulder specifically focused on the news publisher’s launch of The 7, a newsletter product designed as a ‘daily briefing of the seven most important and interesting stories delivered to your inbox every weekday morning’.

At the outset, it’s important to note that WaPo is unusual in that its 200 software engineers sit side by side with its product designers and journalists as one integrated team. According to Mulder, this has been key to the title’s success in building and launching successful products.

Our hybrid journalists sit side by side with our engineers and product designers to figure out the best way to package our journalism and send it out to our audience. Everything at the Post is tightly integrated.

Kat Downs Mulder, Chief Product Officer and Managing Editor of Digital, The Washington Post (Lisbon Web Summit)

Editor’s note: This theme was taken up at a later session with Google DNI and FT Strategies, where it was highlighted that in larger, unwieldy newsrooms, editorial teams have to be involved to make a success of new products.

Resources are not that critical – don’t be fooled

Mulder continued by stating that a lack of newsroom resources cannot be held as a viable excuse for any publisher, adding that The 7 newsletter started out with just one writer and was developed, built, and launched in just three and a half months.

If you think in a structured way, if you think audience-first, you can build a great product with not a lot of resources. Do it right and you can have a large impact which is what happened with The 7.

Kat Downs Mulder, Chief Product Officer and Managing Editor of Digital, The Washington Post

Her five key steps?

  • Understand the audience and their needs

“It’s not what journalists want, it’s what does the audience want and how can we serve that need? In The 7’s case, some of our readers were too time-poor to read our long-form articles, they needed an easily digestible format – and they were telling us that.”

  • Observe the competitive landscape

“What are others doing, what is emerging, what technologies are available, and where can we find the white space where we can do something better and different than the others? In this instance, both Axios and CNN were meeting this need but we thought we could create something different and better.”

  • Create a minimum delightful product

“How can you get something in front of the customer quickly, without waiting too long? We wanted something shorter than any other competitor, we wanted it to be cross-platform. Seven items delivered at seven in the morning was our snappy idea, quickly building a solid reader habit with our audience.”

  • Ship and iterate until you have product-market fit

“You need to get it out there, working on it as you go.”

  • Keep evolving and growing the product

“You must keep evolving the product, investing in it, testing it, and developing it, so you can get it right, and when you do get it right, you can deliver more of it.”

The 7 Daily newsletter briefing

Things to do differently

Mulder went on to talk about what pitfalls they encountered in launching The 7 daily briefing. Her five key considerations and warnings?

  • Clinging to the way they have always done things

“We thought ‘we don’t do summaries, we’re the Washington Post’ which was wrong. We do things that make our readers’ lives better, simpler. The format doesn’t matter, it’s the content that matters. We need to embrace opportunities.”

  • Not understanding the audience

“Our audience doesn’t want seven hard news items at seven in the morning, they crave variety. We embraced this.”

  • Too much consensus thinking

“If you’re in a large organization with a long history there is a tendency to always do things the way they always have been done. You must challenge the status quo even if everyone else in the room is feeling uncomfortable. Just one person standing up can make a huge difference to the way an organization works.”

  • Keeping people in silos

“You have to work together and share the same goals.”

  • Doing everything at once

“Don’t wait till the product is perfect. Don’t try to do everything at once. Add features as you go along, develop and evolve it.”

Finally, in conclusion, Mulder ended with a quote from Jeff Bezos which she said hangs up in the newsroom at The Washington Post.

What’s dangerous is not to evolve.

Jeff Bezos, Owner, The Washington Post