Interview: News Int. Hacking Scandal Has Spurred Innovation

News International’s recently-appointed digital product director is trying to make the publisher more agile and innovative in digital media – and the phone hacking scandal in which the company is embroiled may even have helped the effort.

“For us, this is a huge catalyst for change actually,” Nick Bell, who joined his first corporate gig in October after a career as a young digital entrepreneur and investor, told paidContent.

“Tom Mockridge joined as CEO. When any new CEO joins an organisation, there’s going to be change. From a digital perspective, we like to think we saw it as an opportunity to drive forward some of the change.

“It’s probably had the opposite effect of slowing us down – it’s probably focused us more on how we innovate. It’s focused our minds on how we make sure the customers who are paying for our products are getting value for money, making sure we look after our customers. The focus on our customers has increased.”

Now 28, Bell was a teenage star. In 1999, he founded an early content site, and attracted around 500,000 unique monthly users before selling it to Rools for reportedly close to £1 million, aged 16.

He later formed a business establishing sunbed and tanning studios inside Tesco stores, founded and later sold his stake in a business providing video screens to the luxury yacht market and started, an online video company that raised seed funding and which is now working on web video ad tech. Bell remains interested in startup investing.

Bell, along with leavers from Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) and Google (NSDQ: GOOG), was hired by News International chief information officer Paul Cheesbrough to inject some of this spirit in to the publisher. Now he says using data to understand customers and constant product iteration are his guiding principles.

“When I joined the organisation, it was traditional IT-oriented,” Bell told me. “It would be a slow process, three to six months, to do a piece of work. Then that team would get disbanded to go and do something else. We’ve moved toward a product stream where we have key products and a team that constantly iterates. It’s about listening to the customer.”

One example, whose original debut pre-dates Bell, is The Times’ iPad edition, which launched fast, alongside the tablet, in the UK and which took a small dose of customer criticism for bugs, which were ironed out in routine updates. By contrast, The Guardian recently launched its first iPad edition around a year and a half after the gadget went on sale.

We recently introduced an R&D lab,” Bell says. “In a slightly Google-esque manner, every member of our technology team now will spend one twelfth of their time cycling through the innovation lab. It creates a space where they think about problems differently.

“Some of the products coming out of there are very interesting. We’ve been through our first couple of cycles there. We’ve learned something from every product created in the lab – some of those will start to be baked back in to our core apps.”

This kind of “hacking” (of code) is a refreshing alternative to the one which has engulfed News International over the last year.

“Of my team of peers, five or six of us invest in businesses as well,” he says. But News International, which previously invested in digital property classifieds startups, has now sold on those assets, and Bell appears keener that the publisher partner with startups than take equity in them.

Bell cites “working with smaller, agile more companies” like Livefyre, a story comments platform operator which News International took an early bet on enlisting. “Being prepared to work with small startups of best-of-breed is key.”