Publishers are wounded but a brighter future is within their control
In a world of fake news you might assume there has never been a better opportunity for publishers, but it is an industry in pain. A strong local free press is the cornerstone of modern society, yet publishers are struggling. How did the industry get to this point?
Some say the original sin was giving free content away online. Fool me once, shame on you! But publishers were fooled twice, giving search engines free access to content, essentially handing over monetisation of their product.
To the industry this “free” traffic is like a drug – causing long-term damage but the cold turkey period of traffic reduction is too severe for most to bear.
The second issue is advertising revenue. Classified, property, motoring and recruitment were all staple revenue streams for newspapers, the rest was icing on the cake. Once these industries migrated online many publishers could not sustain their business model.
The digital migration of content and the growth of global tech companies created an oversupply of content and inventory, significantly impacting revenues required to fund newsrooms. This is a global problem, locally intensified by our lack of audience scale.
The third issue is that traditional publishers have lost their purpose. It used to be clear; collating world and local news, entertainment/listings, information on deals and a generous helping of sport.
Google now plays the role of a modern-day newspaper, collating and organising information at scale. Facebook (and the open-web generally) fulfils the role of the modern-day publisher yet Facebook argues it is not a media company or publisher, it simply provides a platform for self-publishing. Some may argue this is fair, others take the view it’s sharp practice, definitional misdirection at best; at worst gross negligence and moral apathy.
We are at a critically important time in society. Whatever your political leaning, irrespective of your views on the media, we need a vibrant local news and publishing industry. It’s a worrying future where control of the news agenda sits so powerfully with so few. We have a duty of care to support local media, but the industry needs to help itself, so what can publishers do?
Clarity on purpose
News provision is no longer a differentiating purpose. Most news is a commodity, widely available from a variety of sources. It’s even more stark in Ireland as we’re too closely aligned to the UK geographically and culturally. Other markets, Sweden or Denmark for example, are not flooded with the same degree of native language news – their purpose is considerably clearer.
Having more recently defined themselves, newer publishers have a clearer purpose. The Journal grabbed mobile-first news, Joe.ie went for entertainment for the Irish male.
Legacy publishers face a tougher challenge. We’ve seen the birth of a new genre, the “slow-news” movement; publishers focussing on what they do best, deep-diving on topics for those wanting more than headlines. New publishing platforms like Tortoise and The Correspondent, whose purpose is very eloquently put as “unbreaking news”, or The Athletic (sports journalism) all have a very clearly defined proposition.
But it doesn’t have to be a case of new versus old, you can have crowdsourced journalism with quality control. Traditional publishers can continue to run quality paid newsrooms while still providing a platform extension for self-publishing.
Publishers, ask yourselves what do you offer that is better than anyone else? Be clear on what makes you different, and live by it.
Be platform neutral
Many legacy publishers were slow to adopt digital, refusing to migrate content online or simply slapping their newspaper on-site. Republishing content is not enough; it must be redesigned for each platform. Today journalists must tell their story across different channels, 500 words for mobile while retaining the essence, accompanied by video/audio content. The job of the publisher is to make content discoverable across the full, platform-agnostic news ecosystem. The New York Times expansion into ancillary products such as The Daily (podcast) and The Weekly (TV) is a great example. Its strategy is clear – the roles for these channels is to increase brand engagement and affinity, ultimately growing subscriptions.
Explore new revenue models
Nicholas Sparks said “publishing is a business. Writing may be art, but publishing, when all is said and done, comes down to dollars.” Legacy publishers face a specific problem that newer publishers don’t; an inflated sense of worthiness in parts of the business. Commercial revenue is no longer a by-product of the editorial output; commercial is the lifeblood, it funds newsrooms. Publishers must maximise revenue, particularly from sunk costs.
Most publishers have visual, audio and print production capabilities in-house but studios often operate below capacity. Publishers can exploit new revenue streams by offering a white-labelled content production service. Copywriting is a craft in short supply and with high demand from brands we see numerous copywriting agencies appearing online. This seems like a missed opportunity for publishers.
Publishers are turning to readers to shape/fund content. De Correspondent raised $2.5 million in 29 days, and the Guardian’s blunter approach asking readers for donations seems to work. Patreon is a global platform that allows creators build a community of voluntary contributions. If publishers deem their content valuable, audiences should too.
Locally, Journal Media launched “Noteworthy”, an innovative funding approach asking readers to submit stories they want the newsroom to cover. Vetted stories are placed on-site along with associated costs to cover each one. Once the story is fully funded via discretionary donations the work begins and the democratically-funded story is then freely available for any publisher.
Publishers underestimate the potential of the Irish diaspora. For many it is an untapped resource without risk of cannibalisation. RTÉ’s GAA Go product is a great example, and other publishers should follow suit – simply set your performance agency a CPA budget 50 per cent lower than subscription level as a test.
Shifting from broadcast to personal
Publishers who generate healthy revenues from a hybrid of subscriptions/donations, ancillary services and advertising will thrive moving forward. Publishers must get smarter with data, offer better audience targeting/insight and tailor content to users. Advertisers get this from Facebook/Google and they expect it elsewhere. This can involve costly tech, but it can also be done through user self-selection, The Guardian asked readers what they wanted to see covered, thereby increasing relevance. Data is key too but the value exchange must be clear if users are to pay in data
Create a united front
Publishers must unite to provide a viable alternative to the global giants. The Ozone Project is a great example of leading UK publishers coming together to provide a viable solution for advertisers. One platform/log-in unlocks multiple publishers’ content.
In addition to strength in numbers there are advantages in technology costs. Things like SSPs, CMS, DMPs and execution-layer tech such as viewability tracking are all costly but standard price-of-entry. There is no reason why publishers cannot share certain tech platforms and let their journalism be the differentiator, this will help them provide scale and improve targeting while leveraging their trusted environments.
A strong local publishing industry is vital. Publishers are wounded but are more than capable of revival. Quality journalism is an industry worth supporting, and while there may be favourable tailwinds coming in terms of anti-trust legislation, the reality is this is a fight they have to win themselves.
Dave Winterlich is chief strategy officer with Dentsu Aegis Ireland