Last week’s INMA World Congress of News Media in New York was packed with strategic insights, new points of emphasis, and a few surprises. It was an extraordinary conference that — sometimes purposefully, sometimes accidentally — may help set the agenda for news media in the next year.

Distilling 90+ speakers, panelists, and moderators across conference plenary sessions, three workshops, and two study tours — and layering on behind-the-scenes access to some of the smartest media people in the world — I left the New York World Congress with three distinct lessons and impressions:

  1. The omnipresence of Facebook and Google.
  2. Despite disruption at every turn, media executives have locked into the “new normal” for strategy and are calmly (occasionally with wicked humour) steering the ship in choppy waters.
  3. AI is moving faster at data “fast-lane” companies. The gap between companies only now adopting data strategies and the fast-lane companies is getting bigger and bigger. 

Google’s Nathalie Sajous speaking on the main TimesCenter stage at INMA World Congress.
Google’s Nathalie Sajous speaking on the main TimesCenter stage at INMA World Congress.

Facebook and Google 

Facebook and Google were everywhere at INMA. They no longer stand apart from the media industry. They are part of the ecosystem.

Cutting across conversations, private meetings, and the public feedback, I would say 20% of our media audience was adamantly opposed to the platforms, 20% think we need to find ways to work closer together, and 60% don’t know what to make of the tension. 

Some speakers threw bombs at their faces. Author and professor Mark Ritson bluntly suggested to go after Facebook and Google on taxes, ethics, and anything else disgraceful. Don’t worry about offending them, he said: “It’s business.”

Facebook’s Patrick Walker started dropping transparency mea culpas at the opening reception and forcefully took peppered questions the next day during a presentation.

Google’s Nathalie Sajous went off-script on a native advertising panel and gracefully emphasised the desire to partner with publishers. 

The day after Facebook’s Walker publicly tipped his hat to Aftenposten’s Espen Egil Hansen for the “Dear Mark Zuckerberg” campaign last year over the platform’s photo algorithm, Aftenposten wins the Global Media Awards’ “Best In Show” for the Facebook campaign at the Google-sponsored Awards Dinner. 

Within hours after winning the grand prize, Espen took to Facebook and gave “a little praise” for what Facebook has done to combat fake news since late last year and embracing the responsibility of scale.

Breathtaking? 

Futurist Amy Webb said Google and Facebook were among the seven companies writing the AI future, and publishers need a seat at that table. The audience erupted in applause when she suggested media companies might stop using social media so they could “reintroduce scarcity” and “curb the phenomenon of fake news.”

New York Times CEO Mark Thompson threw cold water on any Facebook/Google heat when he emphasised the need to partner. Then he rolled out this line when talking of publisher complaints: “They seem to me like they’re rather complaining about the existence of the Internet, and not Facebook and Google.” 

When the dust settled on the New York conference, were minds changed about Facebook, Google, and media companies? I would like to think that temperatures cooled and more on-ramps to blunt conversations got opened. We will keep INMA members posted. 

The “new normal” for strategy 

If cursing Facebook and Google while simultaneously hugging them got to feeling normal by the end of the Congress, so did the odd optimism in the face of business model carpet-bombing. 

Harvard’s Thales Teixeira put the current wave of disruption into a new context by talking about “decoupling” and how this affects each step of the purchase process like evaluating, choosing, purchasing, and consuming.

Yet Teixeira’s keenest insight came near the end of his presentation when he seemed to hone in on the body language of media executives. Quit worrying so much about the technology and the evil start-up, he warned. The disruptor is the consumer, and the disrupting ingredient is business model innovation. For media, the disruption will never end because the consumer is driving it. 

If Teixeira seemed to beg for simplicity when attacking media strategy, Amy Webb took the opposite approach. Media is complex and getting more complex, and here are 30+ things media executives need to get up to speed on — now. And technology is central to this story, she said.

The two approaches to strategy were not incongruent, yet it’s as if Teixeira and Webb planned to attack the subject from opposite sides of the mirror. In fact, they met for the first time in the green room 15 minutes before they went on stage.

Weaving the two presentations together, I draw this judgment: There is a long list of things — in a world of perfect knowledge, unlimited speed, unchecked finances — that consumers want. Technology is facilitating those wants item by item. 

Mark Ritson pretty much said “f” that. And I don’t mean “Facebook.” (For those not present, Ritson employed a few colourful metaphors.) 

In outlining a comeback strategy for media, Ritson zeroed in on some truths that don’t get told often in a public setting: 

  • Prioritise defending current share over gaining new share. Advertising in most markets won’t grow. Your job is to bend the trajectory, not reverse it. 
  • Re-focus sales efforts from media agencies to advertising clients, who have an 85% influence on decisions. 
  • Hone in on what matters to advertisers: Make sure the target audience engages with ads, the client gets what they pay for, and messages are trusted.

The New York Times’ Mark Thompson took Ritson’s point about advertising expectations and put an exclamation point on it. While the Times has every intention of selling advertising for many decades to come, strategy today is based on US$0 print advertising revenue in the future. That simple hinge point is what drives reader revenue centrality, the focus on the smartphone, and international growth. 

What INMA delegates got was a doctorate programme in media strategy — academic and practical, big picture and little picture, simple and complex. 

Artificial Intelligence

INMA did not set out to talk about Artificial Intelligence (AI) in New York. To some degree, we were dragged faster than we wanted at the recent Big Data For Media Week in London.

A disproportionate percentage of INMA members worldwide are staring at the Big Data mountain and trying to figure out how to attack it.

Yet at the top of the media world, you have companies like Schibsted, Axel Springer, News Corp, The New York Times, Thomson Reuters, and the Financial Times that have invested so much for so long in data that they are ready for the next big leap: AI. They have made data central to their strategy and culture. They have fought the gut instincts of their newsrooms and won.

Amy Webb took out a 2-by-4 and hit us over the head with AI. Get serious about AI now, she said. AI and machine learning will soon change how the world interacts with news. AI will have a greater impact on media than the Internet itself, long-term. While the “Big 7” are working on AI (IBM, Apple, Google, Facebook Microsoft, Baidu, Amazon), media companies not only are not taking AI seriously, they are treating AI like they did the Internet 20+ years ago. How did that work out for us?

Webb sees 2017 as a “bridge year” as we transition from traditional computer to AI-driven computing. 

“How is your news organisation going to evolve once everyday people are talking to, rather than typing on, their machines?” she asked, girding for skeptical questions — which did come afterward. 

At the Big Data For Media Conference in London, a senior data executive at one of the major London media companies sniffed at AI in a private aside: “I have 20 things to focus on related to Big Data. AI doesn’t crack my Top 20.” 

So, who to believe? 

Thomson Reuters’ Reg Chua and The New York Times’ Laura Evans suggested Amy Webb. 

Chua said machine learning and AI will have a big impact on processes and outcomes and that we shouldn’t get sidetracked on discussions of whether automation will replace human reporters. The real value to come is the marriage between machines and people. Automation will crease more personalised news-on-demand and better reader engagement.

Evans echoed Chua, saying machine learning will advance understanding and improve efficiency. Algorithms are being used today to fill gaps by identifying cross-topic opportunities in content. This creates opportunities to reach new people and continually improve. She outlined how New York Times bots identify and promote articles that may go viral — something also mentioned by Dow Jones on a study tour stop the previous week.

I elevate AI today because of its unexpected rollout on the INMA stage in New York — connected to its unexpected rise at the Big Data Week earlier this year. (INMA will release a report on this unexpected subject next week, and we will start to expect it more in the future.) 

Conclusion 

To boil this amazing seven-day World Congress Week into three themes is unfair. 

We could easily do a deep dive on the rapid rise of reader revenue in the business model — at the expense of lowered expectations for advertising. We could talk about new forms of mobile storytelling. The sessions on revenue diversification were invaluable. 

How about the unique mix of newspaper media, magazine media, B2B media, and digital media that seemed to work well on stage?

Anyone interested in how the book industry got its mojo back in print despite the digital assault? We did a print workshop that found out.

What about the first speaker in my career who elicited a standing ovation (Ulrik Haagerup talking about constructive news)?

To get a flavour for the complete World Congress, go to www.inma.org/wc.

The INMA World Congress of News Media has evolved into the authoritative strategy conference for news media. We will proudly return to Washington, D.C., June 3-5, 2018 — for the first time in 28 years. If truth and trust are so central to media’s success in an age where people are drowning in unfiltered information, why not go to the most-discussed city on the planet in this great debate?