How digital subscriptions are shaping global newsrooms — and vice versa

By Dawn McMullan


Dallas, Texas, United States


It’s been interesting to see the revenue journey of news media companies in the past decade. The most exciting part, to me at least, has been the past year or two as it relates to digital subscriptions, reader revenue, and the newsroom.

The culture change in today’s successful news brands is driven by this seemingly newly discovered newsroom-to-digital subscription pipeline. Newsrooms, it seems, are back in the spotlight in all the good ways and were much-discussed at the INMA World Congress of News Media last week. 

Executive Editor Dean Baquet spent some time sharing about The New York Times’ newsroom with INMA last week. Yes, of course, the newsroom’s relationship with President Trump is salacious and, honestly, the global audience couldn’t get enough. But after that, Baquet discussed other aspects of the newsroom, including the leaked Innovation Report of 2014, also salacious in an insider kind of way. 

New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet discussed newsroom transformation at The Times — what prompted it and what it looks like today.
New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet discussed newsroom transformation at The Times — what prompted it and what it looks like today.

The abrupt removal of Jill Abramson in 2014 (who spoke at INMA World Congress one year prior) prompted someone to leak the Innovation Report to BuzzFeed, allowing the world to look under the hood of a report created by The Times’ newsroom innovation team, detailing all its thoughts on the media legend’s digital strategy. Baquet, who replaced Abramson, discussed how that report was a turning point.   

“The original Innovation Report essentially said we didn’t think about our audience, and it was right,” Baquet told the INMA audience on the last day of World Congress. “Now we talk about our audience every day in our daily meeting. Does that mean we chase clicks? No. It means we want to understand what people are reading. We want to understand what time we should publish to make it to them. ...

“I think that it is a very different newsroom. We take risks. We screw up. We try stuff. But I think the boldest things we’ve done are to openly embrace our audience, to openly move away from just writing traditional news stories, to openly embrace having a television show, a podcast, and to say: We can tell stories many different ways. Let’s try it.” 

This is a different way of thinking about audiences. And about newsrooms. 

Journalists are an ever-growing part of the unique value news brands bring to audiences — the editorial team and audiences both having more revenue importance than perhaps anyone could’ve guessed five years ago. 

It may be a more attractive profession because there are so many more things to do,” Baquet said. “There’s video — I’m probably the first executive editor of The New York Times who cannot do the job of half the people in the newsroom. When I started, I could be a reporter, I could be an editor, I’m a lousy headline writer but I could try. But I have no idea how to do video. I know it when I see it but I have no idea. I find that exciting.”

Such platforms change how journalists and newsrooms work in a way that historical industry changes have not: “Colour in the newspaper never affected the way you would write your stories, the way you would edit your stories,” Mario Garcia, CEO of editorial design and digital strategy at Garcia Media, said at the Editor’s Retreat during World Congress. “It [mobile] cuts to the heart of the operation.” 

Vasantha Angamuthu, chief strategy officer at Independent Media, was more dramatic in her assessment of mobile and video: “Change everything! Change everything for the small screen. This is how you free our newsrooms from the tyranny of print.” 

In his closing remarks at the end of the week, INMA Executive Director/CEO Earl J. Wilkinson referred to a session presented by INMA Researcher-in-Residence Grzegorz Piechota: “Newsrooms are shifting from managing products to managing customers.” At the heart of newsroom transformation, Piechota had told audiences the day before, is the difference in content and journalism. 

“We’re not selling content,” said Piechota, a senior researcher at Oxford University. “We’re selling journalism.”

INMA Researcher-In-Residence Grzegorz Piechota is working on a report for INMA about the connection to reader revenue and newsrooms.
INMA Researcher-In-Residence Grzegorz Piechota is working on a report for INMA about the connection to reader revenue and newsrooms.

What’s the difference? (Shameless plug: You’ll find out in Piechota’s next report on the topic, due out soon.) But Piechota did give us a taste at World Congress. He mentioned Gazeta Wyborcza, the newspaper where he spent many years in his native Poland, where 10% of customers are responsible for 74% of the company’s revenue. How do news brands take care of those valuable customers? 

“The marketing objectives shift when we move from a product-centered company to a customer-first company,” he said. “From chasing reach, we are now shifting to maximising value of these users.” 

And this job now, at least partly, falls to newsrooms. Getting and keeping a paid subscriber depends greatly on RFV: recency, frequency, and volume. Newsrooms play a role in that and audiences play a role in newsrooms: Audience data can inform newsroom staff on how their efforts to build a reader habits are going.

Newsrooms help build audience relationships. Journalists and editors are the protectors of the brand, Piechota said. Once considered content creators, journalists are an even more essential aspect of the brand’s value proposition: “If your company sells cars, everything hangs on the reputation and the quality of the original brand, and it hangs on the quality and independence of the journalism.”

Here are some interesting audience-centered newsroom initiatives I heard about throughout the week: 

No more reporter beats: Quartz, a digital-only news brand, is proud of its data-driven approach to content. That sounds a tad soulless, but this brings life to what Piechota said: The company has eliminated “beats” and replaced them with “obsessions.” 

“Obsessions are more dynamic than beats,” Executive Editor Xana Atunes told INMA’s study tour early last week. 

Remember the beats of yesterday’s newsrooms? I don’t remember a lot of fluctuation. Not at Quartz. Obsessions come and go as they relate or don’t relate to readers’ lives. And reporters aren’t assigned an obsession — just that sentence sounds ludicrous. As an example, Atunes said that if a design reporter and a management reporter want to contribute toward the Machines with Brains obsession, all the better. 

Content (or is it journalism?) must always be at the intersection of interesting and important, she said. 

Audio-enabled newsrooms: Gatehouse Media is quickly responding to the smart speaker revolution. It’s happening faster than the iPhone adaption, Jeff Moriarty, senior vice president of digital at Gatehouse, told our study tour.

“They are being adopted and getting penetration faster than television and radio. It’s with this in mind that we’re thinking about audio. One of the keys has been to audio enable our newsroom. We have three such spaces, some are former closets or conference rooms. We’re getting our newsrooms enabled to create audio.” 

Digital transformation: The phrase is so over-used one wonders what it looks like in practicality. At RBS, the real changes toward digital started in the newsroom and business areas because they are the most vital, Camilla Leaes, executive manager of strategy and digital development at RBS, explained at the Brainsnack Seminar. She discussed involving the entire company in OKRs (objectives and key results). 

This common focus changed the work dynamic at RBS: “We now have a daily meeting, which is very important to our cultural change, especially for the newsroom. And we don’t have just the normal people there. We have an editor, data analyst, product owner, marketing analyst all there.”

Paywalls: The Wall Street Journal categorises audiences by their propensity to subscribe: hot, warm, and cool. “Consumers who actually hit the paywall limit are likely to subscribe,” Karl Wells, general manager of subscription sales and marketing at WSJ, told study tour participants. Previously, the newsroom decided what went behind the paywall. “If you’re customer-led, why would you create a paywall that’s content-led?”

With newsroom culture being affected from so many different angles — internal and external — Baquet is passionate that journalism as we all know it stays in the newsroom, regardless the bells, whistles, data, audience and revenue demands added to it. 

“I think technologists should be an important part of the discussion in the newsroom,” he said. “But at the end of the day, the newsroom should be led by the people who, when they get called by the CIA and say, ‘Don't report this,’ who understand why the reasons should almost always be we’re going to do it anyway. Those are journalists.” 

Baquet does worry about the newsroom of the future — not because of its culture but because of its pending absence. Most of the innovation discussed last week and in this blog post reflect the most progressive news brands in the world. That leaves behind many local newspapers. 

“The greatest crisis in American journalism is the death of local news. ... I don’t know what the answer is. Their economic model is gone. I think most local newspapers in America are going to die in the next five years, except for the ones that have been bought by a local billionaire.

“I don’t know what the answer is, but I think that everybody who cares about news — myself included, and all of you — should take this on as an issue. Because we’re going to wake up one day and there are going to be entire states with no journalism or with little tiny pockets of journalism. … I’m not worried about Los Angeles and New York. I don’t know what the model is for covering the school boards in Newark, New Jersey. That makes me nervous.” 

Me, too, Dean. Me, too.

About Dawn McMullan

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