Disruption requires media companies rethink engagement strategies
Conference Blog | 06 April 2022
The news media industry is no stranger to disruption.
“It sometimes feels like our industry has been in a state of transformation for decades, and it can be exhausting. But don’t expect the pace to slow down or the disruption to lessen,” INMA Newsroom Initiative Lead Peter Bale wrote in his recent newsletter.
Presentations from media thinkers during the Putting Newsrooms into the News Business master class in March support Bale’s observation. Internal or external, these disruptions offer the news media industry with new opportunities to consider new revenue models, reframe content distribution strategies, and form deeper relationships with audiences.
People pay for access or experience
Tony Haile, senior director of product at Twitter and creator of Scroll, sees many factors that created hurdles for the subscription model:
- People are enrolled in a limited amount of subscriptions.
- Subscriptions did not have rich dynamics.
- Reporting was not paid enough.
- How smaller publishers — not just the big names — can make money.
“How do we approach this where we can think about the broad range of content and not cannibalise publishers’ core subscriptions?” Haile asked.
Haile found there were two things people would pay for a subscription: access or experience.
He decided to focus on the user experience when he created Scroll, which was acquired by Twitter in May 2021. Scroll members would get a completely ad free experience, and publishers would get paid.
“The model worked and it scaled, and consistently beat ad revenue by 40%. User retention was strong,” he said. “Subscribers loved seeing how the money supported the journalism they read.”
Haile gave a little insight to the next steps for Scroll and Twitter, saying it starts with understanding and embracing the realities of subscriber behaviour: “People are not likely to have more than two subscriptions to journalism platforms. Accept that and act on it.”
Rethinking digital offers
If there’s one word Dominic Young could delete from the news media’s lexicon, it would be “subscriptions.” Founder of the online reader revenue platform Axate, Young said while it’s wonderful to get someone to commit to paying each month for your product, the problem with subscriptions is that every product is not for everyone: “If you look at the products that are doing well with subscriptions, unfortunately, they’re relatively few and far between.”
He advised publishers to start thinking about what drove those single-copy newsstand sales, and then think about how to fill that role from a digital perspective.
“If you start to think about building a digital product around those sorts of thoughts, you very quickly start to come up with something that’s quite excitingly, refreshingly new and different from the types of digital newspaper products we still see dominating on the Internet, which are very much digital versions of what we used to do on paper,” Young said.
That would allow companies to create forward-thinking business models that would encourage reader revenue and attract and retain active paying users — without a subscription.
“The vast majority of your readers will never [subscribe],” he said. “You have to have something else for the middle majority. If you build your product and your business model around people’s actual behaviour, not the behaviour you want to force them into unwillingly, you will find that a far larger number of them are willing to do that than you can capture on your own.”
Changing writer roles
Today there are more choices in where people get their news, and that could change not just how publishers attract and retain customers — it could change the way they keep writers engaged, too. Substack founder Hamish McKenzie talked about how his company is changing the current business model.
“Our belief is that you need to change the game completely,” McKenzie said. “Create a new set of rules, put writers and readers in charge, and change the underlying business model.”
With Substack, consumers can follow and pay writers and publications they trust. The model offers monetisation of a trust relationship, McKenzie said.
“Because with the subscription you’re inviting someone into your inbox, and that’s your sacred space,” he said. “It’s a careful decision you have to make before someone comes in there.”
In this model, the subscriber understands that his or her actions directly affect the publisher or writer and allow them to keep creating content, he added: “By building this system, I think we kind of get a do-over the media industry because now you can start with this very simple model, this trust-based relationship model, and rebuild.”
Earning trust from readers is increasingly challenging — but also increasingly important. That’s why Sally Lehrman, chief executive officer of The Trust Project, has studied what engages audiences, what it takes to become trustworthy, and what publishers can do to improve audience perception.
The research done by The Trust Project in the past couple of years has been encouraging, because it indicates people are interested in finding trustworthy news, she said. One study of 39,000 adults in 28 countries found that 82% of people said they take time to seek out trustworthy news.
Lehrman, who authored How News Brands Are Rebuilding Trust for INMA last year, shared eight trust indicators identified from The Trust Project’s research:
- Best practices.
- Journalist expertise.
- Type of work.
- Citations and references.
- Locally sourced.
- Diverse voices.
- Actionable feedback.
“What we need is to empower the public to make their own decisions,” Lehrman said. “That is why you see eight trust indicators … that news organisations are using to reveal who and what is behind their work and what guardrails help us maintain our focus on the public interest. And that can help people also see what is behind the news in terms of how we do our reporting.”
Choosing revenue-generating content
Today’s newsrooms are under pressure to control spending while also generating and increasing revenue. The Globe and Mail now earns more while its editors do less after introducing an AI system named Sophi into its paywall structure, Sonali Verma, the company’s director, business development of Sophi.io, said.
Sophi includes natural language processing for every article, then predicts how much ad revenue and subscription revenue would come from each article.
“Sophi would pick the articles that would pick the most subscription revenue without sacrificing ad revenue,” said Verma, adding she was often surprised by Sophi’s choices on which articles would drive subscription revenue.
“We did this by taking work off our editors plate. And editors have the opportunity to override Sophi’s decisions in cases it was in the public’s interest to leave a story for the audience to read,” Verma said. “The newsroom is always right.”