Several subtle but significant shifts were noted this week in discussions about the future of the news media business among industry leaders gathered in Hamburg for INMA’s Reader Revenue Symposium.

For one, INMA may have to change this event’s name moving forward. An increasing number of executives here preferred the term “consumer revenue” to reader revenue, and referred to a broader mix of income streams than just charging readers for access to content.

To be sure, these publishers are still all about content, but as much now in the context of services, experiences, and relationships as in simply selling subscriptions and products.

This shift was prevalent in many of the case studies and panels Wednesday, which included among others Griet Ducatteeuw, publisher at De Standaard and Het Nieuwsblad, in Antwerp; Bill Nagel, publisher and CEO of the Hearst-owned San Francisco Chronicle and SFGate; Lou Grasser, head of innovative subscriptions, at Le Monde in France; Tobias Henning, general manager for Premium BILDplus and WELTplus at Axel Springer in Germany; Esfand Pourmand, senior vice president and global head of subscriptions at News Corp in the United States; and Alan Fisco, president of The Seattle Times.

Other shifts noted:

  • Registration walls were mentioned more than before as an alternative or supplement to paywalls in conversations about converting contacts into customers. Getting just an e-mail or mobile number from someone early on in the subscriber conversion dance has turned into a gold mine all its own.

  • Hybrid approaches to charging for content came across as more acceptable now, compared to previously casting the issue as a forced all-or-nothing, premium-vs.-freemium, you’re-shooting-yourself-in-the-foot kind of choice.

  • And the speakers and participants overall communicated much less absolutism about how funnels and interactions have to be structured to force people to change their free-reading, ad-blocking habits and extract maximum income.

Most of these shifts appear to relate back to data, which might have been the only word used more often than "revenue" throughout the reader revenue event, part of INMA’s 2019 Media Innovation Week.

In particular, “intent data” was referenced repeatedly.

That term has come to mean increasingly sophisticated collection and parsing of data about even casual non-subscriber customer activity, often combined with machine learning, to spot patterns of behaviour and anticipate the individual reader’s intentions early on. Intent data potentially gives publishers a head start and more real-time options for productively interacting with customers, thereby reducing the need for less-targeted and so less-successful en-mass strategies.

Until publishers can get to that stage, they are continuing to pursue what have at this point become the basics.

Axel Springer

Axel Springer’s Henning emphasised that consumer data needs to be available to everyone in the media organisation’s content value change, especially in the newsroom: “It’s very important that every journalist knows where to get the data from.”

Tobias Henning, general manager for Premium BILDplus and WELTplus, spoke of the importance of data access for journalists.
Tobias Henning, general manager for Premium BILDplus and WELTplus, spoke of the importance of data access for journalists.

Mediahuis

Ducatteeuw called being data informed one of the five essential principles for sustainable news media today. She then went on to outline what she called radical changes her Belgian news brands have been forced to make.

“We are all more or less in the same situation — the shift from print to digital, the advertising world, and the complete roller coaster,” Ducatteeuw said. “So the last decade has been really tough, and we are trying to get into this new world and survive in this digital terrain.”

Griet Ducatteeuw, publisher at De Standaard and Het Nieuwsblad, listed being "data informed" as one of the five most important pieces of media's future.
Griet Ducatteeuw, publisher at De Standaard and Het Nieuwsblad, listed being "data informed" as one of the five most important pieces of media's future.

The survival she described wasn’t pretty, involving aggressive production automation that allowed for deep staff cuts, funded in part by big subscription price increases.

In seemed notable that her slide presentation was illustrated with a photo of 17 parachutists who had obviously taken the leap and were now holding hands in a big ring hurtling together toward the certain ground below.

San Francisco Chronicle

On the other hand, the San Francisco Chronicle’s success story made the case for product diversity. 

Ten years ago, the Hearst operation was losing US$50 million per year. It turned around in 2013 and has been profitable since, Nagel said.

“So what happened? Well part of it is our product portfolio. At the time we had three products [the newspaper, SFGate, and a digital marketing service]. Then we created all these other businesses to surround it [eight now, including events and events production, and a dedicated premium content site specifically for the newspaper].”

Bill Nagel, publisher and CEO of the Hearst-owned San Francisco Chronicle and SFGate, shared how the news company became profitable six years ago.
Bill Nagel, publisher and CEO of the Hearst-owned San Francisco Chronicle and SFGate, shared how the news company became profitable six years ago.

One tricky part turned out to be that new newspaper Web site.

“The challenge of course is that, in running two sites, you have this balance of how much do you give away for free when you’re trying to build a digital subscription service,” Nagel said, admitting reader confusion between the well-established SFGate brand and his newspaper’s newer sfchronicle.com. “Part of what we’re doing with the Gate this year is to transition the site from being a news site to a conversation site: What are the stories that San Franciscans are talking about that arent everyday news?”

The Seattle Times

In the pursuit of subscription conversions and interaction with potential subscribers, Fisco of The Seattle Times stressed simplicity.

Alan Fisco, president of The Seattle Times, said the ease of Apple Pay helped increase digital subscriptions.
Alan Fisco, president of The Seattle Times, said the ease of Apple Pay helped increase digital subscriptions.

“When we launched [a streamlined, six-field subscription form], we saw a 35% increase in our conversions. Then when we launched the Amazon Pay, we saw an additional 19%. Coming soon is Apple Pay — basically it’s your fingerprint and you’re done. We’ll collect your money and you’ll be a happy subscriber.”

News Corp

News Corp’s Pourmand saw the conversion process as more involved.

Esfand Pourmand, senior vice president and global head of subscriptions at News Corp in the United States, said the subscription process is complicated.
Esfand Pourmand, senior vice president and global head of subscriptions at News Corp in the United States, said the subscription process is complicated.

“For us, to some extent, our content business is full paid. Honestly, I’m not really sold that last-click article conversion tells the whole story… . There’s a lot more that goes into getting someone to subscribe than just saying this article caused someone to subscribe.”

Le Monde

And Le Monde’s Grasser placed an emphasis on doing whatever can be done to establish a relationship rather than just a business deal.

“One of the problems with digital this year is we didn’t talk enough to our subscribers. We talk to readers and subscribers only through articles. So the plan is to develop a section of the Web site that will feature a journalist talking about why they are writing a (particular) article and not another, and what the issues are.”

The subscriber/publisher relationship is vital, said Lou Grasser, head of innovative subscriptions, at Le Monde.
The subscriber/publisher relationship is vital, said Lou Grasser, head of innovative subscriptions, at Le Monde.

It’s been only within the past couple of years that a majority of publishers even agreed they needed to aggressively develop reader revenue to offset devastating declines in their traditional advertising revenue. Now their focus may change again to consumer revenue and all the rest.

This time, though, the retargeting appears to be less about simply following the money and more about shifting the underlying premise of the digital news media business from being predominantly about content to being predominantly about content consumers.

Come to think of it, being predominantly about content consumers had been the underlying premise of the business back in the heady days of good advertising revenue. So perhaps these new shifts are really a kind of technologically infused, data-enabled coming home.