Mediahuis is a news media company on a mission for independent journalism — the glue between everyone in media, says CEO Gert Ysebaert.
“We stand for independent journalism that is crucial for society,” Ysebaert told INMA members in a Webinar on Wednesday. “It is No. 1 in our company, and everyone is aware of this mission. But it’s not only about independent journalism — it’s also about diversity in voices.”
Because Mediahuis is not a single brand company, it acts as the driving force behind a broad collection of diverse news brands. These are at the heart of society, serving local communities, and Mediahuis is committed to that local relevance.
“Local journalism is under threat, and we do see it as a duty to safeguard local journalism,” Ysebaert said.
However, this mission of protecting independent, local journalism is facing challenges. For Mediahuis, the three most important challenges are:
A shifting business model driven by digital transformation.
Global competition that has transcended the local level; Mediahuis needs to constantly define its relationship with global tech players.
A tech-driven media industry, which brings complexity and a need for continuous investment.
“As a small, local player, it is extremely difficult to face these challenges on their own,” Ysebaert said.
At Mediahuis, the answer is to combine forces to stand stronger.
Local relevance combined with group power
Since its start in 2014, Mediahuis has gone from being a Belgian publisher to becoming an international media player operating in four countries. The company went from four titles to more than 30 news brands during that time, along with a multitude of digital platforms and marketplaces.
“We are not only delivering on our mission, but we are also running a business,” Ysebaert said. “Today we are a group with a turnover [revenue] of more than €1 billion. We are also fairly profitable.”
Because Mediahuis has grown so fast, the team tried to operate as a network rather than a heavy corporate structure. Employees learn from each other and collaborate across the organisation.
“When we talk about how to move on and what is our plan for the future, it is very important to have a common vision. But strategy is not the most difficult issue today for media companies,” he added. “Basically, we all have the same strategy — it all comes down to having the right execution, and that is what we are focusing on. Therefore we need to have a plan, but we consider it more of an expedition because we know we have to adapt along the way.”
After sharing this look into the Mediahuis philosophy and strategy, INMA Executive Producer Mark Challinor then asked a few questions of Ysebaert.
What have you learned in the past year-plus of the pandemic?
Ysebaert: When the pandemic first broke we thought it would be a disaster for the [Mediahuis] group. The first projections were very bad. But along the way and after a few months we managed to recover.
Honestly, the whole pandemic was a tragedy for humanity, but for our business and our company, in a way it was a blessing. For last year and the first quarter of this year, we are performing well. But most importantly, it brought a huge boost for our digital transformation. We did in one year what normally would have taken three or four years. We showed that we were ready as a digital company.
What does transformation actually mean to Mediahuis?
Ysebaert: For me, transformation is more about the mental shift. When we say transformation, we often think about technology — and technology is an enabler of transformation. If we want to really be a digital company, then it’s more about the mental shift.
I think because of the crisis, today we are operating as a fully digital company, for which print is still important. The way of thinking is as a digital company.
Can you expand on your mission to bring outstanding, independent journalism to everyone?
Ysebaert: What we did first was translate what we did in print to digital — a PDF version of the newspaper. But building a real digital company starts with putting the consumer at the centre, and that is easier said than done because for ages we have been a product-driven industry.
We don’t deliver a product anymore; we deliver a service. And this service starts with what the consumer wants. What does he or she expect? That doesn’t mean we completely have to personalise, but when something is coming through a mobile device, that is completely different than making a newspaper.
The way we attract new subscribers has also completely changed. Today, it all starts with the content. So our marketing people are working very closely together with the newsroom and we engage on the content — it is there that we bring them into the funnel and convert them to subscribers.
You describe a “future-proof advertising model.” Can you explain that?
Ysebaert: We took an advertising hit in the past year, and we are now seeing the recovery. Once the world is reopening, I expect we will see an uptick in demand.
That will not take away the long-term trends. In Belgium, we built an advertising alliance with a TV company and with two telecom players. This alliance is quite spectacular because it is not only trying to have a common proposition for the market, but we really made one sales house for print, digital, and television, and combined that with data from the telecom houses.
When it comes to being subscription-driven and reader-first, is this the panacea for engaging loyal customers and driving long-term revenue?
Ysebaert: It is not the panacea, it is the foundation of our company. Building these long-term relationships in the digital world, if we succeed, the future is guaranteed.
It’s not a done deal. We have a ways to go, but the whole company is really focused on this. For a long time, the main focus of the company was on circulation. Now, we stopped that and will purely focus on page relations. That has made a huge difference. In the newsroom, the main driver is engagement.
Looking a year from now, where are your big bets going to be to continue that growth?
Ysebaert: First of all we have a plan, we have our priorities. We have a lot of work to do because we acquired some companies in the past years, and there’s still a lot of work to do in integrating. That is our first priority.
We also have the ambition to really be an international player, so we also continue to look at opportunities.
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