The sobering reality for news publishers around the world is that the number of consumers who get their news from print has declined precipitously in recent years.
A 2023 Reuters Institute Study of U.S. newspapers found only about 15%-16% of news consumers are still print consumers, a significant drop from 47% just a decade ago.
“No matter how well you do, if you’re facing headwinds in an industry that’s shrinking, you’re likely to shrink,” Ken Herts, chief operating officer for Lenfest Institute, said during the recent INMA Newsroom Innovation Master Class, sponsored by FT Strategies,
The question from a business and planning point of view, then, is how to get reoriented so the tailwinds are behind you and you have a growth path.
Herts and other media leaders shared how companies are transforming their business models to thrive in the current media landscape, as well as how getting newsrooms involved can power that transformation.
Herts shared Lenfest Institute’s “playbook” for transformation:
- Transform the newsroom.
- Reshape digital products and user experience.
- Shift revenue mix.
- Reimagine print and halve its expenses.
“The theory on how to move beyond print really starts with the newsroom,” Herts said. “It’s about focusing on audience-driven content, on digital first, etc., so that reporters are thinking about how they can make a difference with their work — not how they can be on page A1.”
Newswell transforms local media landscape
As local newspapers struggle to stay relevant and profitable in a world dominated by large brands, becoming a nonprofit could be the path to survival. Nicole Carroll, the former editor-in-chief of USA Today who spent 25 years in local newspapers, shared how a new start-up she’s spearheading at Arizona State University could transform the local media landscape.
The nonprofit, called Newswell, is designed to reinstate local journalism on a broad scale.
As a newspaper becomes part of the nonprofit, they receive a tax benefit which, in some cases, can be equal to or more than their revenue. Additionally, the newspaper receives ASU’s dedicated research and development resources. And that, she said, opens the door to more innovation and transformation within the industry.
In addition to providing a new option for small media companies, Carroll said this model offers solutions for mom-and-pop newspapers who don’t have a buyer or don’t have a family member interested in taking over the business: “We’re saying, if you want to donate to Newswell you can receive these same benefits and we can make sure that your legacy lives on.”
In return, these small companies are able to provide quality local journalism while enjoying the efficiencies of scale, Carroll said: “That is what we’re trying to solve for. You don’t have to have one or the other; you can have both.”
Politico builds journalism into its business model
Jamil Anderlini, editor-in-chief for Politico Europe, spent 15 years at the Financial Times. One of the largest differences between how the two companies are structured is at the FT, out of roughly 2,300 employees, nearly 500 of them are journalists. This was a point of excitement when Anderlini made the move to Politico — for every employee on the business side, there is one journalist.
“The way we have designed our newsroom is more than half of the newsroom, in Europe in particular, is made up of what we call verticals,” Anderlini said. “We have these distinct small groups of reporters and editors who focus on areas of legislation because our paid subscription service is primarily for people working in politics. Those readers pay for the subscription service, and they can just have certain individual areas of legislation, or they can get more than a dozen areas of coverage. And so we’ve built a newsroom around that. It’s not only very good business, I would say it is also a journalistic superpower.”
This structure does come with its challenges. Anderlini said reporters who are working on very detailed, individual, nitty gritty political files can sometimes struggle to see the wider story. This is something they’re aware of and work hard on. But it’s the sheer resources Politico dedicates to maintaining this kind of structure that sets them apart.
“We do believe very strongly and the mission of all of our reporters, me and all of our reporters is to hold power to account,” Anderlini said. “Nobody is holding them to account like we are and putting that amount of scrutiny on them like we are. And I believe very strongly, and I say it all the time, we’re improving and strengthening democracy in Europe as a result.”
FT’s newsroom transforms with the business
Lisa MacLeod, director and head of EMEA at London-based FT Strategies, emphasised the need for real change and action beyond just adopting new technologies. This transformation is essential for news organisations to remain relevant and competitive in the digital age.
“We did a huge amount of structural and organisational change at the FT to pivot the organisation from a very, very print-focused organisation to one that is very focused on our digital audiences,” MacLeod said. “And the reason for that was because we could see that this was going to be the future, and our current business at the time was under pressure. We had to make sure that we were doing the right thing for the business.”
MacLeod highlighted the challenges faced by newsrooms still dominated by print, including editorial functions, deadline pressures, and a general reluctance to fully integrate digital strategies. The transformation process involves addressing these challenges and reorienting the newsroom towards digital platforms, MacLeod said:
“The FT newsroom has changed significantly, even in the past five years — hiring to address skill gaps, particularly in data and technology.”
Gen Z, Millennnial employees help drive transformation
During times of rapid transformation, news media companies need both the right skills and mindset to thrive. According to Anita Zielina, founder of the Better Leaders Lab in Austria, the ongoing changes that come with transformation put “an enormous stress on teams and organisations,” but the fact is, it will never end.
“Transformation is a constant, not just for us as an industry, but also for most other industries,” Zielina said. “The consumption patterns are changing drastically and the rhythm and the cycle of how people consume journalism and how that is changing is getting faster.”
That requires newsroom leaders to keep up with new platforms, distribution trends, and technology — and now AI will only turbocharge the pace of change. But other factors are also driving transformation, such as the addition of Gen Z and Millennials to the workplace, Zielina said:
“[They] have different expectations: different expectations towards work, different expectations towards leadership, different expectations of how they can lead an impactful and meaningful life and have a job.”
That makes them difficult to attract and retain, even though they have the skills that news media organisations want. They understand digital, data, product, and tech. They are digital storytellers by nature but are picky when it comes to choosing an organisation because, Zielina said, “they want to work in a place that truly honours and trusts them and gives them responsibility.”
For most news organisations, that requires a culture change.