There is no shortage of news publishing organisations undergoing profound changes in recent years — from the growing need to expand into digital platforms to the challenges presented by a global pandemic.
In his presentation during INMA’s Asia/Pacific News Media Summit, Philippine Daily Inquirer President and CEO Rudyard Arbolado discussed his organisation’s current transformation journey from a broadsheet to a multimedia group. The two-day virtual summit, sponsored by Google News Initiative, Notix, Piano, and Protecmedia, continues Friday.
Arbolado began by putting this current transformation into the country’s historical context.
“The Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) was founded in December 1985,” Arbolado said, “shortly before the EDSA People Power Revolution. It transformed from being part of the ‘mosquito press’ to mainstream media.” The PDI’s story is, therefore, one of many disruptions that necessitated innovations that began long before the COVID pandemic.
Today, the PDI is the most awarded broadsheet in the Philippines and the multimedia group, called The Inquirer Group, reaches 54 million people across several platforms.
But, Arbolado said, “we were already facing challenges before the pandemic,” including shifting advertising revenue from print to digital platforms as well as changing consumer behaviour and “shrinking attention spans.” They had launched the digital newspaper, Inquirer.net, in 1997 and introduced a mobile app in 2009.
Encouraged by the success of publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post, PDI identified reader revenue as a growth area and set a goal of reaching 100,000 digital subscribers to their Inquirer Plus (INQ Plus) by 2025.
“The urgency to achieve this goal became even more apparent during the pandemic,” Arbolado said, “which prompted us to accelerate our digital transformation, to shift our focus from advertising revenue to more reader revenue.”
To accomplish this, they established five priorities:
1. Investment in talent, training, and technology
“Our strength is in the newsroom,” Arbolado said, adding that the newsroom and business group need to be internally aligned. The need to cooperate is foundational, he said: “We can only be as good as our people, so we make sure we’re investing in our people.”
This means PDI has training programmes for existing talent and encourages cross-functional teams. They are also keeping an eye on the talent pipeline through a journalism scholarship programme. And they periodically review operations within the organisation to identify optimisation opportunities.
2. Put audiences at the centre
While this might not be easy or natural for traditional media, Arbolado said putting the audience first keeps subscribers engaged. They work on learning as much about their readers as they can, embracing data to gather information.
PDI uses different information-gathering methods, including a study into their digital readers conducted by Nielsen and data about when people are most likely to read their news stories. Insights gained through analysing this data are then communicated to editorial, which impacts some of the decisions made in the newsroom.
For instance, since they found most of their audience reads the news in the mornings, they “reinforce the morning habit” with a portfolio of e-mail newsletters on multiple topics to “help nudge readers to visit the site or buy the newspaper.” And, Arbolado said, even if they do neither, they’re still engaging with us by getting news highlights from the email newsletter.
3. Develop products to serve audiences
“We created a new team devoted to products,” Arbolado said, “which allows us to focus on both reimagining existing products and creating new ones.”
Some of the products that have come out of this team are:
Exclusive content for subscribers to boost non-news sections: This encourages creativity in the newsroom, Arbolado said, and it’s also a venue for experimentation.
Added “digital” to print: With shopping guides in the print product, images can be scanned with a smartphone so people can purchase an item quickly and easily. Arbolado said this helps advertisers track not just brand awareness but also conversions.
Elevate photojournalism: They use INQ Plus to showcase their award-winning photojournalism.
Launched new verticals: Organising their content around new sub-brands and verticals helps them attract new audience segments (such as youth) and “meet our readers where they are.”
Launched podcasts: Podcasts allow PDI to reach a new audience of listeners, rather than readers, with quality storytelling.
Repurposing print content with short videos: Arbolado said this is in line with “the philosophy of having one workflow that produces several product outputs in different formats.”
Developed an in-house e-commerce platform: They improved the customer experience by upgrading the interface of the shop platform and making the payment and subscription process seamless.
4. Strengthen trust in news and the brand
“We leaned into the inherent trust in print and leveraged it online,” Arbolado said.
One way they do this is with their “A Page in History” campaign, which republishes the front pages of old PDI editions from the archives on social media platforms. This way, they’re able to both combat fake news and historical revisionism, as well as solidify their place as the newspaper of record in the Philippines.
They also publish the current front page of the newspaper on social media, which has become one of the most popular gateways for people to sign up for trial subscriptions.
5. Align content, product, and purpose
Alignment across the content, products, and purpose is extremely important to PDI, Arbolado said, “because we believe we have a role in uplifting the lives of fellow Filipinos and also a role in nation-building.”
They define their purpose as “doing everything for the ultimate benefit of our readers. Our readers give us our purpose,” he added. “They are our reason for being.”
Some of the efforts that help them align purpose throughout the organisation are:
Inquirer News Initiative: PDI distributes nine local newspapers through their INQ Plus subscription product, which became especially important during the pandemic when some local publishers were downsizing or pausing operations. This initiative helps sustain local journalism, giving INQ Plus subscribers additional benefits to their subscription while simultaneously opening new revenue options for small, local newspapers.
Inquirer Read Along: While this programme encouraging reading habits among kids has been around for 15 years, it became even more important during the pandemic. “When we transitioned to a virtual read along,” Arbolado said, “we were reaching 500 kids a month, helping them to learn to cope with ‘the new normal.’”
INQskwela: This educational programme (“skwela” means “school”) connects the Department of Education and local governments with kids in the 16-18 age range to “improve student aptitude for news and current events.” The objective, Arbolado said, is to “fight fake news and create a generation of critical readers,” and the programme also helps them develop their English communication skills.
Inquirer Project Rebound: This advocacy campaign was launched in the middle of the pandemic, in March of 2021, to “highlight stories of those who were able to retool and recalibrate to survive the pandemic, as well as those who were able to flourish despite difficult times.” During the first year, they reached more than 6.8 million people across all platforms, bringing together government, civil society, and the private sector. Arbolado said the success of Project Rebound “highlights the reach of The Inquirer Group and reinforces our knowledge across a wide range of industries.” Project Rebound won several awards, including 2nd place for “Best Use of an Event to Build a News Brand” from INMA’s Global Media Awards.
Arbolado boiled down the five priorities into five takeaways that they’ve learned through the process.
Alignment among stakeholders is crucial.
Organisational development is critical in capability building.
Products and content should address the needs of the audience.
In the age of disinformation, strengthening trust is imperative.
Purpose underscores what defines and drives the organisation
That purpose, he underscored, “is what gives soul to the company.”
The summit continues on Friday. Registration is free and includes post-event recordings of the virtual event plus speaker presentations.