The digital transformation of newsrooms has entered a new phase: Readers First. In a meet-up on June 12 featuring INMA researcher-in-residence Grzegorz (Greg) Piechota and guest George Brock, former Managing Editor of The Times of London and currently a journalism professor at City University in London, INMA members learnt more about editorial governance for trust, audience engagement for loyalty, data analytics for reader-centricity, service design and development for innovation, and culture change management for transformation.

The future of newsrooms

The agenda for today's Readers First Meet-Up included discussion on how newsrooms change when they become reader-centered and the role that trust plays in this.
The agenda for today's Readers First Meet-Up included discussion on how newsrooms change when they become reader-centered and the role that trust plays in this.

“Many companies, when they enter the subscription world, they actually start by thinking it’s going to be a marketing project,” Piechota said. “Something that was free is going to be paid now. But then they realise that to be able to charge for content, they need to perhaps rethink their value proposition and the editorial product that they produce.”

Rather than a pricing model change or marketing shift, companies soon realise that it’s their entire organisation and culture that needs to change. “The reinvention is actually much bigger than just the change of a business model. It’s like the transformation of journalism from a mass market, industrial product to journalism as a service.”

This is a much more profound change than it sounds, Piechota said, and provided some examples.

Moving from a mass-market news product to journalism as a service to readers is a company-wide transformational change.
Moving from a mass-market news product to journalism as a service to readers is a company-wide transformational change.

The Guardian

Such changes make an organisation more of a service-oriented company than a product-oriented one. With The Guardian, Piechota said that the interesting point is that the product across its different subscriber bases is actually the same — and they don’t have a paywall. All news content is available for free to everyone.

The Guardian transformed its operating model to move from managing products to managing customers.
The Guardian transformed its operating model to move from managing products to managing customers.

“What they manage are not different products, but different sets of customers. Some customers want to contribute to support the mission. Some people want to pay for a certain user experience [mobile app, e-reader, etc].”

The Guardian has also been successful at finding 340,000 people who pay up to thousands of pounds per year to be a member/patron. “These patrons don’t get many more benefits,” Piechota said. “People do it because they feel a moral duty to actually support independent journalism.”

Gazeta Wyborcza

With other media companies such as Gazeta Wyborcza out of Poland, the transformation is a new management focus. What they found was that 10% of their audience was actually responsible for 74% of total online revenue (advertising plus subscription).

Gazeta Wyborcza shifted its focus from the most profitable products to the most profitable customers.
Gazeta Wyborcza shifted its focus from the most profitable products to the most profitable customers.

“This is a new situation in which the management focus shifts from the most profitable products to the most profitable customers,” Piechota said.

The New York Times

With the Times, the focus is new marketing objectives. “The idea is that their main product is obviously the basic news product for online subscriptions,” Piechota said. “But they actually try to upsell you other offers.”

The New York Times transformed by maximising the lifetime value of its users, rather than numbers.
The New York Times transformed by maximising the lifetime value of its users, rather than numbers.

These include lifestyle products like cooking, crossword puzzles, parenting, etc. Subscribers pay more to gain access to these additional features. The Times also upsells by appealing to the imperative to help sustain quality journalism, similar to The Guardian, but by sponsoring subscriptions for students. Cross-selling other products is also an additional way that the Times maximises the lifetime value of the customer.

“The objective is not just to get the biggest number of online users possible,” Piechota said. “It is actually to get the maximised value that you get from the users you have.”

New value proposition

“We all know that there is an abundance of news content around the world,” Piechota said. Most of this is from content aggregators, not original journalism. “What is important, though, is that for the news publishers it’s difficult to compete and charge for something that’s so widely available it’s free. The way to differentiate...is to emphasis the process of journalism.”

People are not going to pay for news content, what they’re actually paying for is journalism. The core tasks of journalism are:

  • Verification
  • Sense making
  • Witnessing
  • Investigation

Piechota said that in today’s world, we might also add creating and developing audiences as another task journalism is responsible for. “This is the difference between a product company that is just focused on the output, and a service company that is focused on the impact for the customer,” Piechota added.

George Brock on the role of trust

Piechota then brought guest presenter George Brock into the Meet-up. Brock is a professor of journalism at City University London, and spoke about why trust is so central, and how greater transparency, interaction, and engagement can help the future of journalism.

Brock began by saying that most journalists would argue that it has always been necessary for journalism to be trusted, but now is the time to really stress this because of the recent rise in mistrust of the media, as well as the disinformation and misinformation that is prevalent today.

“Journalism has to think about how to re-establish its legitimacy and how to, in a continuing way that ideally people would pay for,” Brock said. “We are doing something that no one else does, that is of important quality to you, and that it is indispensible that you get it from us because we are to be trusted in doing it.”

The word “trust” has to be re-examined all over again, he added.

The transition to digital has changed journalism, in that online news is not done behind the scenes the way traditional reporting has been. We are having to redefine the process of journalism today. It’s an evolving conversation.

“People are more interested in the process of journalism than they have been,” Brock said. “They’re interested in not just the outcome but the process.” Which is exactly why there is mistrust today, when that process has proven suspect in some cases.

“If you’re going to think about greater transparency in a newsroom,” he added, “you need to think about exactly what it is you want to make transparent. Are you making the whole of your journalistic process transparent? How are you going to think about the parts you can’t make transparent?” For example, sources.

Piechota asked if participation a way to gain more trust from users?

Brock replied that it can be, though it depends on what the newsroom is doing. “Engagement is one of those buzz terms, but it’s a really good idea to dismantle and look behind it.”

He warned of one thing to be careful of. If you have a community of readers, as the newsroom, what do you want your relationship with them to be?

“If you want them to be very highly engaged, you may wish to give them leverage over, say, editorial decisions or choices. Or, do you only actually want to give them influence, rather than leverage? Because engagement can mean either of those things.”

Organisations need to consider the balance between editorial autonomy and the voice of the community it serves. The best news publications aren’t led by their readers, but they’re very responsive to what their readers like, and are knowledgeable about their preferences.

The wall

The next segment of the Webinar aimed to answer these questions:

  • What are the drivers of lowering the wall between editorial and business sides?
  • Are there any reasons to keep the wall?
  • How does the role of editors-in-chief change?

“What I’m seeing across the world is that the walls between the editorial and commercial are being lowered, for many reasons,” Piechota said. These include the alignment between subscriptions and editorial, and the recurring payment model which allows organisations to invest in the future.

“In this new world there is an alignment that actually makes the newsroom more willing to collaborate with the commercial side,” he added.

Brock posed the question if there is anything that still warrants keeping that wall up? In other words, is there anything editorially that is still sacred?

Piechota acknowledged that as newsrooms start getting more into the subscriptions side, new challenges begin to emerge. “The business is about adjusting the product to the needs of those subscribers.”

As an example, he discussed when the New York Times hired a right-wing editorial reporter a few months ago, to try and balance its news content and reach those readers who identify more conservative, politically. But there was an outcry amongst its audience at large, and much of the newsroom. Why? Piechota said it was because they loved the Times so much, and valued the way they had been covering stories in a way that was true to its journalistic ethos.

“The more you get somewhat partisan to appeal to these niche of your superusers and your fans, the more you get positive feedback from these people,” Piechota said. “If you think just of commercial results, it would be a good idea to just focus on your superusers and fans because you can drive sales. But if you lose traditional loyalty to the truth, you may actually tarnish your brand, lose your reputation as an impartial journalist, and you may not be able to expand your readership behind your superusers and your fans.”

Piechota said that he believes the person to decide that line is the editor-in-chief. Brock, on the other hand, thinks that the New York Times should have held onto that conservative columnist, for exactly those reasons cited.

“There is a general trend toward more partisanship because people regard that as more emotionally engaging. Eventually that clashes with the idea of what do we think is the truth. If you’re going to do journalism, you sometimes have to tell your much-beloved subscribers something they may not wish to hear. That is the basic truth,” Brock said.

It’s imperative that the newsroom be very clear about its values and missions, Brock added. Communicating any of these messages needs to come in a transparent manner and in the voice of the media organisation.

The culture

Sometimes, the issue in such transformation comes when attempting to make a culture change in the organisation. Why is this sometimes a barrier in the transformation? What does changing culture require? And how do news industry leaders address the issue?

George Brock explains how culture change can be a barrier to transformation.
George Brock explains how culture change can be a barrier to transformation.

“I don’t think the root of the problem is nostalgia for old forms of journalism or old ways of doing things,” Brock said. “Most of the news rooms that I go into, people are very well aware that the business model for journalism is very tough. I think the bigger problem is that the kind of things we’re talking about involve, across both the commercial and the editorial departments, shifts of power.”

If an organisation launches a culture change and skate across the fact that there will be some power shifts going on, this could be the single biggest barrier, Brock said.

“I think people under-invest a lot in the time taken to persuade people that something difficult is actually much easier than they think, and they will be in a better place when they do it.”

Piechota also pointed out that one big challenge to overcome in culture change is when team members feel a loss of control over what is happening. “When people feel in control, it’s much easier to make this leap of faith and actually make the change. But if they feel they lose control, they try to cling to whatever there was in the past.”

In closing, Piechota invited INMA members to learn more about the Readers First Initiative.