Alexandra Beverfjord patiently waited her turn.
The executive vice president of Aller Media and CEO of Dagbladet in Norway heard the robust discussions among members of INMA’s board of directors at its semi-annual meeting in London in November: the business of journalism, the elevation of journalism, the higher calling of journalism in the news business, the need to seek models that sustain journalism, and how to amplify and monetise journalism.
And then Beverfjord spoke.
What if the news industry’s total focus on subscriptions as the saviour of journalism has unintended consequences for the impact and influence of news brands, she asked?
The board room at News UK in London went silent.
It is possible, she said, that the news industry’s total focus on digital subscriptions will soon have the net effect of producing journalism for fewer people. In an industry that prides itself on impact and influence, will the aggregate effect of that focus mean news brands will become niche products for wealthy and well-educated elites?
Hanging in the air was an inference: How do you quantify “impact and influence” to shareholders who signed on to ownership for storylines of profitability, subscription volume growth, and revenue turnarounds? And do news media companies have a mass-market social responsibility beyond quantitative shareholder value (i.e., money) in the emerging news media ecosystem?
INMA President Maribel Perez Wadsworth, a 26-year Gannett | USA Today Network veteran who 72 hours after the London meeting would be introduced as the new CEO of the Knight Foundation, answered Beverfjord. Maybe, she mused, subscriptions have changed access and may contribute to shifting journalism brands away from being “essential” to people. For sustainability’s sake, how can INMA think around making news brands essential again and changing the business model to reflect this?
Praveen Someshwar, CEO of India’s HT Media, weighed in with a question: “Why does journalism make an impact?” He answered that it’s the “trust differential.” Therefore, how can news brands rebuild trust? Wadsworth chimed in, saying that what made news brands impactful in the past was “trust at scale.”
The focus on journalism’s financial sustainability is central to INMA’s hyper-growth in the past five years. It’s why INMA became the news industry lead in digital subscriptions and a readers-first business model, which board members continue to emphasise.
Advertising and commerce in a readers-first model
The fingerprints of this board-level conversation about business models were everywhere within INMA in 2023. Yet it manifested itself in different ways: INMA’s interpretation of the subject vs. the raw feedback from members continually twisted the conversation between “business models” and “social responsibility.” Ultimately, we landed on how to define “influence and impact” for a new generation of shareholders who own for wholly different reasons than in the past.
Subscriptions alone likely won’t solve the financial sustainability challenges of most news media companies, and other elements of business model innovation need to emerge that augment this readers-first model.
In the case of major news brands, that’s a corporate social responsibility issue. In the case of local news brands, it’s an economic survival issue.
In early 2023, the INMA board lightly touched on this with the observation that news media c-suites may be refocusing attentions from digital subscriptions to digital advertising. Yet c-suites are ill-prepared for digital advertising economics in a way previous generations talked about, say, print advertising.
Teeing this point up with a leading British media CEO in a March visit, I was gently scolded: There isn’t so much a pendulum shift in attention toward advertising as how to make digital advertising work in a smarter way for logged-in digital subscribers.
To put it in INMA parlance, how to make advertising work in a readers-first business model.
Yet as the year progressed and I road-tested these ideas, a helpless question kept emerging from CEOs. What can we ultimately do to affect an automated digital advertising environment out of our hands?
During a visit to an Indian media company in October, the CEO shrugged his shoulders and suggested that the inability to impact digital advertising’s direction was creating “advertising avoidance” among the c-suite conversations about business models at his company. Why bother?
At INMA’s CEO Roundtable in Vail, Colorado, in August, “business models for growth” came in a narrow second in priorities among the 50 people present — narrowly behind generative AI. Bolstering the British CEO’s argument to me five months earlier, the Vail participants said reader and advertiser models are converging into a kind of “commerce model.”
While everyone present wanted to talk revenue diversification, they concluded that most media company c-suites have head space for only four business models — most of which shouldn’t be touched without a thorough mastery of subscriptions first. While media companies are nowhere near the market ceiling for subscriptions, the CEOs argued, it wasn’t clear whether they meant volume or revenue.
Subscription fatigue and third-rail ideas
I recently had an end-of-2023 conversation with INMA Researcher-in-Residence Greg Piechota about key insights from the past year — with business models beyond subscriptions front and center.
One takeaway was that there is a “subscription fatigue” among media company executives deep into their readers-first journey — which supported what board members and INMA event participants hinted at. Companies have extracted the high-ARPU subscribers from their markets over the past five years, and they are now either bundling assets to keep ARPU high or they are pivoting to print-era deeply discounted subscriptions to maintain volume growth.
But the fatigue may simply be tied to “going to the well” too often. There’s only so much that can be extracted from readers, therefore next-generation growth paths toward clearly defined c-suite priorities need to be re-thought.
There is not necessarily a social responsibility element to this so much as a realisation that subscriptions can take the news industry only so far.
Another takeaway is that Piechota, always seeking insights and innovations across the news industry, is particularly intrigued by India at the moment.
If Western markets are struggling with second-generation readers-first business models, might there be “third rail” ideas emanating from India that bears study?
Today’s digital subscription models are mostly based on where media companies started. For example, paywall models and pricing mostly evolved from a “protect print” mindset to a more digital subscription-based market mindset. That meant, over multiple decades, European publishers had to come down in pricing while North American publishers had to go up in pricing.
They mostly landed in the same spot, but it was a hellacious journey.
Indian publishers still sell their print newspapers at the equivalent of 1 penny (US$0.01) per copy. Even more so than in the United States, Indian households have been taught that print newspapers are cheap — and they still have not had the a-ha moment that came internationally in the past five years that the journalism is what they’re really paying for. There is no path to a 10-fold increase in prices in India, therefore we see a dampening effect on subscriptions in the emerging business models. This creates a bias toward maintaining print in c-suite conversations.
Yet Piechota and I agree on one big point: Indian media companies are among the most audacious in the world. There is significant evidence that magazine-style content-to-commerce models are emerging among Indian legacy newspapers. There is evidence of premium pricing of subscriptions among its diaspora and in passion subjects.
If we look more carefully at India, could we find something that could benefit struggling local media companies internationally?
Business model innovation was the No. 1 topic of 2023
We are hours away from the start of 2024. Yet the clock for news media has been ticking for some time, hitting a fervor never before seen as community news organisations face existential threats.
With all due deference to how GenAI might affect news media companies, this is a tool and not a strategy. And, yes, it’s going to be a big tool.
Instead, business model innovation was the most important subject of 2023 for news media companies. Everyone is checking their watches. The sense of urgency is palpable.
How do we bring together the redefinition of shareholder value (something beyond profits) with North Star goals (impact and influence, however you define this), business model innovation (subscriptions++), and corporate social responsibility (an advertising-supported free component to what we do).
I’m betting the December news that Schibsted media operations would be taken over by the Tinius Trust next year sits at the eye of this storm. This is an institution that has new reasons to own: “patient capital,” a social responsibility component, and redefinitions of impact and influence.
As you can see from this peek behind the INMA curtain, journalism matters for us. Yet so does the business of journalism. And so do the business choices we make today.
The “INMA conversation” has had outsized impact and influence for the news industry in 2023. Now, let’s build on that in the year ahead.