Can storytelling be the industry’s savior?

Editor’s note: Raju Narisetti was named senior vice president/deputy head of strategy at News Corp in February of 2013. Prior to this move, he was deputy managing editor of The Wall Street Journal and managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Digital Network, managing editor of Washington Post Co., and founding editor of Mint, the second-largest business newspaper in India.

Here’s why he believes in print, feels newspaper brands have a more long-term view than, say, the Huffington Post, wonders why we didn’t create the Facebook Paper app, and thinks the industry needs to be embrace the genius of a good story. 

INMA: You say “brands have moved from marketers to publishers.” What does this mean and how does this bring opportunity to the media industry? 

Narisetti: Lot of brands want to engage their customers, audiences, or consumers using stories. Brands really don’t want to get into the news business, but they want to get into the storytelling business around themes, topics, and occasionally around specific brand that matters to them.

GE, for example, cares about innovation, wants to be in the conversation about innovation, and wants to engage audiences with great relevant content — often in the form of storytelling. 

As more and more brands realise they can target and reach their potential customers or audiences — and realise that they don’t have enough content beyond just advertising — they will figure out ways to create it themselves or partner with others who can. Many of these brands used to rely on advertising to do that and now, in some cases, they are shifting ad dollars into branding content/target advertising.

From a publisher’s point of view, there’s an opportunity to make more revenue. 

If you really step back, advertorials, for example, have always been around from early print days to now. Brands wanting to engage with content is not a new phenomenon.

What is new, probably in the last three to five years, is brands realising they can reach audiences without having to go through traditional news platforms. That is accelerating the idea that they can create more engaging content.

The notion has started to sink in during the last two to three years that brands are not just to sell, not here just to promote a brand, but want to talk about larger themes in which the brand plays a roll. Big advertisers are saying ad budgets remain fairly flat, but they have a lot of new resources in space of branded content.

If the advertising customers are dedicating resources to this area, what can we do to take advantage of that?

INMA: How has the concept and importance of content changed over the past decade? Why is storytelling more important now than in the past?

Narisetti: The context is slightly larger in the sense that I think up until very recently, publishers thought just having unique content was going give them a competitive advantage. That was true in the days of print. If you had a great story, the next time somebody could follow you was 24 hours later. In the world of the Web, you have maybe a few hours before somebody else can create a similar package. 

Now, thanks to social media, the advantage you have with unique content, if you’re lucky, has shrunk to a few minutes. If you do a story, someone else just has to retweet, adding just a few new words. So I think just expecting us to compete on content isn’t going to work. 

Great content and journalism still matter. But how readers experience that content will matter even more. That is going to be the competitive advantage. 

If you have a unique story, you put out there. If everybody is riffing off that, if you just relied on the story to bring the audience, then you’ve lost that to other places. Interesting experiences created on a Web site or app, interactive, a database with it, ways to engage with it — that experience of consuming your story is still your property. Like [The New York Times’] Snowfall

Because of the way the Times created Snowfall, the experience of consuming that story is so unique that you’d go back to the Times for that. You can think about applying that to everyday scenarios on a regular basis to create defensible and proprietary content.

That’s what I mean when I say the newsroom has to pivot from focusing on creating content to focusing on creating great experiences with that content.

INMA: So the storytelling happens from both editorial and advertising? 

Narisetti: Yes. There is no reason a graphic that you create for a brand should be any less interesting and engaging and interactive than one created by the newsroom — because the goal is to engage audiences. I think publishers are starting to get it, but it’s still difficult.

Most newsrooms and most editors initially still think brands are getting into the news business. That isn’t true. Brands want to stay as far away from the news business as possible because it’s unpredictable. What they want to do is get into the storytelling business.

Media companies have shifted from never doing that because it’s confusing to readers to saying, “Here are the rules we want to create around this part of content, what we want to label it, and how we present it.” The evolution is happening.

The larger issue at play is this: At the end of the day, most journalists are not competing against a brand X or brand Y. What they’re competing with is one single non-renewable resource that readers have, which is their time.

If you can get more of their time through the work you did, then you have won the battle because you can figure out how to show them more ads. The issue with branded or native advertising now is there’s another new source of content that is potentially taking time away that would’ve come to you.

When Red Bull has a guy jumping out of space and millions of people watch that you YouTube endless, that’s time lost to journalistic consumption. 

From that point of view, newsrooms do have to worry about brands creating content. For that reason, figuring out a way to embrace this is not giving up on the guarding of the news brand.

INMA: You say “quality and relevance define success.” Is this true now more than in the past?

Narisetti: It’s different in the sense that most readers are even more time pressed. Anything you can provide them that helps them understand the context or makes it easier for them to deal with the flood of information has a higher chance of success. This is driving data-driven news companies. 

Making people understand something complex in a chart or graphic or list of things is playing to the fact that people are pressed for time. Having great stories and lots of them is good, but you also have to package them and present them in a way that takes care of the fact that audiences are pressed for time … and increasingly so.

INMA: What is the newsroom’s place forming the media brand?

Narisetti: Most publishers, in the years when we were all fat and happy, conceded the brand to the newsroom. So most newsrooms have grown up feeling they were custodians of the brand.

It’s increasingly becoming an issue that newsrooms and products and technology and advertising have to work together to create new products, new offerings, using the journalism but creating new products out of it. 

The scenario of having newsrooms feel like they own the brand has become counter-productive. The brand is shared by everybody, and everybody is responsible for the health and well-being of it. 

Church and state has a place and will always have its place. But it cannot get in the way of doing something good for journalism, good for customers, and good for the business model.

This is a work in progress. Most business folks will tell you they are still somewhat subservient to newsrooms. I don’t mind that at all as long as the newsroom is acting based on real data and not your tummy compass [“gut feeling”].

You can’t say without any data that this is bad for the brand. 

INMA: Your professional background is founded in print content, yet increasingly dabbling in digital bring you to this point. How does that print background help you and News Corp? Are there times when it is not helpful?

Narisetti: This is my 25th year in this industry. I would say, starting in about 2004 — when the Wall Street Journal Europe created its first print-online product and you could read a compact edition of Wall Street Journal Europe online — that’s when I began thinking about where audiences wanted to consume your product. So I spent 15 years in pure print, and the last 10 years thinking much more from an outside-in perspective. 

The newspaper business is an amazing curse and a blessing. It’s a blessing in the sense that we still have many good years, we’re still profitable, continue to do very well, bring in revenue, and we think newspapers are here to stay for a long time. There’s a definite audience that is still very engaged with the product, sometimes 40, 50, 60 minutes every day.

The great thing about a newspaper is there are very few things you can multi-task with it. Maybe a cup of coffee. When you’re consuming journalism in every other format, you can do 10 things.

There are about 900 million people over 60 years old in the world right now; there will be some 2.5 billion by 2050. If you think of the newspaper industry — forget about platforms or formats — one of our greatest core competencies is that we are amazing at lean-back reading. Those 2.5 billion will actually want lean-back reading as they get older, and we can provide them that. 

So we have a pretty bright future if you think about what we do in those terms. It’s important to step back and think about what is our core competency and what do we do well and how does that work with the demographics of the world. All that considered, there is plenty of opportunity on the print side. 

The downside is when it comes to competing against brands and platforms that don’t have the burden of print, that’s challenging. I have to still worry about a lot of logistics, investments, all the processes that go into putting out a robust newspaper every day. We have 2.5 million copies of the Wall Street Journal and 60 million visitors online. When you have a Web start-up with just 4 million readers, you just don’t have to worry about all that. 

That is a challenge of big publishers, which get accused of not being nimble or having a CMS that is not friendly.

The flipside is this is our 125th year of The Wall Street Journal. News Corp is the custodian of strategy for this great brand and others worldwide. For however long I and others do this, we need to do things to make sure that whoever is coming behind us can take it to 150 years.

BuzzFeed feels like a financial play as in, how do I maximise scale right now? It’s a very different prism we tend to apply at News Corp.  

The brand means something. We don’t have the license or permission to mess around with that brand. We want that to be a brand 150, 200 years from now. I can do nothing now that maximises short-term value but destroys the long-term for somebody else.

INMA: You are a big fan of audience data. Are media companies using it to its fullest potential?

Narisetti: Many newsrooms pay lip service to the idea of feeling like they know what’s happening, taking that and doing something about it in real time. They are throwing money at vendors to get data yet not leveraging that into day-to-day decisions.

Very few newspapers base tomorrow’s newspaper based on today’s consumption. Very few are willing to work with the business side to manage data to drive changes.

The biggest challenge is newspapers really have to embrace getting more people to consumer and pay for their journalism. My point is in 2014, we must redefine journalism to bring more people to journalism.

INMA: What are one or two of the most important lessons you’ve learned about the industry since taking this position with News Corp last year?

Narisetti: Complacency still remains our biggest problem. Those newsrooms that have sensed failure have responded better than newsrooms that think everything is generally fine. Creating a sense of urgency is a culture challenge that our industry needs to get better at. How do you drive change without people feeling a sense of urgency about this industry? 

I now have a macro view across continents of data and performance. I realise one of the more comment elements is that the newsroom needs to understand we need to move a lot faster. I’m not saying the business guys are doing better, but it’s a different pace of urgency than needed in our newsrooms. 

The second is, as an industry, we are very focused on day-to-day and maybe a little longer than that. We’re not spending enough energy on what’s coming around the corner and trying to deal proactively with that. Facebook’s Paper app, for example.

There is zero reason why a major publisher didn’t come up with that mobile experience, which is really very compelling. We talk about our audiences being on mobile, but what are we doing about that?

About Dawn McMullan

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