How news media (and INMA) evolved a decade in only one year

By Damian Eales

International News Media Association (INMA)

Sydney, Australia


It is remarkable how resilient, adaptable, and innovative the news industry has been through the past two years of a global pandemic. The same can be said of our customers and the industries with whom we do business.

I recall the many News Corp meetings I attended in past roles considering disaster recovery plans for putting a major newspaper out. Each of those scenarios considered physical disaster recovery sites, and we would have thought a complete remote environment for this operation to be near impossible. We and every other news media publisher proved that wrong in the past 24 months.

Media companies and our customers evolved overnight in terms of digital adoption. We would be lost now without Zoom or the collaboration tools we use routinely. Our customers will never go back in terms of their patterns of consumption or expectations for seamless digital experiences.

It is like we evolved a decade in only one year.

Let’s touch on a few of those “leaps forward” and provide some context and colour to each.

The new working conditions

The news industry would talk a lot about flexible working conditions that might have included some relatively minor adjustments to work patterns versus the wholesale adjustments that will be part of the workforce forever now.

Those new work conditions put new expectations on leaders who will be successful by balancing flexible working with an ability to harness the creativity that comes from team — and the value that comes from teams collaborating in person.

Successful leaders will embrace remote working as an ongoing part of life and recognise they can no longer rely on attendance as a proxy for the output of their teams — not that that was an effective way to lead in the first place. Successful leaders will need to consider the right measures of performance to ensure they get the best out of their people — quantitatively … and qualitatively.

Why paid content won

The paid content model has triumphed over the advertising model at news media companies, generally speaking. When I joined the INMA Board of Directors seven years ago, I listened to great debates about which model would prevail. Although there remain successful ad-funded news media businesses such as the News Corp-owned New York Post, most have adopted a paid content model as the dominant form of revenue generation.

Talking broadly with INMA members, this trend to paid has only accelerated through COVID. This has happened for at least three reasons: 

  • Our content is never more important than in moments of crisis and change. 
  • Our printed newspapers were not as available through lockdown.
  • Because the concept of subscriptions and streaming became normalised.

Let’s take some credit: We and the world’s leading streamers successfully convinced consumers that they should pay for something they previously felt was theirs for free in an ad-funded digital and broadcast model.

The role of data in media

Data is incredibly important to media companies, but it isn’t everything.

Intuitively, we have always known the importance of “knowing thy customer.” But when you look back 20 years, this was an exercise in intuition and broad-brush strokes of market research. Today, we have the opportunity to know something of every customer with whom we connect — even if it as simple as their name and e-mail address. Knowing this basic information and adding to it gives media companies the opportunity to serve them so much better.

Unrestrained data has its downsides, Eales says.
Unrestrained data has its downsides, Eales says.

For all of the negatives of a cookieless world, there are positives too. It forces our hand to “know thy customer” to generate registration and to create enough engagement and value to generate that registration.

To that extent, it also addresses a genuine concern of consumers regarding their privacy and the use of their data in a much more transparent one-to-one way between the customer and the news media brand — and not a host of intermediaries.

It gives us the opportunity to move from anonymous to registered to subscribed to value-added.

And for our advertisers, it gives them more accurate targeting and more relevant advertising.

I might also say that data, unrestrained, can be bad, too. We should never forget that at our core, we are an editorial-driven business, led by  people not algorithms, connected to their communities. We should leverage data, but we should not do so at the expense of intuition or creativity.

Jessica Lessin of The Information recently addressed the rise of “influencer journalism,” arguing: “If all or most journalists were columnists in the influencer-journalist vein, we would not get stories like The Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files or The Information’s investigation into Apple’s secret deals with the Chinese government. Elizabeth Holmes wouldn’t be a convicted felon.”

She goes on to say: “If the last decade should have taught news executives anything, it is to resist the metrics and incentives of the tech industry. News publishers should not make the same mistake they did during the rise of social media, when they oriented their newsrooms around stories that performed well on Facebook or Twitter. That resulted in a proliferation of clickbait, and — when the platforms changed their algorithms — it ended in layoffs. Influencers are the latest shiny new business model for tech companies like Meta and Alphabet. News executives shouldn’t let themselves be seduced.”

Where advertising goes next

A cookieless world makes us think differently about advertising. We need a one-to-one relationship with our customers. We need our own first-party data, as well as discerning data partnerships.

A cookieless world puts pressure on publishers to serve a better editorial/advertising experience where advertising is more relevant to the content that surrounds it. Or, taking it a step further, whereby the content is itself the advertisement. Advertorial continues to have a renaissance in some respects — more sophisticated, more targeted, more useful, more pull than push.

A world without cookies changes the media-advertiser-reader relationship in many ways.
A world without cookies changes the media-advertiser-reader relationship in many ways.

I see other advertising-related changes across the INMA membership network.

The reinvention of sales teams

For example, while the dollars associated with ad sales in many news media organisations decline, so does the cost of sale. That is putting a lot of pressure on sales teams to reinvent: 

  • Should our sales teams be generalists: customer-centric, product-agnostic, solution-focused? Or should they be product-centric and product-specific? Or a hybrid of one supported by the other? Can you afford both? 
  • Should we rely more on media agencies and delegate sales representation or focus more on direct-to-customer opportunities?
  • Can we reduce cost-of-sale by increasing sales automation? Through technology, can we convert our legacy digital and print products into recurring revenue? Think lower yield but higher lifetime value. 
  • What are the products we want to sell? What focus are we putting into product development? Are we trapped selling legacy print and digital the same way we always sold or can we develop new product constructs that are more relevant to the consumer and more valuable to the advertiser?

Many INMA members are considering these questions and responding organically through new product development and inorganically through bolt-on acquisitions that fill out their advertising offering with things like branded content or new video formats or e-commerce solutions and more.

Print advertising’s role

INMA gets many member questions about print advertising. To my mind, there is no doubt that printed newspapers will remain for many years to come. The value customers see in our newspapers is different than the value they see in our digital formats: the tactile experience and simple navigation; the gravitas of a front page or priority position; the brevity of the briefs; the discovery of something not searched for; the “edition of the day,” fixed in time and not in constant flux.

It is no coincidence that those willing to pay increasing cover prices for our newspapers are also those who are most engaged with our content, and we should argue confidently that those “all-in” readers are increasingly valuable for advertisers.

The rise of “content and commerce”

Meanwhile, the rise of “content and commerce” at media companies provides new opportunities and organisational challenges.

There is no doubt that content related to commerce is of growing importance. And in a world where it is targeted to the right customer, it is more likely to be pulled by the reader rather than pushed upon them. It is also attributable linking consideration to purchase. The ability of content to generate leads through trusted content is unquestioned. What remains to be seen is if it can be done at scale. I am sure this will be a bigger and bigger part of the advertising mix moving forward.

In terms of where e-commerce and lead generation models should sit — in our advertising department or our consumer subscription departments — the jury is out. Perhaps it should be altogether independent, perhaps it is a hybrid. One thing I personally believe is that for this model to be successful, you need to start with the consumer, build an audience, demonstrate attribution and the advertiser will follow. I believe the leadership of this function will need to have the same skills and talk the same language as our subscription teams do today.

The emerging relationships with Big Tech

Regarding the news industry’s emerging relationship with Google and Meta, News Corp CEO Robert Thomson quoted Churchill last year when he said we are at “the end of the beginning” of this journey. Indeed, we have started to establish some of the foundation principles of a sustainable relationship in the same way that similar principles were formed between local television stations and cable companies many decades ago.

Australian regulator Rod Simms said recently that the code has delivered “all we ever hoped it would.” Simms estimated the deals are “north of” US$145 million going into Australian media each year. This is not “trivial money,” he said.

What started in Australia in terms of Big Tech settlements is spreading across the world, and there is more to come as regulators contemplate the anti-competitive nature of the digital advertising ecosystem.

In terms of whether the digital platforms are publishers … of course they are. They choose to publish some information, and they choose to censor other information. In that respect, they not only make editorial decisions, they publish content. They should be held to account in the same way news publishers are.

Where INMA fits in this ecosystem

In my three years as INMA president, I am very proud of what our association has delivered for our members and the news industry through the past two years of pandemic.

We have embraced new technologies and have never been more successful on measures of membership numbers and the level of engagement that we have had with members. For me, that means INMA members are getting more value than ever before.

INMA CEO Earl Wilkinson recently outlined for members our achievements in the past year. We aim to stay mostly virtual in 2022 and build on our new foundations: 70+ Webinars, 10+ reports, eight master classes, our World Congress, and global summits around subscriptions, product, and data. We will continue to build scale in Africa, Asia/Pacific, Latin America, and South Asia with regional summits. And we have our eye on a physical conference in Copenhagen for European members.

We will reward excellence through our Global Media Awards, “30 Under 30” Awards, and Elevate Scholarships. In addition, where much of our inspired work comes from these days is INMA’s focus on initiatives: Readers First, Product, Smart Data, Advertising, and Digital Platforms. We have some exciting news to reveal soon about how INMA will bolster newsroom innovation, too. We have new dimensionality within these initiatives, ranging from projects with Google and Meta to benchmark services and more.

INMA has 100+ volunteers on our various boards, committees, and advisory councils — fiduciary, topic-focused, region-focused, demographic-focused. Our outstanding governing International Board of Directors last year quietly updated INMA’s mission, values, and community statements and adopted a business plan through 2025.

There has never been a better time to be an INMA member in our proud 92-year history.

In 2014, I attended my first INMA World Congress in San Francisco. This felt like a group therapy session in that there were far more questions than answers about where the news industry was going.

Today, I think we have answers. Not all of them, but there is light at the end of the tunnel where before we were facing an existential crisis.

We have landed on some of the core ingredients of what the recipe for success is for news media. And it is no surprise they align with the strategic initiatives that INMA is focused on: 

  • We must take a readers-first approach.
  • We need to negotiate a new relationship with the digital platforms.
  • We need to build better, more engaging, and more effective products.
  • We need to be smart about data and use it to add real value for our customers. 
  • Advertising remains a big part of our revenue streams and needs retained focus.
  • And, we need to reinvest in the newsroom of the future.

For all of the virtual success INMA is experiencing, I promise that we will get together in person. The lights will flicker on as we navigate the realities of international travel during a once-a-century pandemic. Our Europe Division Board met recently. Our International Board will meet in June in New York. Our North America Division Board is aiming for a study tour in Austin. We hope to execute a Copenhagen conference in September.

And if all of those flickers stay lit, it is INMA’s goal to fully reboot physical conferences in 2023 — with a focus on experiences and connections and people.

As always, thanks for your support of INMA. And “cheers” to a fantastic 2022.

About Damian Eales

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