Welcome to the latest Newsroom Initiative newsletter.
In this issue, News Corp Australia explains its long slog — and its methods — to get to a million subscribers in a way I think many publishers could and should emulate.
We also look at fallout from the Twitter fiasco and what publishers may want to do about it, including thinking about a presence on Mastodon and reminding staff how to spot fake Tweets.
A note for your diary: Don’t forget to register for Newsroom Leadership, a three-module master classes in December here at INMA.
A lesson in long-term newsroom commitment to subscribers
News Corp Australia has made a decade-long commitment to growing subscription revenue and putting a value on its journalism. This month it cracked the one million digital subscriber barrier across its titles — not bad in a country of 25 million with multiple strong free sites.
How the Australian arm of Rupert Murdoch’s news network got to that stage is an object lesson other publishers could learn from, especially the way the newsrooms and journalists have been drawn into a company-wide push to focus on readers, gain trust, and grow revenue.
In an interview for the INMA Newsroom Initiative, Mark Reinke, News Corp Australia’s managing director/consumer, explained six factors he believes allowed the company to succeed so far in its drive to focus on subscription revenue, satisfy customers, and produce trusted journalism.
He admitted to mistakes along the way in that 10-year journey, but it’s clear that the role of newsrooms — and the basic promises of journalism — are at the heart of the programme.
“It’s been a 10-year process to get to one million … . So it’s a wonderful milestone, but it’s not been short-lived [in getting there],” he said. “I think the great skill is determining what you should keep the same and what you should change. And I think in our space, we can learn as much from what we did keep the same as what we changed.”
The News Corp proposition has remained or been reinforced: “We didn’t change the notion of our brands being town squares for their communities. That notion of still being that town square, because trust is central to that, we did not change.”
Here are the six factors Reinke identified:
- Insights: The newsroom needed new signals and insights about its audience and the will to turn those insights into action. Its Verity platform of news and subscriber analytics was a big part of that.
- A dedicated team to action those insights: An editorially led “Content-led Growth Team” helps editors direct resources and innovation to where readers and subscribers most valued it.
- New content models: Innovation in journalism products meet identified needs and develop new niches, from hyper-local journalism — essential after News Corp Australia shut down some local print titles — to data journalism, and automated journalism, especially in local council, health, and crime.
- New products for new audiences: Innovation in news products is needed for sports lovers, Millennials, and other valuable audience segments that insights showed previously were underserved.
- New pricing tactics: More subtlety is needed around prices offered to different audiences at different times of the year, particularly in sport, as well as dynamic pricing on introductory offers based on consumption habits and timing — all without lowering the overall subscription price.
- Rapid evolution in offering multiple user experience (UX): Serving audiences on whatever device or platform they choose to engage with News Corp Australia brands on is key, as well as doing so efficiently with content management tools that allow publishing once to many outlets.
I reckon the News Corp Australia experience has lessons for publishers everywhere. My takeaways as the lead on the Newsroom Initiative include:
- A “bridge” team of newsroom innovators who led the cultural and technology changes need to focus on readers, turn data into action, and whose focus was still journalistic. “These journalists had a passion for converting insights into actionable newsroom change. So they become the bridge between the commercial part of the bridge of business,” Reinke said.
- A product in all markets: News Corp Australia has a mixed model of subscriptions and open access from a rigid paywall on The Australian, to a “freemium” strategy on its local and regional titles, to free-funded-by-advertising on what is now the country’s largest news site News.com.au.
- Alignment between newsrooms, product, engineering, and the business to eventually get content management systems and tools that allow newsrooms to produce efficiently for many platforms at once — and work with coherent user experiences that meet business goals.
There’s a lot more, but that’s where I think the News Corp Australia approach meshes closely with the best practice we’re looking at through the Newsroom Initiative. For example, Reinke credits staff development through cadetships and a new Digital News Academy for helping drive long-term cultural change through the organisation.
Verity, he says, wasn’t just data, it became a critical resource-allocation tool.
“Ultimately, it became a value optimisation tool for every newsroom,” Reinke said. [An editor can decide] where do I put every reporter? Have I got them in the right places? Do I see the values that I seek as an editor reflected in the value my readers draw from our content?”
The emphasis across the company has been finding a resilient financial model through recurring revenues for sustainable journalism, he says. Digital subscriptions now account for around 50% of overall digital revenue with advertising accounting for the rest.
At the same time, Reinke recognised the value of print, especially for advertisers: “Print remains important from an advertising point of view. It's somewhat resurgent. It's still a very important part of our strategy and for digital subscriptions because it still anchors the trust.”
A note for your diary
The News Corp Australia approach to newsrooms and reader data features in the December master class on Newsroom leadership. Soraiya Fuda, head of audience development at News Corp Australia, is due to speak in the third session on December 18 titled: The newsroom’s evolving role in digital reader engagement.
Further reading on this subject
- News Corporation first quarter results.
- Newsroom dashboard tool at News Corp Australia improves journalism-driven subscriptions.
Twitter crisis puts brands — not necessarily traffic — at risk
The ongoing dumpster fire since Elon Musk took over at Twitter has exposed leading brands — including some news publishers — to the risk of serious brand damage.
However, several senior editors told me they’re less worried about the damage to traffic since Twitter — while immensely popular with journalists and a big source of breaking news — was relatively insignificant as a contributor to digital engagement.
“Twitter is a platform in flux, with many leaving for alternatives, and we get an infinitesimal amount of traffic from it,” one North American news leader told me.
Another, from Scandinavia, noted that most titles there enjoyed mostly direct traffic, noting: “We use very few resources on Twitter.”
But the risks to brands are significant with major brands finding imposters — verified as real with the blue badge and white tick on Twitter since Musk took over — spreading costly disinformation and in once case, pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, contributing to big share price fall.
One senior editor, who had flagged the risk to brands and publishers alike, made a point of sending me a Tweet from a fake-but-verified account supposedly from Lockheed Martin saying it was halting arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States, “until further investigation into their record of human rights abuses.”
A fake-but-verified Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Twitter account popped up in the past week, offering national and international news alerts.
Advertisers and their agencies have suspended or withdrawn campaigns from Twitter since the Musk takeover, declaring it no longer a safe environment for their brands — not just because of imposters but because of a documented surge in hate speech and a return of toxic accounts.
WPP, Omnicom, and big brands have all warned that Twitter may no longer be safe.
“Based on the news of additional senior management resignations from key posts, high-profile examples of blue check abuse on corporate accounts, and the potential inability for Twitter to comply with their federal consent decree, GroupM’s Twitter risk assessment is increased to a high-risk rating for all tactics,” Digiday quoted WPP-owned GroupM in a note to clients.
Musk has suspended his plan to roll out a paid verification system under the Twitter Blue umbrella, which was originally about subscriptions, some news sources, and the famous edit button. He now says the revised Twitter Blue should launch on November 29. He’s also cut back on applying the word “official” to many verified accounts, including news media.
There may be some room for media owners to capitalise on the advertising crisis by reinforcing their properties as safer homes for brands, but there remain immense risks of publishers who face their brands and staff being spoofed at the best of times— even before fake verification emerged as a problem in the past week.
Many journalists — me included — were assigned the verified badges over the course of years, not to enhance their own status but to increase reliability. Twitter recognised it gained value from verification given the popularity of the network among journalists and the extremely fast and vital nature of the platform. It is worth remembering that before Twitter, only the likes of Reuters and Bloomberg really had the capability of almost instantaneous transmission of news.
Several leading editors from around the world told me they expected they would pay for verification but only if it really was as robust as it had been before Musk took over. Several also said they would probably pay for reporters to retain existing verified labels. One in a developing country said that while their brand accounts were verified, none of their reporters were.
“Our company said they'd pick up the tab for verification,” one North American news leader told me. “But the real question is: What is the value of that? I mean if anyone can pay a few bucks and get verified…” The question, of course, remains exactly that open.
“Twitter is not a major Web acquisition driver. We will continue to put in the same amount of energy,” said a senior editor from a publication in Africa. “There is concern around the possibility of Twitter launching a pay model to maintain the verification. This is something we would have to consult about. For the brand, it could be something we consider paying for.”
Some journalists — me included — have started creating profiles on the Mastodon platform, a not-for-profit and highly distributed network with many niche layers and segments, including a number of newly created cells evidently created to serve increasing numbers of journalists.
In his newsletter, Danish media analyst Thomas Baekdal describes some of the potential pitfalls of the decentralised Mastodon network. Here’s a guide to Mastodon from the Washington Post. The excellent Lawfare Blog has a detailed explanation of how Mastodon works.
Tell me what you want to read and what you like or don't like in this newsletter, please. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. I also plan a Slack group. Interested?
About this newsletter
Today’s newsletter is written by Peter Bale, based in New Zealand and the U.K. and lead for the INMA Newsletter Initiative. Peter will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of global newsrooms.
This newsletter is a public face of the Newsroom Initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail Peter at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org with thoughts, suggestions, and questions.