Should news publishers directly distribute to readers or diversify market channels?

By Greg Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


In the face of declining social referrals and risks posed by generative AI-driven search, one solution that’s gaining traction is a destination strategy. What are the trade-offs? What are the alternatives?

“Our job, my job, is to obsessively focus on getting people to come to our destination and build a direct relationship with us,” declared The New York Times CEO Meredith Kopit Levien.

To become “the world’s best news destination,” in the past five years The Times prioritised investment in journalism, software, product and marketing, and built a robust organic audience funnel. 

For example, a casual visitor from Google is nudged to register to read more for free, then sign up for newsletters, download an app, and try games. The Times then monitors the engagement and may pitch a subscription through all direct channels it has connected.

Author Wes Bush called this approach a “product-led growth” in his 2019 book. 

In 2022, per the company’s annual report, The Times spent US$204 million on product development in addition to US$267 million spent on sales and marketing, US$23 million on customer service, and UA$30 million on offline and online content delivery (e.g., servers).

Altogether, it’s US$524 million or 25% of the total operating expenses. 

The distributor’s jobs

Publishers who consider skipping Google and Meta — and focusing on a destination strategy — face a challenge. 

“When you remove a member from the [distribution] channel, someone else must absorb the work they were doing,” reminded Northwestern University professors Julie Hennessy and Jim Lecinski said in their 2023 book.

What work is that? Let us consider the value that tech platforms create for media consumers and what publishers may need to absorb:

  • Aggregation: The intermediaries aggregated and repackaged vast amounts of information so consumers could find all content in one place instead of visiting multiple Web sites. Might publishers bundle and curate news, lifestyle, and entertainment content? 

  • User experience: Platforms simplified logistics — standardised content formats, integrated multimedia, and polished user-friendly interfaces, making consumption faster and more pleasant. What would it take for publishers to build destination mobile apps on par with popular aggregators?

  • Personalisation: Tech companies used behavioural data to tailor content to an individual’s interests, making it easy to discover relevant content. Can publishers double down on investments in analytics and automated curation?

  • Interactivity: They allowed consumers to comment, share, and engage with content, deepening engagement and satisfaction. Could publishers open up for user-generated content and build communities around stories?

This transition, as the example of The New York Times showed, requires a shift in strategic thinking and investments in tech infrastructure, product, analytics, community management.

Data-informed bets

When mobilising traffic to fill the gaps in the short to medium term, news publishers may wish to prioritise the biggest channels they and their consumers already use.

The channel’s size assures impact, and familiarity hopefully shortens time to value.

In Reuters Institute’s 2023 survey across 45 markets and all demographics, we see the following channels that might help maximise reach and feed the top of the funnel:

  • Rally for mobile app investment: Across the world, 55% of consumers declared smartphones as the main devices for accessing news, versus 23% who declared using laptops. Per other studies, people spend four times more time in apps than in mobile browsers. Can publishers invest in their apps, brand, and discoverability in app stores, as other mobile-first companies?

  • Drive search and aggregators: 25% of consumers declared search as their main getaway to online news, after social media (30%) and before direct visits (22%), mobile alerts (9%), aggregators (8%) and e-mail (5%). Have you screened aggregators and their potential? Have you doubled down on search engine optimisation and your e-mail portfolio?

  • Master YouTube and WhatsApp: While still 41% of consumers declare using Facebook for news, consider other social media and messengers. 30% of consumers declare they use YouTube for news, 21% use WhatsApp, 18% use Instagram. What is your video and podcast strategy? (By the way, in the U.K., YouTube is already bigger in news podcasts than Spotify, per Ofcom survey.) Are you using WhatsApp Channels?

(The Oxford survey shows preferences differ across countries and demographics. In general, younger consumers and those in non-Western markets are more mobile, social, and video-oriented.)

The ecosystem experiments

While direct distribution offers a way to regain control, diversification is essential to hedge risks and explore new opportunities.

Practitioners advise having a pipeline of channels for testing, and here’s how this might look: devices, apps and sites, and companies.

  • Device expansion: In today's connected world, news consumption isn’t limited to desktops and smartphones. Publishers may consider other devices like smart TVs (28% consumers use for news), smartwatches and other wearables (5%), smart speakers and voice assistants (4%). For example, Slovakian Dennik N launched an audio app for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for daily commuters to enjoy its podcasts.

  • Channel development: An emerging channel doesn’t need to be a new trendy app. Addressing user needs other than news might unlock new opportunities in the existing channels. For example, Argentina’s La Nacion found a bigger success with promoting its club benefits on Google, such as discounts for retail, than promoting news itself. U.S. Newsday engaged local influencers to amplify news stories.

  • Channel exploration: Beyond traditional news destinations, there’s a myriad of Web sites and apps where readers are spending time. Per Kepios, a research company, this includes online shopping (76% internet users visited monthly in 2023), maps (55%), streaming apps (46%), weather apps (41%), online gaming (34%), banking (28%), sports (26%), health (24%), learning (24%), as well as company intranets and work spaces, community platforms, and utility apps. For example, Japan’s Nikkei released an app for Slack.

  • Partnerships and syndication: Businesses can use news as benefits for employees and customers, and for attracting new segments or improving retention. For example, German Bild signed deals with mobile carriers to bundle their apps and licence content, fundamental for getting traction with BILDplus subscription. The Globe and Mail is marketing The New York Times to Canadian readers. 

As tech landscapes shift, news publishers might be sitting on an untapped gold mine by underestimating and underinvesting in distribution.

“For some types of media, content is king. But if so, then distribution is the emperor,” observed Columbia professor Eli Noam. 

A correction was made on November 21, 2023: An earlier version of this article reported the The New York Times spent US$113 million last year on journalism. It likely spent significantly more.

Greg’s Readers First newsletter is a public face of a revenue and media subscriptions initiative by INMA, outlined here. INMA members may subscribe here.

About Greg Piechota

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