Today, I am diving into the newsroom leaders’ perspective on their role in the business transformation to digital and reader revenue — and sneaking into their offices.
If you have questions or suggestions, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org, tune into my Webinar on the subscription growth in 2024 on January 31, or meet me at the INMA Media Subscriptions Summit in late February in New York.
Top editors talk on myriad challenges journalism faces and their belief in subscriptions
“The journalist is on the front line,” said Maria Ressa, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate of Rappler in the Philippines.
Technological disruption and economic pressures are not the only challenges newspaper editors-in-chief face around the world. Editors are confronted by rising political polarisation, declining public trust, and unprecedented level of harassment against journalists.
This is based on Directores, a new book by Spanish journalist Fernando Belzunce, who talked to 11 editors: from Ressa and Adam Michnik of Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza, to Alessandra Galloni of Reuters and Joe Kahn of The New York Times.
“I wanted to showcase the crucial moment journalism is going through and focus on what really matters — the fundamentals of journalism, its role and responsibility in society, and for democracy,” Belzunce explained in an interview with INMA.
The 47-year-old Belzunce is editorial director of Vocento and responsible for its national newspaper ABC, 11 regional newspapers, and two magazines in Spain.
Key challenges: What’s on the chief editors’ minds?
Threats to democracy from populism: Carlos Dada of El Faro in El Salvador told Belzunce: “We have mistakenly assumed that democracy lies in voting, and we forget that democracy is, above all things, a system of checks and balances. When there are no checks and balances, it is no longer a democracy.”
Rising polarisation: New York Times Executive Editor Joe Kahn admitted: “Political polarisation is a big challenge for journalism. It’s not just in the United States but in Western democracies. We are looking at how to make our output more valuable to more people regardless of their political point of view.”
Declining public trust: Roula Khalaf of the Financial Times said: “[Readers] trust that what you are telling them is a fair reflection of the story, as journalists see it. If you lose the readers’ trust, then you have nothing.”
Social media threats to the society: Maria Ressa of Rappler observed: “Platforms prioritise the dissemination of lies over facts. They insidiously manipulate our emotions so that we can’t tell fact from fiction. Mark Zuckerberg is, in some ways, the greatest dictator.”
Interviewing his peers, Fernando Belzunce found the threats to journalism and societies are similar globally, partly because they share the roots: “Polarisation is driven by audience fragmentation, and the fragmentation is enabled by technology. Radicals ignore facts and use social media to create alternative realities, and then brutally attack journalists who investigate them.”
How should the news media respond? “With facts, facts, and more facts. We cannot accept realities that are not based on facts.” In his opinion, rigorous investigative journalism and transparency on how it works can help regain the audiences’ trust.
Business and technology transformation: Faced with economic pressures and new technologies, the top editors stay defiant and sound confident.
“My interviewees agreed that the subscription revenue model aligned well with journalism because it rewarded quality,” explained Fernando Belzunce. “At the same time, advertising revenue models often pushed newsrooms towards quantity, and that hurt.”
Merging of the newsroom’s and company’s business strategies: Joe Kahn of The New York Times thinks a subscription model brought “a golden age for the newsroom, because the news we create, the journalism we do, drives the business directly. And so the company has an incentive to continually reinvest in journalism and attract more subscribers.”
Balancing market logic with journalistic mission: Poland’s Adam Michnik believes his newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza’s success in digital subscriptions lies — counterintuitively — in publishing what readers need to read rather than what they want to read: “Our journalism is interesting and thought-provoking. Other media publish what their readers want to read but it is very boring.”
Balancing data science with human judgement: Globe and Mail in Canada embraced audience data and even automated its home page. Still, Editor David Walmsley reminded us that “journalistic judgement has to override everything.”
New skills and technology in the newsroom: Wolfgang Krach shared how the profile of journalists and their skills changed at Süddeutsche Zeitung in Germany: “Three or four years ago, we had hardly any professionals to do audio journalism, visual investigations, interactive developments, projects with open source or Artificial Intelligence.”
I asked Fernando Belzunce what skills a modern editor-in-chief needs to have. “The role expanded,” he reflected. “Today, editors must understand technology, social media, marketing, subscriptions because they have to collaborate with the business side.”
Does it mean the walls between the newsroom and the business side are crumbling? Should they? “No. We need to maintain these walls. I have a good relationship with our commercial director, but we have different roles. The core focus of editors-in-chief is still journalism.”
How newsroom offices evolve during the business and technology transformation
Modern newsrooms reflect changing business, technology, and journalism itself. Sometimes, the biggest change is about what is no longer to be seen in the office rather than what is.
In the past year, as INMA’s researcher-in-residence, I talked to the teams of more than 150 member publishers and visited almost 50 editorial offices in Europe and North America.
Since the pandemic, many newsrooms have continued to work in part remotely, like Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in Germany, where I saw a newly built but sparsely occupied skyscraper. Gone was the buzz of the newsroom. My guide broke the silence: “Everyone is at work, just not in the office.”
An even bigger surprise was the newsroom of Berlingske in Copenhagen, Denmark. This 275-year-old newspaper, one of the oldest continuously published in the world, no longer works on a printed newspaper.
Berlingske still published a print edition, but the editing was first relegated to the corner of the office and then outsourced to an external facility. The chief editor explained: “The newsroom is practically and symbolically digital-only.”
My home is my soul: Let me step away from the newsrooms for a minute, and tell you what I saw on the streets of Antwerp in Belgium.
In the autumn, I visited the headquarters of two biggest media companies — DPG Media and Mediahuis — both financially successful, expanding internationally, and innovating.
DPG Media’s new office was right in the city centre and next to the iconic Antwerp railway station. It’s a statement building, with a large video screen outdoors, projecting the company’s multimedia ambition and competitiveness.
Mediahuis’ office was located in a quiet suburb, in an unassuming building surrounded by greenery. Its humble and sustainable office spoke to the company’s focus on productivity and collaboration.
If brands have souls, the buildings are the manifestations of their identities and values.
In the centre of the universe: Digital success usually requires different organisation than in the printed days of glory, and this shifts the office layouts and moves furniture, architecture permitting.
Fifteen years ago, editors lined up to visit the Daily Telegraph in London to see the largest open plan office space in England, with its iconic central hub or a round table for the key editors. Sections fanned out from that central hub, like planets orbiting around their sun.
Last summer, the Telegraph’s editorial floor looked more or less the same, but its layout has clearly inspired the world — be it The Wall Street Journal in New York or the little Dennik N in Bratislava, Slovakia.
Large screens for analytics remind everyone that the audience rules, and the subscription conversion numbers on those screens show the new priorities, like at Dagens Nyheter in Stockholm, Sweden.
Robots casually worked alongside humans, for example, at Svenska Dagbladet across the town, which automated the process of planning and creating its print page layouts.
Newsrooms got image conscious and Instagrammable, just in case somebody takes a selfie or shoots a video commentary in the office. Both El Mundo and El Pais in Madrid, Spain, featured large logotypes near the editorial hubs and instructed the guest how best to capture it all.
Piles of old newspapers, books, files, cigarette ash trays — or whatever else characterised my office 20 years ago — disappeared. Hot desks and standing desks pushed away even family photos and mugs; nothing personal, just business.
The omnipresence of studio facilities reflected former text-only publishers’ bet on audio and video, with Aftonbladet and Expressen, both in Stockholm, splashing on fancy furniture, green screens, and robotic cameras. Welt in Berlin, Germany, merged its newsroom with a news channel N24.
What’s trendy? A TikTok-optimised studio like the one at IPM’s Les News 24 in Brussels, Belgium. The hint: It’s for vertical filming and not the horizontal type.
Journalism playgrounds: As media shift to customer-centricity, editors are expected to collaborate more with product and marketing colleagues. Windowless workshops no longer suffice. Flexible room layouts and mobile furniture help set up ad-hoc spaces, giving space to work on projects together.
Sometimes, the novelties become permanent. At Gazeta Wyborcza in Warsaw, Poland, the consumer revenue and audience teams sat next to the offices of chief editors.
Communal spaces sometimes resembled airport lounges, music clubs, coffee shops, gyms, or playgrounds, with informal chairs, sofas, swings, balls, or barbells awaiting journalists seeking a respite. Old brands want to have cool offices to attract the new kids on the block.
In Tallin, Estonia, the office of Postimees stunned me with bold paintings and sculptures that you’d expect at a gallery, not at a workplace. “Our newspaper owner is a collector of modern art,“ the editor whispered.
At Blick in Zurich, plush toys were preserved in glass jars. Pickle Elmo, a Canadian artist’s comment on our consumer culture, glared at me at the reception desk.
Is there a space for any legacy in these temples of modernity? At Corriere della Sera in Milan, Italy, editors climbed the marble stairs covered by a thick red carpet and sat behind a century-old, long, wooden table.
When they discussed the news of the day, they were surrounded by classic front pages hanging on the walls and a historic map of the world.
The only sign of a new world was a screen with a camera for video calls and sharing statistics. That winter, the noble Corriere reached 30 million online users, or half of Italy’s population, and passed 550,000 digital subscribers.
Hear from Corriere’s Maria Sgromo and Globe and Mail’s Andrew Kendall during next week’s Webinar on how to convert the 2024 news cycle into subscriptions (January 31, 10:00 a.m., New York time).
About this newsletter
Today’s newsletter is written by Grzegorz “Greg” Piechota, INMA’s researcher-in-residence and lead for the Readers First Initiative. In his newsletters, Greg shares original research, analysis, and best practices in growing reader revenue.