News media publishers certainly understand that the way consumers connect to journalism is rapidly changing, and those changes are driven by technology. But as an industry, they’ve been slow to understand how to operate in these new environments.
During the last of seven modules of the INMA World Congress of News Media on Thursday, sponsored by Ring Publishing, INMA Executive Director and CEO Earl J. Wilkinson acknowledged the diversity in attendees: hundreds of delegates across 43 countries that represent many different cultures. Yet media companies of all kinds have a lot in common.
“We fall back on old cultures, old habits,” Wilkinson said. “We defend how the past will be our future, and we sell that to management committees, we sell that to boards.”
The global pandemic helped the industry forget about its past and forced a change when it threatened the existence of media as we know it. In turn, media companies adopted scale, speed, and efficiencies — and now stand up products faster than ever before, he said: “I know we are an industry very critical of ourselves, but let’s pat ourselves on the back for some of those achievements.”
The hits, though, kept coming with a war in Eastern Europe, inflation and cost of living increasing, supply chain issues, and the looming of a potential economic downturn. As the industry changed over the past two years and continues to change, publishers will need to evolve, too. Wilkinson suggested changing the messaging from aspiration to value for money.
Looking ahead to 2023
Wilkinson spoke about the most crucial topics in news media companies today, many of which reflect INMA’s initiatives:
Data: “One of the things I’ve learned about the Smart Data Initiative over the last two years is that no media company on the planet is happy where they are,” Wilkinson said. “Everyone starts data immature. It’s not a light switch; it’s a gradual pursuit.”
Media companies are finding success in setting goals first and then working on strategy, he said. They need to start with the data they already have, and the c-suite needs data wins quickly if they’re going to buy in.
In this World Congress, attendees learned it’s not about data volume but data value. First-party data helps with learning more about user knowledge for advertising and subscriptions, but challenges still exist with proposed solutions beyond third-party cookies. They’re not as efficient as expected and are expected to be legally challenged.
When it comes to communicating data, media companies typically know what to measure and understand the need for data literacy, but there are other communications that need work.
“We don’t talk enough about how data people themselves communicate their data, how people tell stories with their data,” Wilkinson said. “One of the reasons why product and data are so tied at the hip is because of this communications challenge.”
Subscriptions: The keys to subscription success are tight paywalls, a smooth user experience (especially with checkout), and low prices. Companies should bundle what they have to constantly add value and learn to ride the wave of future events and how they affect subscriptions. Performance is directly linked to a reader-first culture.
“This isn’t a department anymore,” Wilkinson said. “This doesn’t work if the newsroom isn’t on board, if the rest of the company isn’t on board. And in many regards, subscriptions increasingly are the North Stars of our companies.”
Big events like COVID or the war in Ukraine are important for subscriptions.
“It may help with recession-proofing us moving forward,” Wilkinson said. “The events are the fuel that gets us to the next level. The question is when those events happen, are you ready?”
Wilkinson encouraged media companies to look at their journalism, content, user experience, and productization. And when big news events run low, promote: “We’re an industry that constantly needs to be reminded of our value propositions and yes, you do need to promote.”
Are media companies thinking big enough with subscriptions? This World Congress taught them they still aren’t clear and simple enough about how their subscriptions are priced.
A Kantas study out now shows 40% of households anticipate cutting back on entertainment subscriptions this year, particularly luxuries.
“Is a news subscription a luxury?” Wilkinson asked. “We’re about to find out.”
Product: “The Washington Post said what the user pays for, content plus experience, that’s the product. And it’s not just about the journalism alone anymore,” Wilkinson said. “Journalism is the foundation. It’s the beginning. It’s the genesis, but the definition of product is so much bigger.”
CEOs should be thinking about how the number of products connecting with customers is rapidly expanding, he said. Consumer expectations are high. They want seamless integration and technology.
“In the legacy world, satisfaction was good enough as a goal for media companies, and today it’s about love,” Wilkinson said. “I think product can help tremendously in some of the gaps on the data side of the business. I think that they can be translators. They can be communicators.”
Newsrooms: This World Congress highlighted which stories break through with an audience and how to turn that into engagement in the newsroom.
“There is low data literacy among journalists and editors and it makes some really basic conversations difficult and threatening,” Wilkinson said.
There is a low understanding of how people consume what newsrooms are producing, he said: “All we are doing as an association is trying to shrink the distance between invaluable journalism and the outcomes of that journalism.”
Advertising: Media companies need to prepare as if a recession is coming in 2023 and 2024. They may want to pay closer attention to how audio and video are accelerating growth.
Wilkinson said the advertising questions that should keep CEOs up at night are:
What’s the difference between sustainable and transitional opportunities?
Where do I need people? Is the future lots of boots on the streets or a high-end consultancy?
Do I have the staff and structure to lead automation and programming revenue efforts?
People and talent: How do media companies get smarter when it comes to people?
“Workers have to choose you today, and they are choosing meaning over money,” Wilkinson recalled from a Module 1 presentation by the London Business School’s Tammy Erickson, who said companies need to offer people training and development opportunities and focus on their wellbeing.
Key takeaways from World Congress 2022
From Wilkinson’s perspective, some of the biggest headlines coming out of this World Congress are:
Publishers are underestimating their potential, and the addressable market for subscriptions is much bigger than they think.
The changing nature of advertising may impact the arc of potential recession cuts.
What will the next economic downturn mean to media revenues?
“I think it is fair to say that the old model of linking consumer confidence to subscriptions and advertising is alive and well,” Wilkinson said.
But, as INMA’s Researcher-in-Residence Greg Piechota noted, if a downturn happens, this will be the first real test of resilience of the subscription model in the paywall era. Publishers may have to lean on events to help with that if the economy does go down.
“I believe that our newsrooms are going to get smarter about the business and they’re going to impact our growth,” Wilkinson said. “I believe that through integration, separation, collaboration, and competition, we’re going to become better custodians of the great digital pivot.”