Career Pivot: The first step

It’s coming up on two years since my job as a regional executive editor and news director disappeared, one of the tens of thousands of US newspaper jobs that simply doesn’t exist anymore, and I’ve been waiting to write a post about my job search because, I’ll be honest, I wanted to write the post announcing that I had landed a really cool job. I have got close a couple of times, but I can, in all honesty say, the jobs just weren’t right. And this time, I want the job to be right. I want the best culture I can find and also something that feels a bit sturdier than the full-time roles I’ve had since I took the buyout from The Guardian in 2010.

And so I waited to write about the job search, which is really more than a job search. It’s a career pivot. That’s the other reason I haven’t written about this process. It’s not that I’m committed to leaving journalism, but it is the realisation that journalism most likely won’t be able to provide me with enough stability to enjoy the most important things in life: My wife Suw, family and friends.

That’s not to say that I don’t have ambitions. In the last two years, I’ve built and expanded on the international media consultancy work that I started after I took a buyout from The Guardian in 2010. I’ve worked in a dozen countries in 2017, providing digital transformation, data and long-form journalism workshops to journalists across south and southeast Asia. I’ve been doing some really incredible and satisfying work with the newsrooms of Trinity-Mirror in the UK, helping staff and editorial leadership turn their analytics into editorial action and launch new audience engagement initiatives. And I produced a report on newsroom innovation management for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford.

My consultancy has given Suw and me the space to explore this career pivot. I had already started to think of a pivot the summer before the job disappeared. I knew that it was coming. I was heavily involved in the restructuring that led to it being eliminated. But when the role did go up in smoke, people who I spoke to asked me what I wanted to do next. There was a part of me that wanted to answer that I wanted to do what I had always done: Create the future of media. But I knew my digital skills, my data-driven creative passions could be used in a number of other ways, and realistically, it was time to update my personal mission statement.

The summer before the job went away, a good friend told me that I most likely wouldn’t find the kind of job I wanted in a major media organisation and suggested that I look to media start-ups. And that is one avenue I’m exploring, and if you’re a media start-up looking for a crack audience development or head of product, get in touch.

Another friend identified said that I had a passion for communications and community, and I’ve definitely been rolling that idea around in my head. I like this idea. Journalists are driven by a mission, and I would love to talk to people about other public service missions that I could support.

But this is a good first step. When I started blogging with Suw back in 2006, the blog was part of a brilliant community of writers, journalists and “social technologists” as Suw often describers herself. I loved that time because blogging really was social media, and it wasn’t just about the writing but also about the community of support that I felt. By not writing about this important transition, I’ve really deprived myself of that support.

So I’m doing something I rarely do, I’m writing something that feels half-finished, something that doesn’t feel definitive or even all that confident. But I know that I’m still writing this chapter in my life. It is unfinished, but to start the next chapter, I need to do this, write and re-connect.

The dis-economies of scale for small town newspapers (and the rise of local indie players)

This post originally appeared on The Media Briefing. It was announced on 16 June, 2017, that The Media Briefing would be shutting down after the purchase of its parent’s company media events business, which did not include the content side of the business.  I wish the excellent staff there the best. If you’re in the UK looking for some great journalists, editors and analysts, let me know. 

In the last 15 years, more than half of the jobs at newspapers have disappeared, down from 412,000 to 174,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While I don’t want to reflexively equate newspapers with local journalism, there is no way to ignore such a tremendous loss in local media capacity, especially in small towns and cities.

Three years ago, the Sheboygan Press, where I was Executive Editor,had three full-time reporters, two sports reporters, a photographer, a local news editor, a night editor and a digital editor to cover a city of 50,000. We shared an opinion editor, a features editor and a sports editor with one other site, and they were player-managers who helped provide local reporting and content. Now locally, there is only a news editor, two reporters and a photographer. That’s it. That’s the decline in only three years. Yes, there are shared resources across an 11-newspaper group, but it is rare for those staff to provide truly local coverage.

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Major metros, second- and even some third-tier cities often have three or four TV stations to provide local coverage, but thousands of smaller communities and millions of Americans have lost local news coverage, sometimes entirely. The Columbia Journalism Review focused on these local journalism losses this month and said cuts and newspaper closures are creating “news deserts”.

This crisis is just starting to get the attention that it deserves, but a lot of the conversation is still focused on major metros or cities with more than 100,000 people. Yet in thousands of smaller communities, the crisis looks very different, and the strategies and the business models needed to save these local news sources are very different. The industry is consolidating, but large newspaper groups are treating all markets as if they are the same. Instead of saving papers like the ones I used to manage, the chains’ strategies are creating dis-economies of scale that threaten to wipe out small community newspapers.

Strategies that don’t scale down

In its coverage of the local journalism crisis, CJR called Gannett the “last great local hope”. I disagree. Large groups like Gannett are now running regional strategies that don’t deliver dramatic cost savings at smaller sites and damage their ability to deliver truly local content. Indeed, strategies designed for the metros caught us coming and going: the cost efficiencies didn’t really amount to much for us, while the ad strategies often priced us out of the local market. So any savings were quickly offset by declines in revenue because we had fewer sales staff selling less ad space, and new digital strategies didn’t scale down to our communities.

For example, Gannett, like many other publishers, has centralised newspaper design in a handful of centres. Gatehouse has taken the model to the an extreme with a single centralised design centre for all of its 125 daily newspapers and hundreds of “community newspapers”.Gatehouse newspapers big front page illustration

 

While I appreciate the need to make the print production process as efficient as possible, this kind of streamlining has to be done only when it makes sense, especially economic sense.

 

Our contribution to the design studio budget would have hired two designers locally so not only were our cost savings minimal to non-existent, a lack of local market knowledge sometimes led to poor design decisions. For example, the designer usually used huge front page illustrations, like this one from a Gatehouse newspaper but our readers interpreted to mean that we didn’t have content to fill the page. It sent entirely the wrong message.

Ad strategies that didn’t work for smaller sites

Gannett’s centralised digital marketing services didn’t work for smaller sites either. The floor to engage the service was a $5000 monthly spend and, in smaller markets like mine, that was the annual spend for a lot of our advertisers. Fortunately, I worked with amazing local commercial staff and managers, and we came up with our own digital ad solutions.

Research by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University in New Jersey found a decline in ad blocks of 34 to 40 percent across the four newspapers they reviewed in that state after they were acquired by Gannett. The researchers said:

“This could indicate a variety of things; there could be fewer resources committed to garnering ads from local businesses, local businesses may have decided to pull their advertising for some reason, or it could be some kind of strategic decision on the company’s part.”

Needless to say, fewer ads means less revenue. Less revenue has meant a download spiral that Gannett is struggling to check.

‘Wistful self-delusion’

Gannett says that it is a “local-to-national network”. While that acknowledges the nationalisation of vast parts of the US ad network, it actually doesn’t make either economic sense or often journalistic sense for small-town news services unless they are little more than one reporter bureaux that feed a regional product. With two reporters left in the sites that I used to manage, in reality they aren’t far from this. Once they are reduced to bureaux, Gannett’s 50 or so small sites will have ceased to be local in a way that my communities define it.

The upside is that Gannett now has retreated from these small towns to such an extent that local competitors are rising to take their place. Sadly for the staff still at those sites, this is putting additional pressure on small Gannett properties.

There is no silver bullet solution to the crisis in local journalism, but as for hope, I don’t look to the large chains in the US. Their consolidation and cost-cutting strategies have run their course.

Rather, I look to local journalism entrepreneurs to create a range of truly local experiments that explore new ways to serve their communities and new ways to generate revenue. I think for local journalism, the days of mass print are over. We are returning to a much more distributed model as we enter the local digital era.

Some advice to people thinking about studying journalism

Through my notifications, I spotted this on Reddit, a senior in high school thinking about studying sports journalism. The Redditer is concerned that jobs are scarce and that the pay would be crap unless he lands a gig at ESPN. In my 20-year career in journalism, part of me wants to say twas ever thus, but here is my response:

As someone who has worked in journalism for the last 20 years but now “does things to support my journalism habit” and am looking for a second act for the second half of my career, I would say that you can do this, but think of two things (at least): A) Transferrable skills B) a double major that gives you solidly marketable skills outside of the exceedingly competitive sports journalism market. That second major could be sports marketing or simply marketing. (Or if you’ve got the resources and the drive, get a master’s degree outside of journalism. You’ll have a better sense of what you want to do once you’re at university.)

Also, if you really want to go the sports journalism route. Get writing and doing video as soon as possible. It was true 20 years ago when I was starting and it’s ten times more relevant now that you need to start building your personal brand and portfolio immediately.

And a little context, my last full-time job in journalism lasted 21 months as a regional executive editor for one of the major US newspaper groups. The last round of cuts a month ago by the group in the region where I used to work wiped out half of the local sports staffs.

Let me end on a positive note. I may not be working full-time for a news organisation now, but I have had an utterly amazing career. I got my start as a cub reporter in western Kansas in the mid-90s. Four years after I started, I landed in the BBC’s Washington bureau as their first digital journalist outside of the UK. I moved to the UK in 2005. I worked for the BBC a little longer and then moved to the Guardian in 2006. In 2010, I took a buyout. It gets a little less predictable after that, which is the story for a lot of journalists my age.

But now, I have my own little media consultancy. Who am I kidding, I’m a one man consultancy. This year, I’ve written a report on newsroom innovation management for the Reuters Institute at Oxford. I’ve traveled to 11 countries already this year doing workshops, conferences and consulting with media companies and industry groups. I informally advise digital media start-ups and do some fundraising for them. It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of fun, but it is a lot of create your own adventure too. Best of luck!

I’m not going to say that this is the end all and be all of advice. It’s an exciting time to enter journalism, but I think this Redditer also understands the inherent risk in the industry right now. It used to be that journalists graduated from junior reporting positions that paid two cents more than f*&k-all to gradually either well paid senior writing positions or leadership positions. At the moment, that career path is broken. Now journalism has a rise or retire system similar to the US military, well apart from the pretty good retirement benefits.

Most of the regional journalism jobs that are have disappeared in the US over the last ten years will not come back, and most of the digital jobs are in high-rent cities — New York, Washington, SF and LA.

We’re in a moment when what was is being slowly dismantled, and we’re not entirely sure what will be in the future. That’s exciting, but the ride is a little bumpy, to say the least.

WAN-IFRA Webinar: Here come the chatbots and more strategic insights

Last Thursday, I hosted a webinar focusing on the chatbots and conversational interfaces section of the report that I did for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford, Beyond the Article: Frontiers of Editorial and Commercial Innovation.

In the webinar, I gave an overview of the strategic motivations that publishers – including Rappler of the Philippines, Nyt, the youth section of Helsingin Sanomat of Finland, and Quartz of the US – had for launching chatbots and developing conversational apps. I also looked at how they developed these projects and what business models they were using to support their journalism.

I’ll just review their strategic motivations briefly here:

    • Rappler launched a Facebook chatbot for three reasons: One, audiences had shifted rapidly from Twitter to Facebook over the last year in the Philippines. Two, they wanted to use the chatbot to both increase discovery of their content for Facebook audiences, and three, they also wanted to better communicate their editorial features – straight news, analysis and comment – to readers.
    • Helsingin Sanomat’s youth-focused Nyt noticed in 2014 that Facebook was no longer helping them reach teens and, based on research that showed that 80 percent of their target audience used WhatsApp, they launched an experiment on the messaging platform. The experiment was successful but unsustainable, so they developed their own conversational app.
    • When Quartz launched four years ago, the mobile-focused news service did not launch with an app because they found that app usage fell off quickly. However, with the rising importance of notifications, they wanted to get onto the lockscreen of their users. Inspired by Lark, a conversational fitness coaching app, they launched a conversational news app.

Is WhatsApp going to develop tools for news companies?

One of the questions that came up during the webinar is whether WhatsApp was developing editorial tools to make its service manageable for news groups using the service to broadcast updates to users. I had heard rumours, but nothing firm. After the webinar, I did a quick search, and I found a Reuters report in early March that said that WhatsApp was trialling tools for businesses, and had launched a pilot with Y Combinator. Neither WhatsApp nor Y Combinator confirmed the trial, but one of Y Combinator’s companies provided details.

However, this trial was couched in terms of WhatsApp going in search of a business model, rather than helping news organisations. (I was in Asia in March, and Chinese messaging platform WeChat does have editorial tools. It’s really worth looking at what the Chinese messaging and weibo, Twitter-esque platforms, are doing. They have developed a far richer experience than Twitter or WhatsApp.) In the end, WhatsApp’s trial seems much more focused on helping businesses connect with their customers, rather than serving the needs of editorial organisations. Moreover, as a paid service, it doesn’t really address one of Nyt’s primary issues with WhatsApp: they couldn’t drive users from WhatsApp to their site, felt unsure about advertising on the platform, and so couldn’t really monetise that attention.

Moreover, Facebook, WhatsApp’s owner, seems much more focused on Messenger as a platform for editorial organisations. I do wonder how long Facebook will see value in having two messaging platforms.

Strategic insights beyond the report

Apart from the webinar, my good friend Damian Radcliffe summarised not only some questions he asked me about the report but also comments that I made to The Media Briefing in a podcast last month.

I’ll highlight some of the top level observations from Damian. What really struck me in the research for the report is that media companies are starting to embrace product thinking. Bar one of the examples, every case study in the report highlighted a strategic challenge or opportunity as the basis for these projects.

I want to emphasise a point that Damian highlighted from my conversation with Chris Sutcliffe and Esther Kezia of The Media Briefing for the podcast: Innovation requires rationalisation. The most successful media groups I work with are working hard to figure out what they do and, just as importantly, what they stop doing. Focus is critical to successful execution. I told Chris and Esther:

Often the resources of an organisation are fully committed, and this is especially true for news organisations going through cuts. To free up resources for innovation, those groups must figure out what they stop doing.

Quartz exemplifies this. Last year, they decided to quit producing a high-end tech conference, not because it wasn’t successful but because it wasn’t successful enough. They are a start-up operating as part of a legacy media company, Atlantic Media, and as a start-up, they are focused on their highest growth areas. This is a critical lesson for media companies. They have to focus on areas where they can find growth, and they need to be fully focused on those areas.

If you haven’t read it already, you can download the report from the Reuters Institute. And if you have any questions including enquiries about speaking opportunities or consulting engagements, feel free to get in touch in the comments below, or via Twitter, LinkedIn or email.

Join me for a webinar about my recent Reuters Institute report on news innovation

Since I first said it at Hacks/Hackers London last summer, I’ve become fond of saying, “If you don’t have revenue, then you don’t have a product.”

When Dr. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, the research director at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford, started to talking to me about writing a report about journalism innovation, I mentioned my comment about revenue and products, and he asked, “Can we put that on the front page?”

Rasmus wanted to look at digitally native innovation at news organisations, and we used projects that went “Beyond the Article” as a lens to focus the project. Rasmus and I also wanted to focus not just on the coolness of innovation but also the business: How were companies managing it, and more importantly how were they monetising it.

We eventually settled on three areas to focus on:

  • Radically distributed publishing.
  • Chatbots and conversational interfaces.
  • Visual journalism and VR.

The report was supposed to be 5,000 words, and it topped out at about 11,400. To be honest, I could have written a book. There is a lot of innovation going on right now in journalism. But I think we’ve given a good sample of projects and innovation.

If you want to read a brief introduction focusing on the chabots and conversational interfaces and apps section, here is post I wrote for WAN-IFRA. For a broader overview, here is a summary that I wrote for the Nieman Lab at Harvard. If listening is more your style, I also did a podcast on the report with Chris and Esther at the Media Briefing.

Next week, 30 March at 3-4 p.m. CEST, 2-3 p.m. BST or 9-10 a.m. EDT, I’ll be doing a webinar for WAN-IFRA focusing on the chatbots and conversational interfaces section. Register here to join. I’ll do a presentation, but we’ll have plenty of time for you to ask questions. See you there!

Outlining the formula for Josh Topolsky’s Outline at #SXSW

There are a lot of lessons here for media companies, whether legacy businesses or start-ups, from The Outline. You might not have heard of The Outline, but it has pedigree. It’s founder Josh Topolsky has form with The Verge and Bloomberg. Now, he wants to launch the next-gen New Yorker or the New Yorker for millennials, as Shan Wang reported in Nieman Lab.

Simplifying their formula even further from their slide at SXSW, I would say that the key lessons are:

  • Collaborative working relationship with edit/dev/rev team.
  • Focused on a “specific, finite, meaningful audience”. And a laser focus on that audience.
  • Ad experiences as distinctive as its content.

I don’t think that everyone needs to build their own editorial tech or ad tech. That’s something that a figure like Topolsky can do at launch, but it isn’t something that every media start-up or even legacy group can or should do. Obviously, the technology focus can deliver a distinctive editorial and commercial product, but I think knowing that you’re trying to do is a necessary prerequisite to build or choose the tech.

But that’s a niggle. Overall, this tight set of bullet points is a good starting place for media companies in the 21st Century. It’s not a rigid recipe, but it’s a great starting point for companies looking for a strong digital launch.

Direct to consumer reason for collapse in national print ads in US and UK

Newspapers came under renewed pressure in 2016 as print advertising dropped by double digits, often in a quarter. Gannett saw a drop in national print advertising by 35.1 percent in the third quarter of 2016, but still managed overall to eke out only a 14.8 percent drop in overall print advertising. Ouch. I worked at Gannett, and I was lucky to have great commercial managers. Why did this happen? The trends in the US and the UK are the same, and Roy Greenslade of The Guardian has just published an excerpt from a former MD of the Mail newspapers about why this collapse is happening.

Turning to display, the category which traditionally held up well was retail, which is still the largest category. The reason was simple. It worked to the extent it was measureable.

But this model is under pressure because of the growth of databases which enable advertisers to target audiences and email their offers directly to them.

Zitter looks at the market from the national level in the UK and says that to win back advertisers, they need to maintain a direct relationship with them to the largest extent possible and not simply rely on programmatic exchanges. That makes sense, but with the sharp decline in revenue, newspaper groups are not just losing editorial headcount but sales staff as well. Rough seas ahead.

Unsolicited advice to Gannett, from a shareholder

Before offering this advice, I should disclose that I am a Gannett shareholder as a result of being a former Gannett employee. My position with Gannett as an executive editor over a few of its small papers in Wisconsin was eliminated a little more than a year ago in a round of budget cuts. I’ve actually come out of that really well despite the position disappearing sooner than I anticipated, but as a shareholder by default of their 401K plan, I have legitimate concerns about Gannett’s expansion strategy.

Here is my advice not only as a shareholder but as someone who makes pretty good money giving such advice to media companies:

  1. Your USA Today Network strategy makes sense. Your local-to-national strategy does not. Your acquisition strategy makes less than no sense. Your Q3 results show that while you’re buying scale and adding revenue, you’re also adding costs at an unsustainable rate, especially with the double-digit quarterly decline in print advertising. If Wolfgang Blau of Conde Nast says the “war for scale” is over, why do you think your business is different?
  2. Look at your advertising base. You leave a lot of money on the table locally because you can’t afford to chase it on your cost base. The cost of acquisition for small local businesses’ ads in many small markets is too high for you. Your ad base is regional and national, not local in any meaningful way below a certain floor. That’s your business, and you need to build your content strategy off of that. (It’s also the reality of much of the media market in 2016.)
  3. On that assumption that you have a regional-to-national business rather than a local-to-national business, you should sell off the vast majority of what I’d call your hyperlocal properties, small sites like those I used to manage. Believing that the number of print properties you have translates into reach in 2016 is outdated print thinking that you need to jettison. You’re looking at consolidation through the wrong lens: Lots of properties != profit. If newspaper scale based on property count was the solution, it would have worked long ago. It hasn’t. Moreover, as Ken Doctor points out, the Street doesn’t believe you can wring out as much as savings as you think you can. Keep some local staff around the state, but be strategic about it. Look at your numbers, how often is there a story from these small sites that grabs national attention?
  4. Use the proceeds of these sales to buy a tent-pole property in as many states as makes sense. That’s the basis of a regional-to-national strategy, one that is built on  sensible cost basis. It gives you scale without the costs, tightly focused execution and dramatically fewer print properties to try to manage. You have been so focused on cost cutting at a ridiculous number of properties that the product and your focus on execution have suffered. Regional products will be stronger and more sustainable than local or hyperlocal.
  5. In states where you don’t have a property or it’s uneconomic to buy one, launch digital regional properties. It’s more cost effective, and it gives you a good place to experiment without print legacy costs or thinking. Or partner and invest in properties like the Texas Tribune. A national expansion strategy will have to be creative and use different tactics based on the realities of different markets and regions across the country. This is guerrilla warfare for your future. Be creative and nimble, not corporatist and monolithic in your approach.
  6. Get deadly serious about your customer data. I know that is part of your strategy, but if you want respect from the Street again, you need to put that front and centre. You’re still drowning in the red ocean of print and struggling in the red ocean of digital advertising where Google and Facebook, with their superior ad tech and mountains of data, are the Great White Sharks gobbling up the market and leaving little but scraps for the rest. The media companies that come out the end of this Great Disruption will be focused on their content and commercial customers. This is the Bletchley Park Project for media. Crack the code of data or resign yourself to annihilation.

Let me end with this question: Did a Last Dead Man Walking strategy in print ever make any sense considering the swoon in print advertising over the past decade? Do you want to be a consolidator in a business sector in decline or a disruptor of your own business and others so you might have a future?*

* My day rates are well within your budget.

US newspapers lost advertising revenue found

And why the answer to the problem is not about scale. 

Thomas Baekdal compares the decline of advertising revenue for US newspapers with the rising ad revenue of Google and Facebook.

Thomas Baekdal compares the decline of advertising revenue for US newspapers with the rising ad revenue of Google and Facebook. Full post at http://bit.ly/2cLUkYb

Everyone in media in the US saw the graph a couple of years ago showing the cliff that the newspaper industry has fallen off with respect to advertising revenue since the beginning of the first decade of the 21st Century thanks to a simple bit of graphing by Mark J. Perry.

Now, media watchers have added the numbers and shown where that money went. Ben Thompson of the Stratechery blog added in Facebook’s revenue rise to show one reason why newspapers in the US are facing even greater headwinds, even as the US economy starts to show a little more life. Thomas Baekdal took it one step further, adding in Google’s revenue. It almost mirrors the decline of newspaper advertising, although Google’s rise seems a bit steeper.

I want to make an important point, though: Google didn’t actually kill the newspaper advertising market. Google replaced it with an entirely different market. It’s the same money, but Google isn’t in the same market as the newspapers. It instead created its own market and brands decided that was a better place to be.

I would also say that Google, via its Android mobile OS, also shifted its advertising model deftly to mobile. When you combine this graph with Mary Meeker’s graph about the attention minutes that people spend, you see why Google’s growth continues.

Mary Meeker's 2016 comparison between the percentage of time that people in the US spend with their mobile devices and the difference in mobile ad spending. Full presentation available here http://bit.ly/2dE9vUO

Mary Meeker’s 2016 comparison between the percentage of time that people in the US spend with their mobile devices and the difference in mobile ad spending. Full presentation available here http://bit.ly/2dE9vUO

In the US alone, Meeker estimates that there is a $22 b opportunity in the difference between the amount of attention that people are spending with their mobile devices and mobile advertising spend.

But it is not all doom-and-gloom. Baekdal also points out:

This is an incredibly important distinction to understand. Google isn’t winning because it’s big or that it has so much more scale. It’s winning because it created a way for people to have high-intent moments, which brands can reach with their ads.

We have shifted from having a single advertising market (all based on low-intent exposure), to having two different advertising markets… and the media only fits into one of them.

I would counter that the old print mass media fit into the scale model. However, there are many other media businesses that were never about scale, and if you look at some of the models that are showing success, they are about finding a committed niche, whether geographical or topical and serving it well. That might be B2B media, such as Rafat Ali’s travel business focused Skift, which just announced a new vertical to tackle, Chefs & Tech. In Tulsa Oklahoma, The Frontier has 500 subscribers, as of April, willing to pay $30 a month for local investigative journalism. De Correspondent in the Netherlands broke 40,000 subscribers last December.

Of course, this is all about reader revenue, not necessarily how to replace the fat revenue that advertising used to deliver to local newspapers. I don’t think that ad revenue will ever come back so we need to find a new model for local news and information, and I don’t think the answer is scale. Media cannot scale cost effectively to compete with Google and Facebook.

As for new models, maybe we already have one in the US, TV, but that isn’t going to go as deeply local as newspapers once did. But I think we’ll see more experimentation in local news media over the coming years supported by truly local entrepreneurs. But sometimes it’s good to know what isn’t working so you can move on to try other things.

The Olympic medal for media innovation goes to…

New York Times Fine Line Simone Biles

A version of this post first appeared on The Media Briefing, where I write about the media developments in North America, especially as they pertain to the search for new media business models. 

The Olympics are over, and the medals have all been handed out. But for me, the Games are not just an opportunity to see the best athletes in the world but also to see some of the most cutting edge digital media innovation. The 2016 Rio games also showed some of the tectonic shifts in media with viewership dipping on traditional TV platforms and up on on-demand and mobile platforms.

These are not simply vanity projects. As we saw recently with Politico’s Apple Wallet-powered EU Tracker project in the lead-up to the Brexit vote, a smart strategy executed well during major events can help you reach new audiences and power your growth to the next level.

Not to mention, that just like gold medal athletes hoping for lucrative endorsement deals after the games, media organisations are hoping to cash in, and this Olympics also showed how organisations are seeking new sources of revenue through digital commercial innovation.

New York Times’ The Fine Line

The Olympics are one of those big set piece events when top news groups, start-ups and the digital platform giants have time to plan and create trail-breaking digital media experiences.

Amongst the legacy media groups, the New York Times has once again made as much of a splash with digital media watchers as Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky have made in the pool.

One of the most talked about and ground-breaking Olympics features by the Times were a series of visually-led features called, The Fine Line. In addition to the Fine Line features, the Times also created incredibly simple but effective animations to show how the swimming races played out, for instance how teen phenom Katie Ledecky dominated in the pool.

New York Times Olympics Bodies Rio Olympics 2016 featureBut that wasn’t all the Times did. Another feature effectively gave a game-like feel to the content with a visual quiz in which the audience was asked to guess what sport the athlete or para-athlete was involved in by their body characteristics. Did they have muscular legs and or arms? Were they tall or short and powerful? It was really nicely done, and the Times made a point to say that the athletes and para-athletes wore as many or as few clothes as they felt comfortable with.

Commercial innovation to drive digital revenue growth

But, as we’ve seen so often in 2016, the best editorial innovation isn’t enough to guarantee a sustainable business. Fortunately, the New York Times also displayed some incredible commercial innovation as well.

In the middle of the Fine Line features is a native advertising feature for Infiniti’s Q60 that seems right at home in the format. In addition to flowing the Infiniti ad into the middle of the stories, it is peppered throughout them, appearing both in the navigation and on the front of every Fine Line segment. The ad even fits thematically with the content: The “Making an Ironman” native advertising video shows a man training for the triathlon world championships with product placement of the Infiniti Q60.

Infiniti’s content also appears in various New York Times’ social channels, including Youtube and the NYTVR app.

VR, mobile, programmatic and native advertising are all part of the New York Times’ strategy to dramatically increase non-display digital ad revenue because display has shown lingering softness for many legacy print publishers in the face of the dominance of Google and Facebook.

The New York Times has not been immune, and it reported in its most recent quarterly results that digital ad revenue dropped 6.8 percent, which looks bad but not when compared with the 14.1 percent swoon in print adrevenue.

The Infiniti native advertising package across multiple digital channels looks like the kind of bigger deal that New York Times CEO Mark Thompson talked about recently when he predicted dramatic digital ad growth in the third quarter.

Thompson and Chief Revenue Officer Meredith Kopit Levien told Ad Age that these bigger, multifaceted packages were taking longer to close, slowing the pace of ad deals in the short term, but dramatically increasing revenue in the longer term.

Thompson said that these bigger deals were in the “million-plus range”, and they both said that the revenue would start to be reflected in the NYT’s second half results. It gave Thompson the confidence to predict that the NYT would deliver double-digit growth in digital ad revenue in the third quarter.

Power to the platforms

Rio Olympics media innovation

In its recent results, The New York Times pointed out that mobile was powering a lot of their growth, and Thompson said mobile is “growing at rates that even Mr. Zuckerberg’s little firm would recognise”.

Mobile content took centre stage at Rio 2016, and Facebook and other major  digital platforms were seen as key to helping Olympic broadcaster NBC to make sure that its content reaches younger, more mobile audiences.

Before the games, NBC’s deal with Buzzfeed and mobile messaging darling Snapchat grabbed a lot of coverage. Buzzfeed is curating content from Snapchat, and Snaps from Rio appear prominently in its Discover section. Buzzfeed’s involvement makes sense in light of NBCUniversal’s $200 m investment in the company.

This kind of distribution is officially a very big deal as it was was the first time that Olympics content would appear on a non-NBC platform, according to Gerry Smith of Bloomberg News. More than that, NBC isn’t requiring Snapchat to pay anything for the privilege, but the broadcaster, which paid $1.23 B for the broadcast rights, negotiated an ad revenue share with the mobile messaging and content platform.

Facebook’s ambitions in Rio were much more global, and it struck a deal with the IOC and 20 official Olympics broadcasters to offer content on Facebook Live and recap content on both Facebook and Instagram, according to L&F Capital Management on the investment blog Seeking Alpha. Facebook also reportedly paid some athletes, including Michael Phelps, to provide exclusive live interviews.

Looking to make live events and sports a bigger part of its offering, Twitter announced content across Moments, Vine and Periscope in its coverage before the games. Twitter also announced a pivot in the Moments product as well, as it said that Olympic Moments would stick around in users’ timelines for weeks rather than days.

When I wrote the piece for the Media Briefing, we really didn’t have a full picture of viewership on traditional linear TV and also how audiences were turning to consuming video on mobile platforms. But we quickly got a sense, and for NBC, it wasn’t entirely good.

Bloomberg noted that ratings were down 17 percent overall in primetime and down by 25 percent in the 18-49 demographic. Gerry Smith of Bloomberg questioned whether NBC Universal had got its money’s worth in terms of their $12 bn investment in the Olympics. Smith went on to say:

The Summer Olympics ratings slip, the first since 2000, raises fresh doubts about what used to be a sure thing: live sports would be a huge and growing draw no matter what.

But while traditional TV viewership was down, online viewership was up by 25 percent. Regardless of the obvious switch from linear TV to on-demand formats, NBC still ended up having to give away some air time to advertisers to make up for the viewership shortfall on traditional TV.

Of course, if you want a stinging rebuttal of Bloomberg’s thesis, read this Medium post on how terrible the NBC streaming experience was by Brenton Henry. The real issue for Henry seemed was that the streaming options were really only available for cable subscribers.

I was tempted to shorten this article, but then the lengths of measure I had to take to view something that is available for free over the airwaves show there is clearly a problem. I’m sure NBC were patting themselves on the backs for how easy it would be to watch online this year, but that’s only true for cable subscribers, a slowly shrinking percentage of the US population, especially for Millennials.

As we’ve seen with ESPN’s woes, pay TV use is starting to decline as more people rebel against the ever rising costs of a bundle of channels and services they simply don’t want. The business model for paid TV is going to come under increasing pressure. The Olympics and NBC’s model only highlights that.