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.

For Hire: Heading back to the future

Nearly two years after I joined Gannett, and as a result of the ongoing restructuring and latest wave of cuts, I now find myself back on the job market. My job as Executive Editor of the Sheboygan Press, Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter, Oshkosh Northwestern and Fond du Lac Reporter has been eliminated, and my responsibilities shared out amongst other staff.

I feel lucky to have worked with some amazing people, and I want to pay tribute to my former colleagues at all of the sites that I oversaw at some point during the 20 months. You delivered the best journalism that you possibly could; you pushed the envelope and tried new things; you were visible on social media and in the communities; and you rolled with the punches. I’d thank every one of you personally, but they’d start playing the Oscars end-the-speech music. I must thank one person in particular, though: Lowell Johnson, the general manager of Sheboygan and Manitowoc. He taught me a lot about management and the business of local media. More than that, he is a champion for his communities and a great guy. I really will miss working with him.

I saw the handwriting on the wall several months ago, so was already in the process of developing a Plan B. It is essential these days, no matter if you work in legacy media or a VC-funded start-up, to have an eye on other opportunities. Luckily, the market is much better now than in 2013, when I was last looking and the world had barely begun its slow climb out recession. In the past 36 hours, I’ve already discussed some options that have me more excited than I’ve been in years.

That being said, I really want to think broadly about my next steps and I am very much open to exploring other ideas and opportunities. In 1996, I went boldly towards digital because I had seen the future, and knew it was digital. A decade ago, I was sitting in the BBC News Online newsroom chatting with Paul Brannan, then the deputy editor of the site, and he expressed succinctly why we were passionate about what we were doing. “Everyday, we get up and get to create the future of media,” he said. Damn straight. It was thrilling then, and it’s just as thrilling now. My future still is digital.

That’s about the only filter I’ll put on this job search. Here’s my goal:

To find a position that fully utilises my two decades of global experience as a media innovator, leader and executive. That position could be with a disruptive project at a major news organisation, a communications position with a progressive company, a leadership position with a media start-up or a teaching and research position at a forward-thinking higher education institution.

For those of you who don’t know my background, here’s my potted bio and achievements:

  • In 1998, I became the BBC’s first online journalist outside of the UK. We pioneered multi-platform storytelling and audience engagement techniques years before they became mainstream.
  • In 2005, I was part of the launch team of the BBC World Service interactive radio programme, World Have Your Say.
  • In 2006, I became The Guardian’s first blogs editor, and I was part of a team that oversaw a dramatic explosion in the blog network at The Guardian.
  • In 2010, I took a buyout from the Guardian to join Suw and take our media consultancy global. I trained hundreds of Al Jazeera journalists in engagement and social media verification techniques before and during the Arab Spring. Suw and I were part of the launch team for Firstpost.com for India’s Network 18.
  • Since 2011, I have been and continue to be an in-demand data journalism trainer and consultant, working with CNN International, Reed Business International, Czech TV, Singapore Press Holdings and WAN-IFRA.
  • Since 2012, I have been a faculty member for the Eurovision Academy, the training centre for the European Broadcasting Union. I have done data journalism and multi-platform newsroom management courses and am co-presenting a seminar on innovative converged newsrooms.
  • In 2012, I was a member of the management team of the Media Development Investment Fund, which invests in independent media in countries without a history of free media. I was the editorial lead and a on staff consultant for the Fund’s Knowledge Bridge, which was created to help clients in the portfolio transition successfully to digital.
  • From 2014 until recently, I was a regional local media executive with Gannett, overseeing a handful of news sites in Wisconsin. In the first year, we grew reach at the two sites I initially oversaw off the back of strong digital growth. At HTR News Media, we grew reach from 84 percent to an astounding 87 percent.

In an ideal world, Suw and I would love to stay put in Sheboygan. We love where we’ve landed, our lovely little corner of Wisconsin, but we are both realistic and are willing, albeit reluctantly, to relocate.

Good talent is hard to find, and the depth of global, digital experience I have is very rare.  If you’re interested, get in touch.

Fall in love with the story, not the storytelling technique

It is great to see a new era of digital storytelling innovation and experimentation, and it isn’t just one form of storytelling but several.

  • Social media has become an important way to engage audiences around content, and social tools also give reporters an excellent way to report stories in real-time.
  • Data journalism has expanded dramatically over the last decade. We have data APIs, data visualisations and new forms of data-driven interactives. At the same time, data journalism has become more accessible with tools like Google Spreadsheets and Fusion Tables, Datawrapper and Tableau Public, just to name a few.
  • New forms of video journalism mixed with animation and data visualisations, what the BBC has called visual journalism. One of my favourite examples of this kind of journalism was the New Yorks series of animated data stories around the 2012 London Olympics, such as this one comparing Usain Bolt to other runners.
  • Of course, we also have a lot of experimentation in new styles of long-form journalism, with the New York Times’ Snowfall spawning a huge range of experimentation and excitement amongst journalists.

The biggest challenge for most media organisations is to choose the right technique for the story. Large organisations are deploying all of these techniques, but even large organisations need to prioritise their resources. For smaller newsrooms, the demands of digital often seem overwhelming and prioritisation is essential, especially as they work heard with smaller staffs to feed the goat.

To prioritise, news organisations need key members of editorial management who can choose the right technique for the story. Social media can be used to engage readers around most stories, but not all stories arise out of the conversations audiences are having. Long-form journalism only works for certain kinds of stories, and for news organisations to invest the amount of time and resource to do these, they also need to know that the story will resonate with audiences.

For me this all comes down to something that John Waters recently said on NPR as he was promoting a new book about a cross-country hitchhiking adventure he took. He said:

If I never make another movie, I’m fine. I’ll write another book, I’ll do another spoken tour, you know. I have many ways to tell stories that I like equally the same.

Fall in the love with the story not the storytelling technique. The best thing you can do for the story you love is to tell it in the way it was meant to be told. That will give the best chance that it will be read, viewed, shared, discussed and interacted with by audiences.