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.

Murdoch shifts from sites to ‘digitally delivered editions’

Following The Times and The Sunday Times going behind their Fortress of Solitude paywalls, Rupert Murdoch continues his new digital strategy by moving the tabloid News of the World to an online subscription model. Dominic Ponsford of the Press Gazette sums up the move nicely:

Both are examples of the fact that, for Rupert Murdoch the internet is so over. Without any inbound or outbound links, and invisible to Google and other search engines, the NotW, Times and Sunday Times don’t really have internet sites – but digitally delivered editions.

I suppose that if you’re a true, blue believer in the apps versus open web idea, I guess this makes some amount of sense.

I have a feeling that as we move forward, digital editions will actually be a bundle of apps that work on the desktop, a tablet and even on flat screens via Google TV, Apple TV and alternative set-top box software like Boxee. Two years ago, Nick Bilton at The New York Times showed Suw and I a concept of the Times’ content following you through the day. As you moved from desktop to mobile to couch, New York Times followed you seamlessly, completely enveloped you. Sure, it was content from a single site, but the ease of use meant that it was effortless, frictionless. Of course, it helps to have the depth and quality of content of the New York Times. That was compelling. That is something I would pay for, but we’re still in the early days of constructing such a vision.

When I’m feeling really generous, I might think that News International’s strategy might be a step in that direction, but mostly, I still think that Murdoch’s paywall experiments are more for News International’s benefit than a bold step to create a compelling new digital offering.

Peering into the future of newspapers at the NYTimes R&D lab

New York Times R&D Group: Newspaper 2.0 from Nieman Journalism Lab on Vimeo.

Suw and I visited the New York Times R&D lab last August when we were in New York. It was an impromptu visit. A friend, Jason Brush, at Schematic put us in touch with Nick Bilton after seeing that we were in New York from our Twitter status updates. (Yet another example of how useful Twitter is.) Nick was kind enough to work around our hectic schedule, and Suw and I were both happy to be able to fit the visit in before we had to dash for the airport. Nick showed us his table of devices including the One Laptop per Child, various e-book readers and the odd netbook.

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photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

The Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University is running an excellent series of interviews with Nick. It’s definitely worth watching the videos or reading the transcripts.

Nick not only showed us their collection of devices to show people at the Times how their audience might view their site, listen to their podcasts and view their video, he also showed us some of their projects. One that really impressed us was a print-on-demand customised version of the newspaper. However, this isn’t your father’s PDF to print. No, this was much more advanced and showed elements of effortless personalisation married to a future-looking mobile strategy. The system works by users having a card, similar to the Oyster cards used on the London Underground, that is linked to their account at the NYTimes. Based on the stories that you read on the site, it knows what your interests are, adding personalisation without the cumbersome box-ticking that has led most first generation customisation services to fail. Research shows that people say that want customised services, but they will rarely go through the hoops of ticking boxes to tell news sites what they want to read. This is not only customisation, but it also changes with users’ habits instead of being a static set of preferences. After the user swipes the card, they are presented with the top three sections of the site based on their reading habits. They can choose a version with the top story in full from each of those sections or a digest of those sections, similar to an RSS feed view. However, after each story, there is also a QR code or semacode. Using your mobile phone camera, these QR codes are translated to URLs and take you to the full story using the web browser on your phone.
Nick also showed us something that the R&D Team first came up with at a Hack Day in London, which is the idea of content following a reader throughout the day. They created a system with some of the ideas called shifd.com, which is actually a working site if you want to have a play.

The thinking behind shifd.com is actually realising that as we go through our days we actually shift from device to device, from form factor to form factor. Content that might be relevant or accessible on one platform might not be appropriate on another platform. The reader might begin reading a story on their computer before going to work and then want to continue reading that story on their mobile phone on their train ride to work. They might not want to watch a video associated with that story until they can come home. They can mark the video for viewing at home on their flat screen TV at home. This is the kind of user-centered thinking necessary to adapt to news consumption as it is instead of asking readers to modify their behaviour to our platforms and business models.

Nick and the rest of the team at the New York Times R&D lab are doing some great work that I hope drives thinking in the rest of the industry. I think it’s also an opportunity for cross-disciplinary academic research. How do we surround our audience with our content, delivering relevant information to the relevant devices as they move through their day? That’s a service I’d pay for.