Big news stories: A threat or opportunity for paid content strategies?

January was a very stormy month here in the UK. We live just outside of London, and it has been quite soggy with our local park being flooded to some extent for much of the past month. People were swept out to sea as they tried to snap photos of the fierce waves. Photos and videos flooded news websites and the social web. People love weather stories, but as we saw during the storms, they rely less on traditional media to tell and share those stories.

David Higgerson, the digital publishing director for the regional websites within Trinity Mirror, is right when he catalogues the hyper-competitive environment that local journalism, especially, but journalism in general faces in a world where cameras are everywhere and distribution via social media is lightning fast and engaging.

But imagine, just for a moment, if we’d had paywalls around our sites – be they full, pay-or-sod-off paywalls or pay-as-you-go model. What do you think would have happened? Would people, up to their ankles in water and without power be digging out their debit cards to log on via their mobiles? Would worried relatives elsewhere in the country link your website to their Paypal account to keep up to speed with your live blog?

No, of course they wouldn’t. They’d have gone to Twitter, where police forces share information by the minutes. Followed new pages on Facebook, where the Environment Agency was actively driving users when appearing on broadcast media. They could have searched Google and found any one of the traditional national newspaper brands now hoovering up any agency copy they can find. Or checked out the BBC, which is superb at cross promotion. Or discovered hyperlocal sites run for passion or for money … and never again thought twice about us.

David is right, and paywalls are not the easy solutions that most journalists dream of as much as we might wish it were so. David closes by saying, “We have the potential to create great content, we just need to find the revenue model.” That is it in a nutshell. To quote advice given to a friend about his journalism start-up: “You know you can create value. But can you capture it?”

While local newspapers have much greater competition for attention and audiences, their real challenge has been competition for revenue. At the moment, we have two business models that have had some success: High volume predominantly ad supported, and a mix of ad and reader revenue. National or formerly national newspapers with international strategies, (think The Daily Mail and The Guardian), are pursuing an advertising-based business model based on scaling their audiences aggressively. But the pure scale model really isn’t an option for local journalism. Digital advertising operates and delivers meaningful returns with millions, probably tens or hundreds of millions of uniques. Most local sites on their own don’t operate at that scale. Some groups are looking at network plays amongst their sites, like Advance’s MLive network in Michigan in the US (disclaimer, I worked for MLive in another lifetime between 1997 and 1998). However, that isn’t an option for all local groups.

That means either reader revenue or alternate revenue streams, and the latter are showing some promised. Some local news groups are trialling digital services businesses, and it was one bright area for local media in the US last year. The Dallas Morning News has bought a number of digital ad and marketing companies to help it build meaningful digital revenue. (Notable as well is that they dropped their paywall recently.) A Newspaper Association of America report showed last year showed a 91 percent increase in marketing service revenue. It’s good to see that kind of growth somewhere in the business.

Paid content models used to be a binary choice, hence the name paywall. However, paid content strategies have evolved, and I don’t simply mean moving to the metered model as opposed to the hard paywall strategies. Modern paid content strategies have grown more nimble, more flexible. During big stories like storms, news groups like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have opened up their sites. This can be a great marketing opportunity to highlight the richness of your content, even in this new media environment. Paid content strategies also should provide publishers with a richer stream of data so that they can deliver better experiences and better products both for audiences and for advertisers.

David is spot on about being clear-headed about the competitive challenges, and he is also right that the real test now is finding the revenue model for local journalism. For the revenue to come, the products will have to change as well. If we’re not competitive with social media or more to the point working with social media to provide audiences with the best verified content, then we need to step up our game. Ever the optimist, I’d like to think that there is an opportunity for local news organisations to curate and verify this local information. To me, this is about smartly staying at the centre of a new local information and conversation eco-system. The bottom line is that whether it is storms or other breaking news, we have to compete for audiences. If we can do that, I think we’ll remain relevant to audiences and advertisers.

Strategy is not just for Christmas

I’ve spent a lot of my time over the last decade helping businesses to put together strategies for the use of social media, both internally for collaboration and externally for community building and marketing. I know that for some companies, my strategy was a document that they continued to refer to for literally years after we put it together. (I caught up with one ex-client three years after I delivered his strategy, and he said he and his team will still referring to it and still found it useful!)

But many strategy documents come with built-in obsolescence. If you’re not very careful, social media strategies can age fast, because of the rapidity of change within social media. But it’s not just the tools that change, it’s the demographics. Facebook is ageing, Twitter getting younger, and the 55+ demographic is growing faster online than any other. Your target audience could be shift platforms whilst you’re busy implementing a strategy that’s now out of date, and how would you know?

That being the case, I was very interested to stumble on Thomas Martin’s blog post about “agile strategy development”, in which he calls for the Agile methodology to be applied to company strategies.

Similar to software development, the complexity of strategy development is increasing. Globalisation, faster innovation cycles, stronger competition are only some of the factors that make it harder and harder to devise stable, long-lived and eventually successful strategies. Agile strategic planning addresses this by keeping the strategy fluid.


Agile strategy development shares the following characteristics with agile software development:

•  Continuous monitoring of the external environment during the Analyze activity.
•  Regular review and – as required – updating of strategic objectives and plans during the Define and Plan activities.
•  Frequent feedback from Execution on the effectiveness of the implementation.

Although Martin suggests that such an approach requires “less external input” from consultants, I’d argue that what it requires is actually a longer-term relationship with a good consultant who has a familiarity with your business but also enough distance to help you see the bigger picture.

I succeed as a consultant because I can see a company’s problems from a very different vantage point to them, not only because of my own deep experience with social media, but also because I’ve worked with so many companies that I can see common errors in thinking and execution that would otherwise be missed.

To get the best result from social media you need an informed strategy, a regular review process, and dependable advice that both ensures that you are on track whilst also bringing in a fresh perspective and valuable expertise. An agile approach to strategy makes a lot of sense to me, and it’s something companies should seriously consider. If you’re going to spend time and money on strategic thinking, it’s essential that you keep that strategy fresh, relevant and up-to-date.

News organisations must engage with RTB advertising

Journalists tend to focus on the shifts in media consumption as they try to make sense of the disruption in their industry, but they have often overlook the shifts in adverting beyond the precipitous drop in newspaper advertising since 2005. That collapse, more than 60 percent since 2005 in the US, has been driven not just by the decades-long decline in circulation but also that there are simply cheaper and more efficient ways for advertisers to reach audiences than passive banner or print advertising. The collapse in newspaper ads has driven some news groups into bankruptcy, driven many small dailies to become weekly publications and has driven news groups to shift the balance in revenue from advertising to reader revenue.

Frédéric Filloux has a great look forward to 2014 with his normally insightful advice on how digital media will survive to see 2015. I completely agree with him that the glut of online advertising is driving prices downward. I part company with him about RTB – real-time bidding. RTB, aka programmatic or algorithmic buying, can seem dauntingly complicated on its face, but after you cut through the acronym-intense eco-system, it is really quite straightforward. RTB is simply an automated way that advertisers can place ads on sites based on the audience they want to reach and the price they are willing to pay. RTB platforms mine the rich data-stream being collected about you.

It is a natural evolution of the data-driven targeted advertising system that we’ve seen develop since the late 1990s. To quote Alan Mutter, this is why media economics have shifted from reach to each. It’s not about advertisers casting their message as far and wide as possible but by precisely targeting their message to audiences they think are most open to their message. RTB can target age, income, geography and other demographic factors.

Again, for journalists who aren’t on the business side, it’s important to understand that RTB is mostly used for selling remnant advertising. What’s remnant? Your sales team sells as much of their ad space as possible – direct sales – but they may not be able to sell all of your pages. Unsold pages are remnant, and these unsold pages have traditionally been sold on ad networks. RTB is really just an evolution of the ad network model. News groups have become wary of ad networks because the returns are so abysmally low compared to advertising they sell on their own, and news groups and Filloux are worried that RTB, with its auction model, will simply put even more downward pressure on ad prices. Filloux says:

Thanks to Real-Time Bidding (RTB), publishers actually fuel the price deflation by auctioning their leftover inventory on various marketplaces. In doing so, they generate some revenue – at the expense of the format’s per unit value (in such auctions, expect no more than 5-10% of nominal prices). In addition this process mechanically applies negative pressure to premium placements because the advertisers will opportunistically purchase a guaranteed and targeted audience wherever available.

He is right to a point, but we’re already seeing smart engagement around RTB. RTB, and indeed all digital advertising, is about data, and just as news groups like the Financial Times realised that owning their customer data is key to their business, news groups are realising that if they power their own RTB exchanges with their own data, it can be a competitive advantage. Condé Nast launched a premium RTB exchange two years ago, and last year, they appointed an RTB senior director, Alanna Gombert. She said that that their RTB rates are similar to their direct sales rate card. She talks about premium RTB, and that is consistent with the magazine group’s premium content.

While news groups operate in a different space than a magazine publisher like Condé Nast, they still have the opportunity to create private RTB exchanges to leverage their data. This is especially true for large newspaper groups with rich user data that they have gained with their paid content strategies. Paid content is as much about user data as it is about shifting the revenue mix. Filloux doesn’t say that news groups shouldn’t engage with RTB, but I think they must engage with it. Data driven advertising is not only a reality that cannot be ignored, it can also be an opportunity. Fortunately, news groups got the memo. As Digiday wrote yesterday, the New York Times and the Washington Post have already appointed RTB chiefs. Own your future; don’t fear it.

Too much ‘I’, too little team thinking at legacy media for innovation?

It’s not news that digital technology is driving rapidly changing consumer behaviour, and while it took some time for that shift to affect the economics of the media, the disruption is now in full swing. While the metered paywall has given a number of legacy media companies breathing room, to use the bump in reader revenue as a base to build on rather than a temporary reprieve from the dust heap of history will take focused, innovative thinking.

I’ve been involved in journalism innovation since 1996, when I took my first job as an internet news editor. I’ve held pioneering positions at major news organisations such as the BBC and The Guardian. Both of those organisations can be innovative in ways that have proven difficult for other media organisations because they aren’t purely commercial. How do other news organisations keep pace with their audience and just as importantly create new revenue opportunities?

Charles Warner, part of the Forbes network teaches Media Management Program at The New School, was recently asked how to drive innovation at an “old-line media company, and he thinks it is down to the individualistic culture at legacy media organisations.

Finally, success in legacy media companies (newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio) is driven by individual success – stardom – not by collaborative team success. The internecine, hand-to-hand combat inside legacy media companies is about who gets the credit for a hit or success, not about innovation or team success.

I’ve seen this first hand, and I used to say to colleagues, “Our real competition isn’t down the hall but across town” at one of the other newspapers, broadcasters or now one of the digital news and media startups.

This isn’t unique to media companies. Office politics is pretty universal. One of the benefits of having done consulting both inside and outside the media industry is that I have realised that positive corporate culture is rare and needs a lot of work. In media, you’ve got a lot of creative people, and journalism is populated with professional sceptics who question everything, including management’s latest change strategy.

However, that doesn’t excuse just how frankly, effed up the culture is at a lot of news and media companies. In the past, when owning a media company was a licence to mint money, we could afford these poisonous, dysfunctional cultures. We can’t anymore, and besides, it’s a lot more satisfying to succeed as a team than fight amongst ourselves on the decks of sinking ships.

On blogging

David Weinberger just wrote a slightly sad elegy for blogging, looking back on what we did when blogging was young, and why we did it. I left a comment, for the first time in a long time on a blog, and it got so long I thought I would repost it here. Again, I don’t remember the last time I converted a comment to a blog post, though it used to be something I did often. Do go over and read David’s post, though. It’s well worth it. 

I owe my current career to blogging. Without it, I would never have developed an interest in how people connect through technology, and never would have met all the people who helped me turn that interest into a job. It is not an overstatement to say that without blogging — and without #joiito on Freenode — I would not have founded ORG, would not have met my husband, would not have started Ada Lovelace Day, and so on. I am incredibly grateful to blogging for all that.

What was awesome was how permeable the blogging community was back then. I was just some nobody with no reputation, no real contacts, no network, but yet, everyone treated me as an equal, they respected me based on what I wrote. We really did live by the word. I never felt that I was judged on where I came from or what university I’d gone to or what I looked like. (I don’t think many people even knew what I looked like!)

For the first time in my life, I felt like I had finally found my peer group. I stopped feeling isolated, as I had for years previously. My peers turned out to be scattered around the world, and to come from very different backgrounds to me, yet they took me in and made me feel welcome. They – you! – gave me confidence, a community, and a career.

So it was with some considerable sadness that I began to note the decline in blogging a few years back. When I first started Ada Lovelace Day in 2009, we had something like 1,000 blog posts added to our collection. Last year, 2013, we had about 100.

Personally, I’ve found it hard to carve out the time to write, and I miss it. In fact, one of my New Years Resolutions this year is to blog at least once a week. I used to blog daily. I used to keep two blogs going full steam without even thinking about it. Maybe it was because I was underemployed at the time…

I wonder too if my lack of blog writing is related to a lack of blog reading. My RSS reader became so clogged that I feared it, wouldn’t open it, and ultimately, abandoned it. And then Twitter and now Zite arrived to provide me with random rewards for clicking and swiping, showing me stuff that I had no idea I wanted to read. Instead of following the writings of a small cadre of smart, lovely people whom I am proud to call my friends, I read random crap off the internet that some algorithm thinks I might be interested in, or that is recommended by the people I follow on Twitter.

That may or may not be a good thing. We were all aware of the problems of homophily, and the random clickage does help combat that. But the problem with not following people’s blogs closely is that there’s no conversation anymore. My blogs used to host great conversations, and I would happily engage in fascinating discussions on other people’s sites. You can’t do that so easily with Twitter, and Facebook. Indeed, most of my interactions on Facebook, which are scarce as I loathe it, end up being pointless arguments with friends-of-friends who turn out to be idiots.

I’d love to see a resurgence in blogging. I think, personally, I need to delete Zite from my ipad and find a good RSS reader so I can follow the blogs of those people that I really care about. Not the worthy blogs I ought to read, but the works of people who matter to me. And then I need to get back to commenting, like this, because there’s nothing more encouraging than finding out that people care about what you write, that people appreciate it. And David, I really do appreciate your writing – you’re as inspiring and fascinating now as you were back in 2001!

Finally, I do still think that blogging is important. For me, it’s becoming even more important as I try to ramp up my book writing/editing, but as I wrote recently, trying to find the time to blog is so difficult in the face of the sheer volume of work that I have now that I perhaps didn’t have back in 2001 when I started blogging! Somehow, though, I need to find a way to prioritise it. Please keep your fingers crossed for me, and let’s all keep on blogging!