Austrian Publisher Finds Secret to Video Revenue

In today’s newsletter, we look to Austria. Pivot to video became a much-maligned strategy, especially for digital pure plays that were focused on video as a way to grow organically on Facebook with the idea that they could somehow, some way monetise that audience. Nope. But now, Die Presse in Austria has found some new tricks that are at least driving revenue for their video efforts, Digiday reports. (I’m wary of saying something is profitable just because it earns money.) And that revenue came after six years of losses. Two of the tactics for the turnaround:

  • Autoplay but muted sound
  • They now add video to their own stories as well as licence it elsewhere using video platform Video Intelligence. That increased pre-roll impressions from 300,000 to 31 m.

In the rest of the newsletter, we have:

How Charleston paper grew subs by 250%. The best mobile journalism apps of 2019. The New York Times will sell ads based on the emotional response to an article. Facebook changes the News Feed in attempt to stop disinformation. What revenue streams work?

To get this directly in your inbox, subscribe here.

 

Newsletters are the “zero subscription”

The word newsletter on a page typed on an old typewriter. Photo by George Hodan, Public Domain

At the risk of sounding repetitive, in today’s newsletter, I highlight newsletters. I am incredibly focused on this in my current role because of the overwhelming evidence that this is one of the best ways to growth subscriptions or membership. Today, we have another data point from Switzerland and NZZ. From a review of their efforts in Digiday:

The publisher has a data science team of nine people working on propensity models. A recent analysis looking at all registered users over the last eight months found that those who had signed up to two or more newsletters have the highest subscription conversion rate.

I was at the Google News Initiative Summit a couple of weeks ago, and one of their product managers called newsletters the “zero subscription” because their data has shown it is the most important first step that content companies can take in their efforts to grow subscribers and members. I’ll have more about that in my next piece for What’s New in Publishing.

And if you aren’t signed up for my newsletter, you can subscribe here.

Journalism 2019: A year of hard graft

Nic Newman was one of the three people who interviewed me for the role of the BBC News Online’s first overseas journalist based in Washington (a few liftetimes ago), and we have stayed in touch. I am one of the hundreds of digital leaders he reaches out to every year to inform his annual predictions. This is what I wrote to him in full albeit slightly edited for his 2019 edition of a look ahead to the year.

1.     What was the most significant development in 2018 in terms of digital media?

I think we’ve reached an end to this round of the innovation cycle with respect to digital media, the Rise of the Platforms. Let me explain. Gartner has its Hype Cycle, but over the years, I’ve begun to see an Innovation Cycle in terms of digital media. We see a period where a new idea or usually group of ideas emerges. It is tested, and then we see wider adoption until we start to explore the limits of that idea. After that adoption, we usually a lull before we see another flowering of ideas. Sometimes, the lull is down to an economic trough such as following the crash after the dot.com boom, and sometimes it is simply the playing out of an idea, such I think we’re seeing with platform-focused strategies in media, well as well as the strategies of the social media platforms themselves.

It’s more cost effective for Google and Facebook to reach billions than it is for news content companies to reach millions…

As an example, think about the metered paywall by the New York Times. Yes, it was pioneered by others, namely the Financial Times, but the New York Times won over sceptics who thought it only worked for financial publications. Then we saw wider adoption of the idea: The pivot to reader revenue.

Let me lay out a few epochs that I have seen:

• The dot.com boom. – Digital Media emerges

• The Web 2.0 era. – Networked Media emerges.

• The Rise of the Duopoly – Consolidation.  (I originally wrote The Rise of the Platforms, but it really is more about the rise of Facebook and Google.)

We’re coming to the end of the Rise of the Duopoly and what that means for media. Google and Facebook are globally dominant – apart from the Russo and Sino-spheres – when it comes to digital advertising, and I think pretty much everyone understands it. Everything that has happened is in some way a response to that. Of course, during this particular epoch, other things happened, but they have been driven by the rise of these platforms. Yes, print has declined or, in some countries – such at the US – one could say is in the process of collapse, but one of the challenges that they face in their efforts to transition to digital business models is down to the dominance of the Duopoly.

There has been a lot of focus on the consolidation in the VC-funded digital media start-up space, but that was bound to happen sometime. And that consolidation has been going on for two years, and again, that has been driven by the Rise of the Duopoly. VCs want growth. They demand scale. But those pursuing scale don’t understand that it’s more cost effective for Google and Facebook to reach billions than it is for news content companies to reach millions, and that’s just on the editorial side. On the advertising side, Google and Facebook have built technologies that are more efficient at reaching their billions than news content companies’ technology to reach millions.

I hope that the humbling of companies like Mic and Mashable, which sold for a fraction of their worth as reflected in their funding rounds, is a wake up call that the scale strategies that were fundamental to mass media in the 20th Century operate differently for original content companies in the 21st Century due to the differences in economics between platforms and content companies.

And this collapse of the scale strategies isn’t limited to startups but should be clear in the failed consolidation strategies in the US and UK for legacy publishers. These roll-ups haven’t delivering long-term sustainability but have only bought a little time to figure out a longer term strategy at best, or in the case of Alden Global been a way for a handful of hedge fund managers to enrich themselves at the cost of staff, communities and society. Legacy scale strategies are based on the idea that economies of scale wring out cost in a business, but if that new combined business cannot reverse revenue declines, that business will still fail. How many times have seen these combined businesses deliver and enterprise that is less than the sum of its parts, whether that was AOL-Time Warner or the large newspaper chains?

We know some strategies that work, largely around reader revenue, focusing on a small but lucrative niche – Skift focused on the business of travel or Penny Hoarder focused on millennials making less than $50,000 – or businesses focused on affiliate marketing, Penny Hoarder again or the Wirecutter.

In my idea of an innovation cycle, we will see companies fine tune their strategies and get their heads down on executing them. At some point in 2019, we’ll enter an economic downturn, and that is never a good time for media businesses. For those who have built out solid reader revenue strategies, they will have some insulation from the ravages of the economic cycle, but for others, there isn’t a lot of good news. You look at the Gannetts of the world, and they saw their profits dwindle this year even in arguably the best economy the US has seen since 1969. If they can’t grow aggressively in an up cycle, then it is sobering to think of what happens as the cycle reverses. We’re already seeing it as a majors in media and advertising – WPP, Reuters and others – are cutting staff now. That to me is the canary in the coal mine. The media business cycle is turning even before as many media companies struggle to right their businesses. 

2.     Any thoughts on one key development in 2019

2019 will be a year of optimising these business models and building out businesses. As we saw after the dot.com boom, there will be innovation, but it will be quiet as attention turns to survival for some of the big beasts.

We begin 2019 with a scepticism about social media that will open up opportunities for new spaces in media. Messaging has been and will be an interesting space to watch as more people turn away from open social networks to quieter, more closed spaces.

Just as with the beginning of the Web 2.0 era, the changes will initially fly under the radar, but when they come into the mainstream, they will drive the next round of innovation.

If I were watching one development, I would say it is around the development of the video market. Facebook continues to try to go after the multi-billion TV advertising market with video strategies. As I write this, they are again pulling back support for news on their Watch platform, and there are reports that they are in talks with HBO. Are they trying to recreate a cable network? I shake my head at the increasing desperation Facebook has with their video strategies.

But beyond Facebook and its flailing attempts to crack the video market, I think it will be interesting to watch what happens in the pay TV market in the US. What does this have to do with journalism? Most cities and towns in the US have three or four local TV stations, and as local newspapers continue to cut, more local news coverage falls on these local TV stations. The local TV stations or more to the point, the groups that own them, are flush with political advertising cash.

Journalism 2019: Don’t stop at hello

Hello … by Iain Farrell

A few years ago I spoke about Peak Content, the distortions that I saw in the Attention Economy. As I wrote then:

The democratisation of production brought by digital technology has made it easier than ever for people to create content, but it has also made it more difficult than ever to get paid to create it, both for individual creators and many companies. This cannot last.

When I wrote that two years ago, venture-capital funded digital media companies were ascendent, and with money flowing from VCs and the funds of legacy media companies, it seemed like we were set to see a new wave of truly digital native media companies unbound by legacy concerns.

Unfortunately, even at that time, it was clear that a digital shake-out was beginning, and it only accelerated in 2018. And sadly, for all of the money poured into these start-ups, I don’t think we’ve really moved the dial much. I mean, Buzzfeed has gone from native advertising pioneer to flogging tote bags in a half-baked membership scheme.

Where does that leave us?

I recently spoke with Emily Lowes with the Online Journalism Blog about the daily newsletter that I’ve been writing for the last six months or so. Refining what I said to Emily, my newsletter is grounded in my view that one of the things that is broken in the Attention Economy is the glut of content.

One of a journalist’s roles is to help people understand what to pay attention to. And in a world where there are so many things – many of them good, some of them excellent – to pay attention to, a trusted guide is invaluable.

Like the Nieman Lab piece which talks about blending algorithms and AI with traditional journalism skills (“growing hooves” as the author calls I have always sought ways to use technology to help me filter information, find patterns and, to be honest, cut out repetitive tasks. I’d rather robots do the robotic work so I can focus on the human part.

That’s why I use Nuzzel for my personal newsletter. It is the latest tool to use social media networks to filter content and pick out what’s relevant to my professional interests.

But no matter how sophisticated the technology, I have always found that I need to periodically retune my filters. At the moment I have to wade through more content than I would like because of all the noise generated out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that journalists share on Twitter. If I were starting from scratch with Nuzzel, I would create a very finely curated Twitter list with media business professionals who mostly tweeted about strategy and who did little media criticism.

Suw also tells me that Nuzzel has proven less effective for niche subjects, such as the women in STEM content that she’s looking for. She’s actually been having to search elsewhere for content to put into a daily Nuzzel newsletter but, with only 60 subscribers, she’s moving to a weekly schedule to cut down the time demands.

Learning How to Earn Attention

But the biggest challenge is that there are so many things vying for our attention that building an audience is one of the key challenges in the 21st Century for a content maker. A newsletter is a good place to learn lessons on how to earn attention and build that audience.

You can learn not only curation and but also how to build a voice and a brand. I didn’t learn this at journalism school, but I have learned them throughout my career not only as a journalist but also as a business owner.

Constantly Learning

The other point I was trying to make in my interview with Emily is that newsletters are also a good format for journalists to learn how to use data to learn how to better serve audiences. Nuzzel emails me every week to let me know the stories that my subscribers read, and it gives me subtle cues on what they are most interested in. As much as this might sound like a cliche, my readers seem to respond most to actionable intelligence, strategies that they can apply, and developments with respect to the social platforms.

Throughout my career, I have always been challenged by people who say that by taking the pulse of my audience like this that I’m pandering to the audience or veering towards producing clickbait.

It all depends on what you’re using the data to optimise for. I never lose sight of my public service mission. And for those who say using data to maximise impact I would say this: If you create a piece of journalism that no one watches, listens to or reads, have you actually committed an act of public service?

From Platforms to Personal Commitment

And that brings me to my final point. For the last few years, there was such an obsessive focus on platforms that we mistook ‘Hello’ for ‘I love you’. What I mean by that is that there were strategies that thought the platforms were the end goal. Instead, platforms should be considered the top of the conversion funnel – the hello, the introduction to our journalism and to our brands.

What we need to do is cement that relationship with our audience, our customers, our public, and newsletters are a good next step after the platform. For some businesses like The Skimm, the newsletters are so well done, the engagement strategies so effective, that they are a standalone product unto themselves.

For many other brands, like The New Yorker, newsletters are integral on the from hello to I love you, from casual consumer to subscriber. As the data scientists at The New Yorker found out, the single strongest predictor of whether someone will subscribe to The New Yorker is whether they first subscribe to one their newsletters.

Success depends upon ing strategies that invite a deeper connection to your journalism, from the casual user via social or search to a newsletter subscriber to an app user to a paying subscriber or a member. It takes determination, focus patience. Here’s to beginning that journey.

Digital News Editor @ideastream; Come work with me!

I’m thrilled to say that there are a couple of opportunities for hungry digital journalists to join me at ideastream. The first opportunity is for a digital news editor who will report to our news director, Annie Wu. I’ve have had the pleasure of working closely with Annie during my first seven months here, and here is what she told me she’s looking for:

Ideastream is seeking to expand its web, mobile and social media content. To that end, we are looking for someone familiar with digital best practices and who has the vision for creating news content that improves the ideastream user experience. We need a journalist with strong editorial experience as well as the know-how to shape reporter stories that appeal to a local digital audience. Must be a solid writer and editor, able to respond to breaking news.

Let me build on that and convince you that, as a hungry digital journalism leader, you want to apply for this job.

Here’s our wall of awards, really just from the last few years. I’ll draw your attention to the haul of regional Emmys just for this year in the lower right.

ideastream is an awesome place to work

I joined ideastream for a number of reasons, one being that I love to be at the ground level of digital transformation. We have five TV channels and two radio stations, and now the organisation is pivoting purposefully to digital. We reach 2.8m people every month, but we know that to continue to achieve our public service mission that we need to meet audiences where they are at, on mobile devices, social media and smart speakers. The organisation is making bold steps so that we can innovate digitally while also elevating our journalism and storytelling in audio, video and what we call “platform intentional” content. Rather than re-purpose our award-winning broadcast content for digital audiences, we want to create experiences to authentically engage those digital audiences.

For the last five years of my career, I’ve brought my decades of digital media and journalism experience, including with the BBC and The Guardian, to bear on one of the most pressing problems in the 21st Century: providing news and information to local audiences. I see the challenges in the local news space as some of the most pressing, but also the most rewarding. When I found the position with ideastream, it impressed me that core to their mission was strengthening their communities, going beyond simply informing communities and into truly building civic capital.

When I was interviewing with ideastream, they were just winding up their Campaign for Community, and I was excited to see them quote disruptive innovation expert Clayton Christensen, the author of The Innovator’s Dilemma. They rightfully pointed out that, while we are often overwhelmed with national and international news choices in the 21st, communities are suffering from a decline in relevant local information. ideastream wants to fill the civic information void developing in the communities it serves, and with its strong financial foundation and focus on growing membership, it has the base to be achieve this goal. If you’re aware of the challenges facing local journalism and want to do something about it, this is your chance.

And we fill that void of local information with high impact, award-winning journalism. Check out our deeply reported series on the roots of segregation in Cleveland – Divided by Design – or this award-winning series on the opioid crisis, which has been one of many series we’ve done on this important subject.

Cleveland is an awesome place to live

I’ve lived half of my life in global cities – Washington DC and London – and Cleveland have been a revelation for my wife and me. It’s a city with so much to do regardless of what you’re into but with a cost of living so affordable that you can actually enjoy them. My wife and I have been to a sublime outdoor concert by Yo-Yo Ma and also a rollicking spoken word show by Henry Rollins. ‘Nuff said. The Cleveland Museum of Art is a jaw-dropping jewel – I mean, it’s got a commissioned Rodin. The Westside Market is a foodie’s heaven, and if you’re into craft beer or local coffee roasters, northeast Ohio is the place for you. The Metropark system offers a wealth of greenspace, and there are lots of outdoor opportunities if that is your thing. It’s definitely mine. And our offices are in the middle of Playhouse Square, “the second biggest theatre complex in America”.

If you want to play a leading role in an organisation charting its future and meeting the challenge of local journalism in the 21st Century, throw your hat in the ring. If you want to work in a great workplace with outstanding colleagues and great benefits, apply. If you want to move to a great, affordable city with so much to offer and building momentum towards its renewal, you need to check out this great opportunity.

Oh yeah, I said a couple of opportunities. Watch this space! My manager is still writing the job description for the other role.

Hire a journalist, you’ll get a lot of talent

As I walked in the door as a regional executive editor with Gannett in 2014, the features editor over the two newspapers I managed walked out the door, and so began the next 21 months during which only a couple of weeks I wasn’t recruiting. I wouldn’t have managed nearly as well as I did without a solid HR partner who helped me navigate the internal processes and also hone my skills as a manager. In the second year in the role, the recruiting crunch went to an entirely new level as I had nine open positions across four papers with a total headcount of 32. And of those nine open positions, three were for the four management positions at the papers.

I lost count how many resumes/CVs I looked at. For the entry-level reporting positions, many were people in other industries hoping to get a break or simply applying to meet an unemployment benefit requirement, but for the management positions, I saw a lot of resumes where the stories were fractured. These were not the tidy resumes of someone effortlessly climbing a career ladder. Some had left journalism for a time or drifted in and out of the industry. I remember interviewing one woman who was working in communications for the state of Minnesota and had read some of my blog posts and was excited about the opportunity of getting back into the industry and working together. Unfortunately, I knew that the position she was interviewing for would most likely be closed not long after we could have offered it to her. And I remember one person – who I eventually hired – and that one of my HR partners said had a resume that didn’t make sense. To which I replied, “Show me a mid-career journalist who has a resume that makes sense.”

Failing to impress the algorithms

Journalism – especially print journalism – was only one of many industries that took a beating in the Great Recession, but what a beating it took. As Pew recently reported, newsroom – digital, print and broadcast – employment has fallen by 23 per cent since 2008. In the same period, newspaper newsroom employment fell by a stomach-churning 45 per cent.

From October 2015 until February of this year, I held two full-time jobs. I was building a successful international digital media consultancy, and I was a job seeker, albeit most of my job search took the form of trying out future employers as clients. It was by far the oddest job search I have ever had. (I’ll detail all of the really odd behaviours in another post.) I hadn’t sent job applications out into the ether since my first job, but I can understand why many people became discouraged. You send them out into the great void rarely to hear anything back.

Do a search on resume algorithms or ATS and algorithms, and you’ll find that you’re not having to impress HR staff or hiring managers, you’re trying to catch the attention of algorithms or ATS – applicant tracking systems. As Muse says:

Undoubtedly, this saves HR managers the time and trouble of sorting through irrelevant, underprepared, and weak resumes to find the golden candidates. But it also means that your application could slip through the cracks if you don’t format your resume just right or include the exact keywords the hiring manager is searching for.

I broke one of Muse’s prime bits of advice, I stuffed my resume with keywords. No, that didn’t work. And I did feel as if I was flying blind at times as I applied for jobs in digital fields outside of journalism. I have to thank a couple of friends and a few recruiters who gave me advice on how to re-format my resume for non-journalism jobs. But I rarely was interviewed by employers outside of media, apart from a couple of times. Those times were usually due to extraordinary interventions by people in my network.

Journalists’ transferable skills

Fortunately, I didn’t have to transfer out of journalism or media, and I’m incredibly happy that I found not just a job but very much the right job for me in the right place. But there are so many journalists on the market right now, that many will have to complete a career pivot.

And this is my plea to hiring managers: Hire a journalist. Journalists, especially those with digital experience, are incredibly valuable employees. We’ve had to fight for customers (audiences) in a highly competitive market. We know how to work Google and social media to reach customers (audiences), and we know how to communicate. Many of us have run marketing campaigns on Facebook or possibly using Google AdWords. They work in highly data-driven businesses and have used digital analytics packages including Omniture, Google Analytics, Chartbeat or Parse.ly to grow their businesses. Many of us have great multimedia skills and know how to create videos that engage social media audiences.

I am quite happy in my new role, but there are a lot of other journalists, editors and multimedia producers out there like me. If you want to hire one of them, please get in touch. I know a few who are looking.

Editorial experimentation on the fly isn’t necessarily sexy

People always ask what advice would you give a younger self, and I think one of the things that I’ve learned over the years working is that so much innovation is simple experimentation and execution. It’s not particularly sexy, but in the end, it works. And success is infectious.

In the past few weeks, I’ve learned a half dozen things that will help me make help ideastream, my current employer, make better decisions. We are trying things and testing them rigorously with data.

Here are just a few things that we’ve learned:

  • We don’t have the biggest Facebook following in the world, and we’ve stopped boosting posts because we’re not comfortable with Facebook labelling our journalism as political advertising. Like everyone else, this has impacted our reach and to a lesser extent our referral traffic. Facebook Lives are helping us with organic reach, especially Lives that tap into the networks of those we’re doing the Lives with. However, viewing length isn’t brilliant. Facebook video audiences are still a mercurial bunch. They don’t stick around for long, but we got a lot of good engagement with the Lives so we’re going play around with them more. The next nut to crack is to get test ways to get people to spend more time with us.
  • YouTube is an interesting space for a public TV broadcaster to play in. This isn’t breaking news, but people do watch longer form content on the platform. And we’re mining our prodigious archives to engage YouTube viewers with that longer, lean back content.
  • And for the first time in a full-time position (I did do this with clients and loved it), I am working with our marketing department, and we’ve been testing YouTube ads. This has been really interesting because it’s helping us reach people we haven’t been reaching. Our video audience tends to skew older and, in terms of digital, more to desktops. With our YouTube ad campaign, almost 97 per cent of the audience we’re reaching is mobile and tablet based. And it’s cost effective for us.

This is just what I’ve learned in the last week, and in this position, I’m able to do this kind of experimentation all of the time. We try little new things and get better with them every day. As I said, it’s not sexy, but as anyone working in innovation and succeeding will tell you, execution is a large part of the game.

Hired: Driving digital transformation at ideastream

Idea Center at Playhouse Square

As I looked for a new job and potentially a totally new direction for my career, I didn’t just want any job but the right job, and not just the right job but also the right move for the next chapter in my life. I have now found that job: I have started as the managing producer for digital media at ideastream, a public media group that serves 18 counties in northeast Ohio. The group includes eight services that span radio, TV — including managing state political coverage for all of Ohio’s public broadcasting stations — as well as distance education and professional educational development services.

If I were to look back on my journalism and digital media career, my focus has really been about helping organisations transform digitally. And this role is all about that, and I couldn’t be more excited. Here is the start of the job listing:

In a time of rapid and disruptive change in the media landscape, ideastream is laying the foundation for its digital transformation and future. The digital transformation and future ideastream is pursuing is one based on an organizational culture shift; one that envisions an organization that operates on the principles of agility, iteration and experimentation while making content and product decisions on the basis of data and audience engagement. ideastream further envisions an organization where its staff, as a whole and over time, has the skills and orientation to produce digital-first content and products.

In that context, the Managing Producer, Digital Media, will play a pivotal role in driving the organization’s digital culture transformation.

As a number of friends said when I showed the job listing to them, it is almost as if the job description was written for me.

Meeting the Challenges of Digital Disruption

In the final stretch of this job search, I realised that if possible, I wanted to play an important role in solving some of the challenges facing journalism and media during this period of disruptive change. I have done a lot of work to help my clients adapt to this constantly changing digital reality over the last two years, and I knew that to really meet these challenges that I needed to be part of a team again.

The public media membership model, plus ideastream’s mission of “strengthening our communities”, can meet the challenge of rapid change and disruption and also to address the issues of declining trust and civic engagement. I am excited to be a part of their team.

Campaign for Community: Filling the Void

In the end, I had a couple of opportunities, and I chose ideastream because I think they are working to address one of the biggest challenges created by digital media: the nationalisation of media, and with it, the decline of local media.

When I was preparing for the interviews, I read ideastream’s Campaign for Community, their recent major fundraising campaign. The Case Statement for the campaign says that for Northeast Ohio to leverage its strengths and meet its challenges that we need engaged, informed citizens. You really need to read the entire thing. It was music to my ears, and I’m sure it would be to most journalists and a lot of news consumers craving for in-depth, local news and information as well as civil debate and discussion.

It didn’t hurt that the statement quoted Clay Christensen, one of my heroes in meeting the challenges of digital disruption, but what really drove me to seek this position was that one of ideastream’s goals was “filling the void”.

The ideastream team wrote:

There is no shortage of national and international content. Peter Diamandis, author and X Prize Foundation Chairman, observed recently that “a Kenyan on a smartphone has access to more information than Bill Clinton had as president.”   What most perceive as a precipitous decline in smart, critical, relevant content stems from a weakness in creating and curating content that is meaningful at the local level and is created in response to defined community needs that are solicited, understood and well-served.

Wow, just wow!

I started work just a couple of weeks ago, and I’m still learning the names of my new colleagues, still in the midst of a move, and still getting my head around northeast Ohio. But I am excited. I’m excited that 20 years after I joined the BBC, that I’m coming home to public media, and that I’m back in my element, driving digital change inside of an organisation. It’s great to be a part of a team hungry to experiment, committed to their communities and eager to elevate the impact of their digital work. We’re going to do some incredible things, and I’m going to take you along for the ride with us.

Creating journalism to engage as well as to inform

The media world is in full freak-out mode about the changes at Facebook, both the changes in the news feed but now its decision to let the Facebook “community” decide which publications are credible. For the record, I find the latter move much more problematic, but I want to focus on the shift to reward engagement. Like a lot of people, I see the shift as an opportunity for news organisations rather than a threat.

The change in the news feed is only a bad thing for news organisations addicted to passively playing the algorithm for cheap clicks. Even if it juices the pageviews for a while, the end of 2017 showed that simply chasing scale without a method to convert those users into loyal, returning users will not deliver a sustainable business model.

Meanwhile, a model built on winning loyalty was winning. As The Economist pointed out last autumn, many successful news groups are succeeding by working hard to convert the casual users, often from social media, into loyal users, loyal enough that they become subscribers. Those groups have married an engagement strategy with data science. Moreover, as Digiday pointed out with Aftenposten, your content strategy is very different if you focus on keeping paying subscribers happy rather than chasing traffic.

The challenge for many groups will be that as they have with many digital innovations, they treated Facebook as just another channel to passively share their content. They didn’t make an effort to engage with their audience, but rather, they prayed to the gods of virality that their posts would be shared widely. Virality would lead inexorably to clicks, and advertising would lead to revenue. As I said, the end of 2017 put paid to that strategy. It doesn’t work.

What to do?

Martin Giesler highlighted the conundrum for news publishers in a very good post on the feed changes. Jump to his immediate, medium and long-term steps to take to respond to the changes. He said:

As there’s no point in betting on traffic, many publishers will now focus on engagement. The problem here is that journalism is not primarily intended to generate interactions. Rather, it is primarily a matter of informing. In a journalistic sense, passivity is not a bad thing – quite the opposite of Facebook logic.

Exactly. Years ago when I was the blogs editor at The Guardian, the New York Times’ Sewell Chan met with me as he was launching the paper’s city-focused blog. I put the shift in publication to conversation this way.

A piece of journalism takes reporting and ties together as many threads as possible as quickly and efficiently as possible. A blog post teases out those same threads as the basis of a debate, discussion or conversation.

Slapping a comment box on the bottom of an article or column opened up a return channel, but especially on news articles, there are no calls to action. The intention of the content was to inform. What response did we expect from people?

Now, we need to think about content formats designed to engage.

  • We need a range of products and features that engage people whether they want to lightly engage or more heavily engage. Think of the range of engagement on Facebook itself. For example, news site Rappler in the Philippines has mood reactions on its content, giving people a lightweight way to engage.
  • Think of social media as the top of your engagement funnel and develop strategies that convert people into more durable, direct relationships with you and your journalism.
  • Work to convert users to products like an app, newsletter, podcasts, and events.
  • Develop novel ways to monetise that attention across the range of engagement products.

Successful media organisations have been doing this for years so should take Facebook’s changes in stride. You could never entirely base your business on the someone else’s business, especially one that introduces opaque changes so frequently as Facebook. Facebook is just pushing you to make necessary changes to end your dependence. Embrace it!

Does your journalism solution scale down? Or why local journalism is dying

When I was with Gannett, my regional president nominated me to take part in the Newsroom of the Future process, and it was quite an honour to be nominated after only a couple of months with the organisation. Gannett classified its properties into five tiers, and I was the only person in the room responsible for managing papers in tier four and five, meaning its smallest papers. Everyone else, to my knowledge, was working for a top 35 market out of Gannett’s, then, almost 100 properties. I remember one meeting in Cincinnati, and I projected my organisational chart on the screen. There were audible gasps in the room as they realised how few bodies were in the newsrooms at small sites like mine. And to the organisation’s credit, a senior member of the leadership reminded everyone in the room that half of Gannett’s properties operated at that scale.

In that same meeting, I remember clearly as solutions were mooted that I said that I worried that they simply didn’t scale down to the hyperlocal journalism at small sites like mine. The solutions being suggested didn’t take into account the physical distances involved and the unique nature of the communities. There is more to write about from that meeting, but the overriding sense was that the solutions scaled up so they would scale down as well.

I bring up this up because so much of the discussion about journalism is focused on the question: Does it scale up? I want to applaud Sam Ford for asking these questions about scale and championing other experiments that focus on scaling down. In a media world where scale has become everything and even if the shine has come off the scale play in 2017, the reality is that national players like the New York Times and the Washington Post might be turning the corner, but that isn’t the case at regional or local newspapers in the US. If anything 2017, was not a year of rebuilding but another year of grinding losses, brutal consolidation, and heart-wrenching cuts.

What is interesting in the process driven ideas that Sam talks about is how civically grounded they are. I think the future is going to be small-scale indie digital shops like the ones represented by LION Publishers, but I also see the solution coming from civic partnerships. I am also on the board of my local library, and I do wonder if the mission of libraries as local information hubs might be reimagined to fill in some of the information and civic engagement gaps left in news deserts.