The Age of the Freelancer: Should journalism contests rethink their fees?

Will Write Poems for Food, by Taymaz Valley, Flickr, Some Rights Reserved

In today’s newsletter, we find an example that runs counter or Betteridge’s Law. For my non-British readers, Betteridge’s Law, coined and named after Ian Betteridge is:

This story is a great demonstration of my maxim that any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no.” The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bullshit, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it.

Betteridge’s law of headlines, Wikipedia

That is a long-winded way of saying that in this case the answer might be yes, the question asked might be “yes”.

Nieman Lab looks at why journalism contests should rethink their fee structure as more and more journalists find themselves freelancing whether they like it or not.

Suchandrika Chakrabarti, my friend and former collaborator when she worked for Trinity-Mirror (now Reach) flagged this up from the newsletter today. She has not only launched her own freelance journalism career but also the wonderful Freelance Pod.

And this LinkedIn post of hers is definitely going into the newsletter tomorrow. She starts the post off with:

It’s the anniversary of my third redundancy! Also, it’s a year since I went freelance. Let’s talk about it.

Looking back on a year of freelancing, via my third-person biographies, Suchandrika Chakrabarti

If you spot something that you think deserves to be in tomorrow’s newsletter, flag it up to me on Twitter, @kevglobal, and if you haven’t subscribed to the newsletter yet, you can here.

Slate expects almost half of its revenue to come from podcasts

Headphones on a baby, by Gideon Tsang, from Flickr

The top story in the newsletter today reminds me how reader revenue, whether that be through subscriptions or memberships, is remaking media. Digiday is reporting that Slate expects nearly half of its revenue to come from podcasts, but the thing that stands out is Slate sees this as supporting their subscription model, Slate Plus. They aren’t looking for syndication deals. It’s all about building a loyal, paying audience on their own platform. How times have changed. From Digiday:

But where some of the newer scripted podcast producers are eyeing the big checks that platforms such as Luminary are writing, Slate sees them as a way to build its own business. Kammerer said that while Slate has had discussions with podcast platforms about licensing or producing exclusive shows for platforms, it has declined to pursue them because it is more interested in using its shows to build Slate Plus.

Slate expects nearly half of its revenue will come from podcasts this year, by Max Willens, Digiday

And I also want to highlight Reach PLC (formerly Trinity-Mirror and also a former client of my consultancy, Ship’s Wheel Media) and their efforts to try to bring some comity to the discussions around Brexit with their Britain Talks project. Their efforts to engage audiences, not only with their journalism but also in broader issues, really impresses me, and I appreciate more than most the challenging business environment that they are operating in.

As always, if you have a media business story that you think I should highlight in the newsletter, let me know on Twitter @kevglobal. And you can subscribe to the newsletter here.

10 Journalism Newsletters You Should Subscribe to, Make that 11

Pamphleteer, WikiMedia Commons

I’m closing out this week in a totally meta way in my newsletter: 10 other journalism newsletters that you should check out, well, apart from mine.

But I also want to start something and post the top five stories based on what you have been clicking through to in my newsletter.

  1. Like most media, podcasting is pivoting to paid (with complications)
    From Max Willens, Digiday
  2. 7 reasons a freelance journalist should start a podcast, by my friend
    Suchandrika Chakrabarti, on Muck Rack
  3. Why platforms like Facebook and Apple struggle to boost local news | What’s New in Publishing | Digital Publishing News, a great piece by Simon Owens, on What’s News in Publishing, where I also have been known to write.
  4. The Telegraph’s roadmap to 1m paying subscribers and financial sustainability, by Ian Burrell in The Drum
  5. How publishers are using Snapchat’s curated stories tool for breaking news and more, by Kerry Flynn, in Digiday

I hope that you have a great weekend, and remember, if you have any good stories that I should include in the newsletter, let me know @kevglobal on Twitter.

Which came first? The decline in civic engagement or the decline in newspapers?

Death of Print, Darius Norvilas, Flickr, Some Rights Reserved

In my newsletter today, the top story looks at the impact of the decline in local news outlets in the US. The statistic that one in five Americans now lack access to a local source of news is not news, but what we’re now hearing is research about what that means and how it is impacting local communities.

I edited local newspapers for a very brief period of my career – about 21 months. I joke that I survived the six rounds of cuts but not the seventh. Those cuts included simple budget cuts, hiring freezes, a major reorganisation and an early retirement scheme.

I actually really enjoyed working in local media, despite the incredible pressure of trying to expand two newspapers amidst an industry collapse. I managed the newspapers in two towns in Wisconsin: Sheboygan, population 50,000ish, and Manitowoc, with a population of around 35,000. For the first year, I felt like an old-fashioned small-town editor. In Sheboygan, where I lived, people would stop me on the street, just to talk because I was the editor of the newspaper . But the cuts drove home just how badly the newspaper industry had shrunk. In 2005, the newspaper in Manitowoc had about 12 editorial staff. When I arrived in 2014, the local staff was still about nine. Today, it’s four.

During my time in local newspapers, one particular question gnawed at me: Was one factor in the decline in newspapers down to a decline in local civic engagement or was the decline in local civic engagement driving the decline in newspapers?

Research is now beginning to answer that question. Take this from an article in Governing:

According to a study published in November in the Journal of Communicationvoters rely more on national outlets — and become more partisan — as local newspapers decline or close.

“The more obvious implications of newspaper closures are that residents are becoming less informed about the issues that affect them most and less engaged with local government,” says Johanna Dunaway, professor of communications at Texas A&M University and coauthor of the study.


When No News Isn’t Good News: What the Decline of Newspapers Means for Government , Alan Greenblatt, Governing

The article goes on to highlight an increase in partisanship as the news becomes “nationalized”. Again, I saw this at the local level. People didn’t really distinguish between the local newspaper, the New York Times or cable news. It was all just one undifferentiated mass for them. People would call me up as the editor and shout at me about things in the “the media”, usually cable news – CNN or Fox, depending on their politics. I tried to explain to them that we didn’t have anything to do with that, were owned by entirely separate companies and that our focus was the local community, not commenting on the latest hot issue in Washington.

At the same time, they were very disengaged from local politics. In a conversation with our city clerk in Sheboygan, who helped run our local elections, she made the point that in the previous spring’s election we only had a turnout of 7 percent. She made the quite valid point that it cost the same to run an election whether the turnout was 7 percent or 70, but it was really shocking to see how few people made the effort to vote.

When local people did talk about politics, particularly on Facebook, it was frustrating to see them grouse rather immaturely about local government, rather than engaging with issues in a substantive way. More than that, they often made it clear that they were doing this from the sidelines and not as active voters or civic participants. It was civics as a spectator sport.

The article in Governing does a good job of pulling together the threads of a lot of research showing the negative consequences of this loss of coverage including a decline in local government accountability and even negative environmental impacts. But this kind of local reporting is really expensive and no one seems willing to pay. I had several ideas on how to begin rebuilding local reporting and, although my first year in Sheboygan gave me the opportunity to start putting some those into practice, the continued cuts and reorganisations made it impossible to capitalise on those early gains.

What we’re losing with respect to local journalism is hurting our society. And we need not just creative ways to start rebuilding that. We should all acknowledge that these organisations will not cut their way to growth or cut their way back to meaningful, engaged local news outlets. We have to find a way for this to work, for the sake of our communities and our citizens.

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.

Why this digital media bust will be different (and ways that it will be the same)

By now, we all have heard reports that Buzzfeed and Vice will miss their revenue targets. Mashable has been sold for a fifth of its 2016 valuation, and there are more reports of chaos at Mic after its pivot to video. And Spirited Media, which was seen as a promising model for local media, laid off staff in what CEO Jim Brady called a “shitty week”. What does this mean?

  • I’ve been saying this for a few years now, the chase for scale with 20th Century mass media strategies doesn’t work in the age of the Duopoly. Their scale dwarfs the scale that media companies can cost-effectively create.
  • Advertising as the sole source of revenue has been looking shaky for quite a while, and with print advertising collapsing across the English-speaking world and digital advertising being eaten up by Google and Facebook, media companies will have to find other revenue streams. (Kudos to Jim Brady and
  • VC funding for mass Millennial media products is done for the moment.
  • The “pivot to video” was driven much more by advertising revenue than audience demand.
  • Look for 2018 to be the “pivot to affiliate”. Media folks are herd-like creatures, and the success of Wirecutter and Penny Hoarder will not have been lost on them.

I agree with Josh Marshall, we’re in the midst of a digital media crash, or more accurately, a VC-funded digital media crash in the middle of a broader legacy media crash wrapped in an even broader media realignment the likes of which we haven’t seen since the invention of the printing press. As I wrote about at the beginning of 2016, there has been trouble in the Attention Economy for a while. I thought that we were reaching Peak Content,  a point where the race to create more content in the foolish chase for scale ended because it just became economically unsustainable.

Of course, those who followed funding closely knew that there was trouble in VC-funding of media. I had heard from friends in funding circles that recent investment rounds were going for ridiculously low multiples in terms of earnings, and for those who follow media funding closely, like my grenade-tossing friend Rafat Ali, this reckoning has been coming for a while. And that reality is hitting start-ups big and small. Brady said that the layoffs at Spirited Media were caused by a lower than expected funding round.

Another media crash

I have lived through a few media crashes already in my career, including the dot.com crash and the Great Recession. I think this crash will be much more like the dot.com crash, which in media terms has long passed from memory because most of the media folks in digital media in the late 90s left. They struggled to get hired back into legacy media, and they simply pivoted into something different. I consider myself fortunate, I was working for the BBC as their first digital correspondent outside of the UK. Our unique public funding model allowed us to continue to innovate even in the teeth of the crash. It’s been tough for mid-career journalists like myself to stay in the industry since the Great Recession, and sadly, in 2017, I saw it get tougher for younger journalists as well.

But this crash in digital media will be different than the dot.com crash. In 2001, people questioned whether you could make money with digital advertising, and there are some who are asking the same question. But it’s the wrong one. People are making money, billions of dollars in digital advertising. It just isn’t the media, and that has been the problem for a long time, even before the last two years when it became clear that The Duopoly were gobbling up most of the digital advertising revenue in the world.

How it is slightly different this time…

But this crash is different because unlike the dot.com crash, which wiped out an early wave of digital-first media companies, we do have models that are working. And I’m not just talking about the Financial Times or the New York Times. There are a lot of really fascinating start-ups that have solid models deeply serving much smaller audiences – Skift, The Skimm and Penny Hoarder. As Rafat, founder and CEO, of Skift wrote on Twitter.

There is a lot that is working, and I’ll go into that later. It will have to wait until taking a much-needed break over Thanksgiving.

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.

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.

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.