By: Damian Radcliffe
Last month saw the publication of a new report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, exploring how news organisations are going ‘beyond the article’ through distributed publishing, messaging apps and chatbots, virtual reality and mobile-first video.
Written by Kevin Anderson, an international media and communications consultant (and regular contributor to TheMediaBriefing), the paper offers global insights into emerging opportunities for new revenue streams and fresh storytelling formats.
Here are six key lessons from the study - and a subsequent email conversation with Anderson about his report - which we thought worth noting:
Size need not be an impediment to innovation
Anderson’s report features smaller digital-born start-ups like 140journos in Turkey, alongside global giants such as the New York Times and the Guardian, highlighting how “limited resource is no hindrance to innovation.”
The site, which uses “news, videos and reviews to understand Turkey” was founded in late 2011, and has just 10 full time employees. Although it has an extensive Medium publication, its small staff are active on 15 different social media platforms.
Part of the reason for this is practical. Turkey was ranked 151st on the 2016 World Press Freedom Index (below Russia at 149 but ahead of 29 others such as DNC, North Korea and China) and censorship or network closures are common. Innovative distribution methods are therefore essential if the citizen journalism produced by the team is to reach audiences.
Last month the team launched a daily digest, in English, for WhatsApp users, following the launch of their original service on this platform in September 2015. Alongside engaging with audiences on platforms like Twitter, Periscope and Facebook, the team are also trying to take their content to other, unexpected, digital spaces.
‘We even experimented with Tinder by creating various profiles with fake, Photoshopped stock images to deliver our news to a group of people that never interact with what’s going on in Turkey,’ Engin Önder, co-founder of 140journos, said.
Original ideas can unlock new revenue sources
140journos has predominantly been supported by The Institute of Creative Minds, whilst“roughly 90%,” the Guardian’s 6x9 VR project “came from grants and foundation funding outside of the Guardian, including groups such as Tribeca Film Institute, Chicken & Egg Pictures, WGBH’s Frontline in Boston, and the Google News Lab.”
“The project led to a VR pilot project that will give a joint editorial and commercial unit 18 months to test the viability of the format,” the report notes. According to Aron Pilhofer, the Guardian's executive director of digital at the time of the project, the initiative demonstrates how editorial and commercial teams can work together to try new things.
A 2016 Olympics preview series - The Fine Line - offered New York Times audiences four high-quality mobile-first interactives (“the first interactive built with mobile first in mind”), and a “paid post” (Making An Ironman) sponsored by the car brand Infiniti. Ad content for Infiniti was also “integrated into the flow of the features,” the study observes. Although, as Adam Aston, vice president and editorial director, T Brand Studio, New York Times, commented:
“...the Times has strict rules for how they label sponsored content: ‘It’s our goal to clearly differentiate what is a paid advertisement from content produced by the Times newsroom, so that we never confuse our readers’ ”
We may see more of these types of efforts, the report suggests, as the NYT seeks to grow its digital revenue from $400 in 2014, to $800 million by the end of the decade. However, these efforts can be resource heavy; 35 people were credited in the production of these video-led features, Anderson reveals.
You can make money from mobile
In Finland, a mobile app produced by Helsingin Sanomat, the largest newspaper in Finland has also created new income streams, enabling the publication to develop a “revenue model for the app... based on coupons, contests, and sponsored content rather than display ads.”
A spin off from Nyt, a youth-orientated offering, this model matters, because the “young audience is the most resistant to ads, being amongst the highest users of ad blockers.”
The app built on previous experiments with WhatsApp, but without the restrictions (WhatsApp doesn’t have a publisher platform) found on the popular messaging platform.
Although popular, Jussi Pullinen, a news editor at Helsingin Sanomat acknowledges that engagement is harder on a standalone app, as “our core audience is on WhatsApp all the time.” Nonetheless, it has created commercial opportunities, such as sponsored content on the app (which can be bundled into wider sales packages for the main publication) which would not be possible on a third party platform.
Discussing Quartz’s conversational app, which launched in February last year ( an Android version went live in December 2016,) creative director Brian Dell, is quoted as saying their aim is not to marry ‘commercial to editorial’ but instead offer ‘a great Quartz experience’.
Nonetheless, Anderson notes:
“To monetise the app, Quartz has developed novel ad formats that fit into the infinite scroll. Similar to the in-stream ad format on their initial responsive site, visual ads flow into the update stream of the app. The ad units appear as the user opens the app.”
“Core users,” Adam Pasick, Quartz’s push news editor, told Anderson, “people who use the app everyday, use it 2 minutes at a time, once or twice a day.”
“That is really a small snack size as far as reading the news goes,” he admit, but it does nonetheless offer creative and commercial opportunities to engage a captive audience.
Monetizing innovation: the data opportunity
“The industry wasted valuable time pursuing a scale game we could never win against Google and Facebook,” Anderson told TheMediaBriefing in an email expanding on some of the themes in his study.
“Now many companies have shifted to focusing on loyalty. They are focusing on the users who spend the most time with them or even more importantly their subscribers or people they have some other commercial relationship with.”
These relationships, Anderson suggests, offer a treasure trove of data which can can be harnessed to shape innovation-related outputs. “It will help determine the areas of greatest opportunity for product and revenue development,” he says.
“To do this,” Anderson recommends, “a first step is pull together their siloed data - editorial data, user data and commercial data.”
“There are tremendous opportunities for companies that bring this data together,” he adds. Schibsted has been able to do with their e-commerce platforms, Anderson says, while his report highlights that Rappler in the Philippines is considering selling their crowdsourced data to the private sector.
R&D requires rationalisation
“To pursue new opportunities, just as important to knowing what to do, industry leaders must urgently figure out what they [should] stop doing,” Anderson says.
“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.”
This approach also means not trying to pursue every new idea and innovation too.
As Anderson told us: “I say to the news organisations and media companies I work with, in digital there are so many things you can do, the challenge is to decide what you must do.”
Finally, Anderson notes, “one lesson from the report is that all of the organisations had developed product thinking.”
“Not all of them may have a formal product management and development framework,” he told TheMediaBriefing, “but at least they were thinking in terms of products.”
“They were trying to address competitive challenges, adapt to changes in audience behaviour or go after new opportunities.”
To manage and monetise innovation, news organisations need to be “free of the constraints of legacy thinking.” Being able to do this can create new commercial and editorial opportunities, and as Anderson’s report shows these efforts can sometimes be in lockstep.
Either way, being able to reach new audiences, deepen engagement and foster new revenue opportunities are strategic challenges that most news organisations and publishers are trying to address. Being selective, harnessing data, developing a product-mindset and thinking beyond the article, are just some of the traits news organisations large - and small - are embracing in their efforts to do just that.