Top publishers set their sights on the ultimate prize
Guest column: Adam Cohen-Aslatei, Sr. Director Marketing at Jun Group, discusses how some publishers are reinventing themselves to maintain top-of-mind awareness with consumers and advertisers
It’s been a challenging road for some of the industry’s top publishers. Newspaper ad revenue declined 4 percent in 2015 to $19.9 billion – less than half of what it was a decade ago. And in 2014, 3 media conglomerates spun off their print divisions to protect higher growth businesses. Current leading publishers know that the way to stay relevant is to put audiences in control, be flexible, and continuously evolve and experiment. The lessons learned from the music industry’s tumultuous changes were powerful, especially the ones that confirmed that protectionism does not lead to success. Therefore, publishers today are increasingly putting audiences first and winning back the hearts and minds of audience with an emphasis on millennials.
Top publishers are reinventing themselves in dramatic ways to maintain top-of-mind awareness with consumers and advertisers. For example, they are redesigning content, developing new revenue streams, and striking new partnerships to ensure long-term success.
Companies like The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, for instance, are transforming both the content they produce and the way they distribute it. These traditional companies are becoming increasingly nimble by investing in technologies that will propel future business. Publishers are taking a page out of ad tech’s playbook by creating specialized apps for unique interests. Facebook and Google are champions of this strategy. Consumers get more value out of standalone apps. They load faster and serve one core purpose, and can also expand content to capture additional interest. “In mobile there’s a big premium on creating single-purpose first-class experiences,” said Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook. The New York Times has taken this a step further by unbundling its core news app to create niche offerings in separate apps for crossword fans, food enthusiasts, real estate buffs, and lifestyle gurus.
Similarly, the Chicago Tribune launched a new app geared towards millennials who are used to consuming content on third-party social platforms. Redeye has the look and feel of Buzzfeed, with the editorial power of the Chicago Tribune, and the social integration of Facebook. There is a shift away from trying to be the Walmart of apps, to being more of a boutique shop where one serves a distinct audience with a singular business objective.
Given the realities of the 24-hour news cycle, content distribution has transformed for top print publishers. Many publishers have also redesigned internal structures to accommodate speed. Product and design teams at The Wall Street Journal now sit with journalists and collaborate on new, engaging ways to distribute content. Some publishers are not only redesigning the look and feel of content, but the back-end mechanics as well. The Washington Post and USA Today both redesigned their web sites to allow for quicker load times and more social media integration. Jeff Bezos, who now owns the Washington Post, has ushered in a new back-end technology for serving content that is meant to be transformational for readers, improving user experience and content interface. This technology has been so successful that other publishers such as the Columbia Daily Spectator have recently adopted the infrastructure.
The way legacy publishers earn revenue is also dramatically changing to accommodate the realities of declining print revenue. Gone are the days of cash cow newspapers. Simultaneously, new digital offerings present new opportunities. ‘T Brand Studios’ from the New York Times is an in-house creative agency that develops immersive native experiences that run across the publisher’s content. The company currently generates about half of its digital revenue from advertising, and is aiming to grow that by 12.5 percent compounded annually through 2020. Other publishers like Time Inc. are adopting cutting edge artificial intelligence technology to personalize content for readers and provide custom branding opportunities for top advertisers. These new revenue streams are high-margin, fully-immersive, and highly sought after by leading brands. Time Inc. grew its digital ad revenue by 11 percent in 2015 to $331 million and is expected to increase that amount by an additional $100 million in 2016 through its purchase of a majority stake in Viant Technology. These branded experiences can live on dedicated publisher pages or on publishers’ social channels, including Facebook and Snapchat.
To help make these changes seamless and innovative, traditional publishers are hiring top tech executives and becoming increasingly aggressive about striking technology partnerships. Chloe Sladden, a former Twitter executive, is now on Gannett’s Board. Michael Zeisser from Alibaba was recently added to Time Inc.’s Board. Rebecca Van Dyck from Facebook was recently added to The New York Times board. These new leadership additions help legacy publishers compete with digital-first offerings like Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, Politico, and Vox Media. Mr. Bezos, a tech giant himself, has also continued to transform the space by linking The Washington Post and Amazon. The app for Washington Post comes preinstalled on Kindle Fire, and Amazon Prime customers receive a complimentary subscription to the WaPo digital edition. This has helped enable The Washington Post to grow its digital subscribers over 145 percent year-over-year, surpassing that of The New York Times.
Other important changes that highlight the transformation of legacy publishers include partnerships with startups like Flipboard and Blendle. These companies are changing the game, giving audiences even more control over the content they consume. Flipboard allows readers to bundle their subscription services and gain access to content from multiple publishers. And Blendle allows readers to pay a-la-carte for individual articles. Companies like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and National Geographic have all struck partnerships with new platforms to help scale their distribution even further.
However, despite recent efforts by traditional print publishers to democratize content and put audiences in control, there has been a steep learning curve. Technology does not come cheap, and transforming large, established organizations is time consuming, challenging, and expensive. Although recent technology integrations, partnerships, and larger changes in the industry are promising, the resulting revenue uptick has been slower to develop. Publishers are making long-term bets that their audiences will stick around as they transform to adapt to and master the changes in consumption habits. While the future of print media is yet to be determined, given the recent transformations that many of these century-old companies have undergone, we can be bullish that audiences will likely be enjoying the fruits of these companies’ labor, which will lead to novel and easier ways to consume original content for years to come.