Eight big ideas for newsroom transformation and digital revenue growth

Three publishers at WAN-IFRA’s Digital Media Asia 2020 conference discussed lessons learned from their newsroom transformation experiences and best practices for driving online reader and advertising revenue in Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan.

by WAN-IFRA External Contributor | October 27, 2020

By Sherwin Chua

Although the COVID-19-pandemic has brought on crushing pressures to publishers’ traditional revenue models, it has nevertheless also ushered in an unprecedented increase in demand for quality journalism online. How can news publishers digitally transform their organisations to capitalise on these online revenue opportunities?

This was the key question for delegates attending a session at WAN-IFRA’s Digital Media Asia 2020 virtual conference that deep-dived into a treasure trove of ideas on digital newsroom transformation strategies.

The session featured a keynote presentation on organisational transformation by two speakers, George Brock and Grzegorz Piechota, media trainers and leaders of the five-month-long Newsroom and Business Transformation Asia 2020 (NBTA 2020) programme co-organised by WAN-IFRA and the Facebook Journalism Project. 

Three participants from the NBTA 2020 programme – Kathy Fong, executive editor, The Edge Communications (Malaysia); Katherine Kuan, vice president, United Daily News Group (Taiwan); and Johannes Chua, property and environment editor, The Manila Bulletin (Philippines) – also shared their respective publication’s transformation journeys.

Here are eight ideas from Brock and Piechota for news publications making the shift from a traditional to digital-oriented business model:

  • Digital change before reaping digital revenue rewards. Holistic, company-wide digital change in culture and operations must be implemented before digital revenue ambitions (both advertising and subscriptions) can be actualised. In other words, breaking down silos between editorial, commercial and technological functions to realise common digital transformation objectives is crucial.
  • Holistic change must be driven from the top. Senior management must provide a transformation roadmap with clearly communicated “North Star” goals; incentivise good “change ideas” and allow them to bubble up from anywhere in their organisations; and remain steadfast in the face of challenges.
  • Promote your distinctive value. A publication’s distinctive value must be the cornerstone of any news publisher’s attempt at digital transformation. And publishers must aggressively promote to their audiences how their publication’s unique value satisfies their needs.

Above image: The importance of thinking mobile, Slide: George Brock

  • Think mobile. As readership and advertising revenues from print newspapers and desktop computers continue to decline and/or stagnate, publishers need to consider ways to reach and grow their readers via mobile devices. This may include producing specific types of content and products or adapting the style and voice of the publication for mobile consumers.
  • Invest in the right digital talents. Publishers must be willing to invest in top talents with outstanding skills who can galvanise digital transformation and share their competencies throughout the organisation. Furthermore, these talents should be integrated into the company, and one such method is to develop cross-functional teams around top talents.
  • Use data to understand audiences deeply and be customer-centric. Publishers should leverage granular digital audience data to understand and build deep relationships with readers, especially their most valuable ones. Publishers should also communicate directly with their audiences, such as through email newsletters, and develop processes and products with audiences in mind.
  • Facilitate innovation through quality-controlled experiments. Do: Meticulously design and supervise experiments with new editorial and commercial products that can produce insights for the lowest possible cost, and then scrutinise and learn from the (audience) data gathered through those experiments. Don’t: Use experiments as an excuse to haphazardly “throw things on the wall to see what sticks.”
  • Audits to cut resource-wasting habits. Regularly performing digital content audits can help publishers more effectively understand the types of articles that their audiences are most interested in and channel their resources to cover those topics. In essence, this would garner higher returns on their investments and eliminate practices that inhibit growth in digital readership and subscription revenue.

These eight takeaways resonated with the other three delegates, Fong, Kuan and Chua, all of whom echoed points highlighted by Brock and Piechota when sharing their lessons learned at NBTA 2020 and digital transformation experiences at their respective publications. 

Using in-depth data to understand audiences

Above image: United Daily News’ RFV analysis. Slide: Katherine Kuan

For Kuan, a key lesson was the importance of learning how to use granular data to, one, build a deeper relationship with the readers of United Daily News and, two, to develop editorial products and services to meet the readers’ demands.

Using her publication’s financial news as an example, Kuan explained how United Daily News had started to employ RFV (recency, frequency and value) analysis to distinguish their readers by segments and, in the process, gain a more granular understanding of their readers’ preferences and habits in each segment. 

Furthermore, the audience data from the RFV analysis is triangulated against other sets of data from the publication’s website and social media and ecommerce platforms. 

The benefit of this exercise, said Kuan, was how her publication had discovered that a large number of its readers were interested in articles on personal finance, especially those related to personal insurance. 

Before this, they had only known that their publication’s readers were generally interested in financial news. 

“We did not know how to use deep data to better understand our consumers. We now know how to figure out our audience’s needs scientifically and not just based on our own imagination,” said Kuan. 

Management-driven transformation and company-wide commitment

For The Manila Bulletin, three key lessons stood out in its digital transformation journey: the conviction of the publication’s management; the establishment of clear goals and metrics to measure those goals; and incentives to motivate staff to work towards those goals.

According to Chua, digital transformation at the Manila Bulletin was, in the initial stage, very much driven by senior management. 

“The commitment of the executive committee and senior editors was instrumental because it sent a clear message to the organisation: It’s up to you if you want to join the transformation efforts, or if you want to continue sinking,” said Chua.

Once the publication’s senior management had decided upon the transformation roadmap, common goals were established, measured and frequently communicated to everyone in the organisation.

To this end, Chua explained that a data analysis team was formed to provide weekly reports to editors on the digital performance of the articles produced by their sections and suggest measures on how to engage with the data and improve their work.

Regarding systems of incentives to motivate staff, it was important to frequently reward individuals and teams who have successfully met targets, and who also evangelised them, because it motivates everyone in the organisation to work harder towards common transformation goals, said Chua.

Developing digital competencies and demolishing silos

For The Edge Communications, building up digital competences and breaking down silos within the newsroom were the important lessons, said Fong.

While developing a new digital newspaper titled “CEO Morning Brief” for its online audiences, the publication’s editorial, technology and art teams not only had to work closely together, but the art team, which traditionally worked on newspapers, had to learn coding, said Fong. 

The new digital newspaper has been free for readers since it was launched in August 2020. However, as the publication considers the pros and cons of charging a subscription fee for its product in the next few months, the next phase of product development will likely see the commercial and editorial departments in the organisation working even more intimately together, Fong added.

About the author: Sherwin Chua is a PhD candidate at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden whose research focuses on media innovation and journalism practices. He is also a freelance journalist who covers digital transformations occurring in journalism. His articles have been published by Nieman Journalism Lab, WAN-IFRA and The Splice Newsroom. He was a former magazine editor and news journalist, and also taught journalism and mass communication courses at a polytechnic in Singapore. 

Edited by Bill Poorman

WAN-IFRA External Contributor

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