By Ng Mei Yan
While no transformation project is a straightforward journey, it is important not to underestimate the amount of effort needed.
“This can undermine content transformation and threaten business sustainability and viability,” programme leader George Brock reminded participants at the second edition of the five-month-long Newsroom and Business Transformation APAC (NBTA) 2021.
Brock and co-programme leader Gregor Waller spared no time in painting a realistic picture of exactly what it takes to cultivate a thriving reader-centric newsroom in these times. While it may not be a walk in the park, the effort pays off in the long run.
From job scopes and publication schedules to resource allocation and workflow, change will have to happen in every corner of the office.
To make sure these changes stick requires commitment and drive from C-suites and chief editors, supported by an inter-departmental coalition, to complete the following tasks, said Brock.
- Communicate relentlessly with staff and readers
Leaders should also be honest about what the data reveals about how well the content is doing so teams can formulate better ways of developing stories and topics.
- Balance top-down and bottom-up
While the strategy needs to come from leaders, good ideas can come from all over the organisation, especially since plans can go awry in a time of rapid evolution.
- Have a vision of change that is measurable and achievable
“Sometimes you can get a few quick early wins to let people get a sense of momentum, if you have them. It’s good for morale,” suggested Brock.
- Separate the important from the trivial
Constantly evaluating the social, technological and market environment helps leaders keep an eye on key changes that will move the dial.
- Remove obstacles – this may involve change of personnel or job descriptions
- Anchor the change in corporate culture so everyone is on the same page
- Keep self and staff up-to-date on new digital technologies to tap on new opportunities
An appetite for risk
“For a long long time, the print business has been a no-risk business,” said Waller. This has resulted in C-suites having an unrealistic decision criteria – that any changes made today should continue to bear no risk to advertising revenues or reach.
“When there’s a fear of risking ad money, nothing can change. There needs to be room for experimentation,” he added, while highlighting that the cannibalisation potential on print advertising revenue is only about 3 percent.
Newspaper companies that have successfully pivoted to reader-led revenue bear testament to the necessity of ditching old fears.
In the case of Bonnier, a leading Scandinavian media group, which underwent a restructuring in 2015, the numbers spoke volumes.
“We have since lost half of our print circulation but we’ve increased total circulation by 40 percent and gained around 255,000 digital subscribers, which is significant as Sweden is a small country,” said Martin Jönsson, Group Head of Editorial Development, who was a guest speaker at the NBTA 2021.
In addition to gaining new and younger audiences, the group has gone on to open new offices in different regions to support a more widespread readership.
Still, for the risk-averse management, there are progressive ways to experiment with business models while building knowhow throughout the company.
The implementation of the paywall is one such example.
A metered paywall – allowing users a certain volume of free articles – is often seen as the beginner’s paywall model that encourages loyal readers to return as the company collects reader data.
As teams gain competency on creating premium content and retaining users, other models can then be explored.
These other models include the freemium paywall (users pay for premium stories), the time-wall (content is free for a limited time period) and the hard paywall (all content is exclusive and paid) reserved for the most established and exclusive brands.
Rather than being “digital-first” or “print-first,” news organisations should start with being“audience-first,” said Dr Ruth Betz, Head of Digital News at FUNKE Hamburg Media in Germany and guest speaker at the NBTA. While a digital platform requires the newsroom to think about how the journalism is processed, produced and presented, it is even more important that change be led by what users want.
The most objective way to get an understanding of reader preferences is through data, which will then inspire action. For instance, knowing what time of the day users are visiting the site and when they are likely to convert are great places to start.
Betz also stressed the importance of a content audit led by senior management – during FUNKE’s organisational overhaul in 2018, its chief editor made the decision to divert resources away from content types that were unpopular with readers.
Recalled Betz, “She said, ‘If this is something we think is important to say but no one is reading it, we’re not doing it anymore.’ ”
Keeping audiences happy goes beyond just producing quality journalism – there is also a need to engage them proactively, said Brock. He suggested various ways including the use of extensions like newsletters and podcasts and soliciting participation from loyal readers who can test new ideas, for instance.
Readers need to also be constantly reminded of a news organisation’s distinctive strengths.
“Try to be transparent,” Brock said. “Explain and dramatise how journalism is done, and the promise of its value.”
Newsroom and Business Transformation APAC (NBTA) 2021, organised by WAN-IFRA and supported by the Facebook Journalism Project, is a tailored accelerator programme for key executives in APAC news publishing who are committed to launch their first paid-content product or activity soon. NBTA’s five-month-long curriculum supports senior editorial and commercial managers to equip and coach leaders tasked with quick-starting paid content activities with the tools to tackle these issues. The programme’s objective is to shortcut the time-to-market for paid content product development and to substantially increase the chances of success for those projects.
Six Asian news publishers from five countries are participating in this programme which began in July 2021. They are: Kompas.com, Maeil Business Newspaper, Sinar Harian, SunStar Publishing Inc., Sun (Fiji) News and The Dong-A Ilbo.
About the author: Ng Mei Yan is a freelance journalist who writes for a variety of clients including government agencies, healthcare institutions and lifestyle businesses. In recent years, she has covered digital transformation stories of organisations in various industries ranging from retail to maritime.