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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

How AI and data are allowing the Associated Press to tap new revenue streams

January 15, 2018 | By Peggy Anne Salz, Founder and Lead Analyst – Mobile Groove @peggyanne

In an age where exclusive content is pure gold and data is the new black gold, smart news organizations are looking for ways to unlock their frontline information and insights for maximum exposure across a multitude of platforms.

Ted Mendelsohn, AP Vice President, Commercial and Digital Markets

The Associated Press — a 170-year old news organization with teams in over 100 countries and one of the world’s most important archives of audio-visual archives of news, social history, sports, and entertainment — is going one better. It’s exploring new and rather unconventional opportunities, in areas ranging from data-mining to data journalism, to identify new markets and revenue opportunities for its wholesale and non-profit businesses.

Peggy Anne Salz, mobile analyst and Content Marketing Strategist at MobileGroove, speaks with Ted Mendelsohn, AP Vice President, Commercial and Digital Markets. They discuss the company’s mission to expand distribution of its archival content, extract value from its data, and enhance news-gathering capabilities.

PAS: On any given day, more than half the world’s population sees AP content. But that’s just one side of your business. Tell me more about your wholesale business and the opportunities you pursue.

TM: When I was brought into AP some 25 years ago, the commercial business focused on selling AP content into the federal government, corporate markets, and large clients, including Prodigy, LexisNexis, Dialog. Expanding this by identifying new markets and opportunities is very much what my job is about today.

Another part of the business is our retail business, where AP mobile comes into play. The focus is on making our own content available on AP-owned and operated sites and monetizing through advertising.

Finally, there are content services, where AP — because of its huge footprint worldwide and access to photographers and videographers — can work together with clients. It’s a service and a business opportunity that we see expanding. are exploring opportunities where brands might sponsor content like the AP Top 25 college basketball or college football rankings. There are also opportunities for companies to sponsor unique content. This might be along the lines of the top 5 things you need to know about ways you can improve health and fitness. We are open to doing more of that and that’s also where having our own platform opens a whole line of revenue and opportunities.

PAS: AP is perhaps best known for frontline, breaking news content…

TM: Yes, it’s our bread and butter. We’ve noticed that our audience is heavily engaged with our content — stories, photos and video — and that the sessions are long. In fact, in August 2017, a survey from NewsWhip showed that AP drove higher total engagement on Facebook than any of the Top 10 individual publishers in June and July. This achievement is also linked to our ongoing efforts to update our content and add value. We provide alerts, but we also add to the news content from every angle, enhancing the story with text, photos, and video.

PAS: You’re using technology to expand and enhance distribution of your content. What is the role of technology in the production of content?

TM: AI is a technology that has an impact at several levels. We’re using it, but we’re also educating the media by showing the example of how we use AI within our newsroom. A lot of our efforts around understanding and using AI in the newsroom is focused on producing the routine news, like sports scores, and have them generated through AI technology.

But it’s not just about automation; AI can open opportunities for our reporters to cover more important stories and produce the exclusive in-depth content that wins us — and our clients — audiences on mobile and other platforms. And that is what drives the higher engagement. A good example is one of our most successful stories, what we’ve been calling the “Seafood from Slaves.” Here our reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their investigation that exposed slavery in the Southeast Asian fishing industry.

PAS: What are the other technologies top of your radar?

TM: At one level, AP is a retail store, for lack of a better word. We focus on approaches that will allow us to appeal to our readers directly. We ‘sell’ them on our content on the platforms, such as mobile, where they want to consume it. But it’s also about understanding how other companies and platforms are going to impact how we engage audiences. A prime example here is voice and deciding how we engage with companies that are creating voice-activated content.

It means talking to the Amazons, the Apples, and the Samsungs — companies now looking for content that is driven by voice-activation. For us, it’s becoming a new way of engaging with the customer, if you will, by creating content and adjusting our content for this market and working with companies who are attracted by the content we have and the platforms we can serve.

In other words, it’s not just the technology that we use internally. It’s working with the companies who are really technology-driven and finding ways to use our content to improve their technology and, at the same time, to make our content available in new and different ways.

The number one question for AP is: how do we move our content and make our content play across the platforms? My first boss at AP used to say he wants to ride every horse in the race. And, in some ways, that’s what we’re trying to do. We are on the horse that allows us to display and distribute our content. And we are riding the horses that allow us to get our content to the companies out there that need our content to engage their customers.

PAS: AP is exploring AI, launching a VR and 360 video channel in collaboration with AMD, examining the opportunities around voice and Internet of Things. How do make choices about the companies or platforms to explore and the ones to ignore?

TM: It’s not about betting on the newest technology or the ‘Next Big Thing.’ You also have to be flexible enough to adjust to what is coming out on the market. As an industry, we couldn’t have anticipated a technology like Amazon Echo and its impact. We also couldn’t have known the content these platforms require. But once it’s gaining traction on the market, like it is now, the best advice I can give content companies is to be flexible. You cannot shut them out; you have to engage.

What do I mean by engaging? It starts with the way I organize my group. Specifically, I’ve brought people together who have a focus on vertical segments. Some are in continuous discussions with industry leaders — they are in talks with Amazon, Apple, Yahoo!, and so on. It’s not a discussion like “Oh, we have this content for you, why don’t you sign a deal with us?” It’s a dialog where we want to understand where they’re going and they’re coming back to us with insights on the tech and opportunities that have real potential.

In this Oct. 20, 2017 photo, Jamain Lee, center, looks at classmate Andre’veon Mosby at Milwaukee Math and Science Academy, a charter school in Milwaukee.
PAS: Data is hailed as the new black gold, and you have stockpiles of it. How do you view the opportunities in unlocking that data for clients?

TM: On the data side — for example, election data — we are the primary source for our clients. We’re finding that election data, even older data, is highly valuable to hedge funds. We make that data available for them to study and make whatever algorithmic assessments they feel necessary based on the data.

Data is also at the core of our edge in investigative reporting, identifying trends and news ahead of the competition. For example, an AP analysis of charter school enrollment data allowed us to expose the growing level of racial segregation in schools. Recently we reported on crime in the cities, using the data to take a different perspective. Rather than look at crime growing in cities, we used the data to examine crime in particular neighborhoods. Data allows you to see this, and so we are finding ways to make this data available for our reporters and for other organization to use.

PAS: So, data has become a new commodity?

TM: Maybe commodity is not the right word. Let’s say it’s a valuable good that we can offer and sell because other companies — businesses, financial institutions, hedge funds — are evolving to use data in ways that we don’t.

There are two ways to look at the way marketplace for data is developing. One is the opportunity at the consumer level, where more and better data can improve marketing, advertising, and understanding your audience. The other is the opportunity at the commercial level. Companies need access to data — for example, election data — to identify and understand the trends, and make investment decisions based on the combination of data.

It’s early days, and frankly, no one is exactly sure where how data will play out. But we are seeing that a number of financial institutional are looking for data to enhance their own data. It’s why I have some people on the team who are working with financial institutions, trying to understand what they need so we can extract data to make these datasets available in the way our clients want them.

PAS: Content and data — the opportunity is in being flexible in your choice of platforms and models…

TM: Correct. And the third part is being flexible in how you do business. You can’t be limited in how you do business or the kind of business terms you negotiate. All of us in the media industry have models, pricing lists and stuff like that. I threw those models right out because I realized they don’t work. The next technology comes around, and whatever pricing model you have doesn’t work. Instead, you have to adapt to change. You have to adjust your content, and your business model has to be flexible as well.

Peggy Anne Salz is the Content Marketing Strategist and Chief Analyst of Mobile Groove, a top 50 influential technology site providing custom research to the global mobile industry and consulting to tech startups. She is a frequent contributor to Forbes on the topic of mobile marketing, engagement and apps. Her work also regularly appears in a range of publications from Venture Beat to Harvard Business Review. Peggy is a top 30 Mobile Marketing influencer and a nine-time author based in Europe. Follow her @peggyanne.

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