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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Publishers focus on the evolution of the business at the annual DCN: Next Summit

January 22, 2020 | By Carol Brzozowski—Independent Journalist @brzozowski

At the dawn of the new decade of 2020, DCN members gathered at the Mandarin Oriental Miami January 16 and 17 to network, discuss victories and challenges as media companies evolve, and explore industry predictions.

The new decade calls for a perfect ‘20/20’ vision, said Jason Kint, CEO, Digital Content Next as he kicked off the closed-door, off-the-record gathering. That encompasses continued focus on audience desires, pushback against the myth that all content has to be free, and the elevation of trust and transparency in an era marked by ‘fake news’.

The European Union’s recently enacted copyright law is a win for the industry, with similar discussions expected this year in the U.S, noted Kint. Federal and state investigations as well as emerging regulations are all good signals toward protecting consumer privacy, regulating data use and anti-trust concerns, notes Kint.

We can also expect a steady rise in content investments. UBS estimates that in 2020, a combined 16 media firms will spend $100 billion to produce content. More than $35 billion will allocated on streaming video content, as new players such as Disney Plus and NBC’s Peacock emerge.

“I’m feeling really good this year about where things are headed,” said Kint.

Platforms and policy

Jim Bankoff, CEO, Vox Media said he valued being at the DCN Summit. He described it as a place where premium publishers come together to “find ways to partner and to check our healthy, competitive impulses … and figure out ways to work together” in the wake of ceding ground to third party big tech platform and ad network “that have proven time and again not to have our best interests in mind.”

Investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr

Investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who freelances for the Guardian and Observer, captivated the audience by recounting her experiences unearthing the activities of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her work, which sparked international investigations as well as inspiring the Netflix documentary, ‘The Great Hack’.

“This was my introduction to this world of creepy disinformation, but also complete reluctance from the platforms to even acknowledge the problem, let alone deal with it,” she noted. She was instead subjected to legal pushback from Google and Facebook as well as online bullying.

She also called for media companies to not compete against each other. Instead, she encouraged those in the room to join together to “compete against lies and falsehoods. We’ve seen it in Britain and you’re next,” said Cadwalladr.

Monopolies

Scott Galloway, professor, NYU Stern School of Business, said he believes that the big tech companies on the antitrust radar should be broken up. Monopolies kill economic growth and are a “key step to tyranny,” he contended, adding a co-opted government can’t serve as a dominating force for protection.

Galloway pointed out that efforts to regulate the behavior of big tech fines have been largely ineffectual. To date, the fines haven’t been punitive enough to dissuade the big tech companies to modify behavior, he said. He also criticized the federal government for being slow to act.

Money matters

Monetization and concerns about subscription fatigue were recurring themes at the summit. Yet DCN research shows that younger audiences in particular appreciate the value of a subscription and finds that there is still consumer appetite for subscription products.

Jonah Peretti, founder and CEO of Buzzfeed

Jonah Peretti, founder and CEO, Buzzfeed noted that over the course of a few short years, the company has begun to generate significant revenue from Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Netflix from licensing.

“I don’t think Facebook or Google wants to buy news companies,” said Peretti. Of the platforms movement toward paying for content, he said that “They get the benefit of sharing some of the costs of the production of that content. News is a great way to direct repeat visitors and to build trust in the platform to avoid some of the problems of misinformation.”

Media shifts

Kevin Turpin II, president, National Journal, noted his longstanding publication adapted to the changing media landscape by transforming itself from a media company to government research and consulting services company for which subscribers are willing to pay premium prices.

Jim VandeHei, co-founder and CEO, Axios; Executive Producer, AXIOS on HBO said, “you have to deliver content in a way that I would deliver in a conversation with you over a drink, like what is new.” However, to create value, “Tell me why it matters. Give me some context. Give me the power to go deeper.”

For Complex, the path to success hasn’t been simple. Rich Antoniello, CEO and founder, Complex Networks said, “we call ourselves a brand that happens to monetize through media.” He said his company shifted from an ad-dependent model in 2016, ahead of the curve.

One example is the wild success of its “Hot Ones” program. It features10 questions of its celebrity guests that get progressively more personal along with the consumption of hot sauce that gets progressively hotter. And the business model is based not on advertising, but on the sales of high-margin hot sauce.  

Antoniello also outlined the success of ComplexCon, the company’s flagship event, which connects cultural icons with fans who spend $100 to $700 for VIP tickets, with hundreds of thousands sold. Fans also snap up merchandise from Complex and its app-based vendors such as Nike and Adidas.

The power of fandom arose again when Howard Mittman, CEO, Bleacher Report spoke of how his company’s app and successful franchises attract sports fans. He described how individual athletes hold more sway in their fandom habits than sports franchises.

Nearly 10 million fans have signed up for alerts and the app accounts for half of the company’s user engagement. Bleacher Report’s focus is not on breaking sports news, but creating engagement on its own platforms, according to Mittman.

Her story

Media continues to go through cultural shifts toward diversity both in company staffing and in targeting readership such as women. “Women are generally not seeing themselves in media and advertising to the extent that they should be,” said Catherine Levene, president, chief digital officer, Meredith National Media Group.

“We have been the first to support #SeeHer, a national organization committed to accurate representation of women in media and advertising,” she said. She added that’s not only good for supporting women, but also for the bottom line. Women who see themselves in media and advertising are 45% more likely to recommend a product to a friend and purchase it, said Levene.

Elise Loehnen, chief content officer, Goop

Despite the controversy it has attracted by those who question the veracity of its science, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop brand is growing, noted Elise Loehnen, chief content officer. The platform embraces several media forms and covers topics from relationships to health, including alternative therapies. She said that the controversy has been good for keeping the brand at the forefront of popular discussions.

“We’re tired of being talked down to,” said Loehnen. “We’re a strong female brand undisturbed by the chaos.”

Adapt or die

Rishad Tobaccowala, chief growth officer, Publicis Group,noted that the only way to get ahead as a legacy company is to “kill your core. You have to rethink your entire business.”

Levene from Meredith believes that the mobile world and 5G will create an even greater market for video. And, with 50% of searches conducted on the more than 200 million voice-enabled devices in U.S. homes, opportunities and challenges will arise.

Google’s action to purge third-party cookies against the backdrop of GDPR and CCPA will impact the entire digital ecosystem, Levene noted.

“Data is going to be the currency of the future. Those who have it at scale and the ability to drive a lot of insights from it are going to win,” she added.

Kindness matters

In a social media environment that is being blamed for everything from decreasing personal contact to radicalizing disaffected youth and intensifying suicide rates among girls, Tatyana Mamut, head of product, Nextdoor, made the case that her platform is creating connections on a micro-level in a neighborhood at a time when people hardly know their neighbors

“I believe that kindness is the next big thing in tech,” she added.

Palo Alto journalism educator Esther Wojcicki made the case that helicopter parenting has impacted the workforce and its ability to embrace risk and innovation. She calls for parenting – and management – to embrace trust, respect, independence, collaboration and kindness. She also promotes the idea that every student should take a journalism course to build media literacy skills.

The future will be fraught with change. And as Tobaccowala pointed out, “human beings know how difficult change is.” But to survive, media companies must continue to evolve.

“We have the power to shape minds and hearts, to fill the world with laughter and tears to inform the truth,” said Kint. “Here’s to 2020 bringing the roar of the crowd as we focus on what matters most: the audiences we serve.”

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