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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Trends, media models and platform regulation take center stage at the 2021 DCN Next: Summit

February 9, 2021 | By Greg Dool – Independent Media Reporter @GregDool

Held virtually and expanded to five days, the 2021 edition of the member’s-only DCN Next:summit (February 1-5) was certainly unlike any that came before. Fittingly, CEO Jason Kint kicked things off by reflecting on all that has changed over the past year and, perhaps more importantly, what has not.

“Publishers have been covering three of the biggest stories of our generation, all intersecting at the same time,” he said. “Your ability to stay true to your brands and to the public trust, despite personal and professional obstacles, has been remarkable.”

Amid all of this, Kint reminded attendees that the industry will need to keep its priorities straight to fuel a stronger digital media marketplace. Indeed, a broad theme of the event was the many ways publishers are adapting to shifts accelerated by the pandemic by deepening their direct relationships with audiences.

Platform power plays

Constellation Research founder and chairman Ray Wang expanded on that topic in the opening session, an interview by BBC correspondent Larry Madowo. Noting increased competition from outside the industry, Wang called for greater cooperation among media companies.

“What we have is a fracturing in the marketplace, which is making it very hard to compete with the digital giants,” he said. “In order to succeed, you have to band together.”

Sara Fischer in conversation with Mathias Döpfner

Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner told Axios media reporter Sara Fischer that the “immensely powerful position” of tech platforms will need to be addressed by regulators. At the same time, he shared an optimistic outlook for the future of journalism. Unlike the print-centric business he took over 20 years ago, digital journalism carries lower costs, he said, allowing media companies to invest more heavily in editorial.

“You have no deadline. You have unlimited space,” Döpfner said. “And you can combine all aesthetic forms of journalism. It can be video, it can be audio, it can be text, it can be all combined. I think we are still in the early days of digital journalism and its creative potential.”

Monopolies and media models

Döpfner added that there’s a future for both subscription- and ad-supported journalism on the web, and that many organizations will continue with a mix of both. The future of advertising, however, depends on the role of platforms.

On the contrary, NYU marketing professor Scott Galloway said the key to survival for media companies will be subscriptions. He said that giving content away for free to “innovators and algorithms” was “the biggest mistake journalism ever made.”

Interviewed by Henry Blodget, the CEO of Axel Springer-owned Insider Inc., Galloway added that regulators should further address platforms’ data collection capabilities to mitigate their harmful effects.

POLITICO antitrust reporter Leah Nylen and Yale economist Fiona Scott Morton then explored potential regulatory remedies to the anti-competitive practices of tech companies. Scott Morton encouraged media companies to help educate regulators on the impact of “dominant advertising intermediaries,” such as Google.

“These markets for digital advertising are not something that most people understand,” she said. “It requires effort on the part of the affected parties to help move the conversation forward and push regulators in a direction that’s good.”

The pivot to paid

Meredith Kopit Levien in conversation with Peter Kafka

The subscription economy took center stage on Friday, when Recode senior correspondent Peter Kafka interviewed newly promoted New York Times CEO Meredith Kopit Levien. Pushing back on the notion that the Times was becoming too dominant a player, Kopit Levien suggested that the organization is helping to create a market for paid journalism.

“There’s plenty of room for other digital journalism outlets to survive and thrive,” she said.

“We’re still in the early days of the pay model. It wasn’t that long ago that everybody said things like ‘digital news wants to be free.’ Some of our journalistic competitors are having great years for subscriptions. We look at all of that as making a market.”

To build on the 2.3 million digital subscriptions the Times sold in 2020, Kopit Levien said the outlet will be investing in covering live and developing news. Additionally, she suggested that publishers should work to reduce their dependence on third-party data to help create better digital experiences for subscribers.

Meeting audiences whenever, wherever

CNN chief media correspondent Brian Stelter sat with CBS News president Susan Zirinsky for a discussion on how the pandemic has accelerated shifts in the TV news business. Gone are the days of holding major scoops or interviews for primetime, Zirinsky said. Even broadcast news must adapt to a 24/7, cross-platform model.

“We want to give people facts,” Zirinsky said. “We want to share information. This is really what it’s about: being on every platform that is available, taking our unique content and putting it in as many places as a consumer is.”

Peter Kafka in conversation with Jenna Weiss-Berman and Lydia Polgreen

One of those rising platforms, audio, was the topic of conversation between Gimlet Media head of content Lydia Polgreen, Pineapple Street Studios co-founder Jenna Weiss-Berman, and Recode’s Kafka.

While advertising remains a lucrative source of revenue, Polgreen said the medium needs some advancement in terms of measurement and audience-based selling, similar to other formats. Weiss-Berman added that the mechanisms for connecting ad buyers with content creators need development. Both agreed that there is still tremendous room for growth. The next big challenge will be reaching people who don’t currently listen to podcasts.

“If you look at the research, podcast listening has tripled since 2014, in terms of share of time, but only from 2% to 6%,” Polgreen said. “In a world where audio is completely on-demand, the possibilities are pretty endless.”

The future of media and journalism

Elsewhere on the program, Snap CMO Kenny Mitchell and Clubhouse CEO Paul Davison each explored growth strategies for their respective platforms. They also touched on the importance of creator relationships and the intersection of content and community.

Julia Angwin, editor-in-chief and founder of The Markup, took attendees behind the scenes of The Atlantic’s highly successful COVID tracking project. Staff writer Alexis Madrigal, who co-founded the project, reflected on the many challenges involved in merging numerous disparate sources of data to meet a critical need for information in the early months of the pandemic.

Angwin noted that the project exemplifies the tangible benefits that journalistic endeavors can provide to the public, particularly when providing information that might be “politically inconvenient.”

Web Smith, Jarrod Dicker, and Stacy-Marie Ishmael

On the final day of the Summit, Stacy-Marie Ishmael, editorial director at The Texas Tribune, led a lively conversation with 2PM Inc. founder Web Smith and The Washington Post’s VP, commercial, Jarrod Dicker, on the future of media. In line with the trends, the discussion largely focused on the rise of independent creators.

“Twitter and other platforms have enabled individual people to build their own reputation. It’s created an entirely new landscape,” Dicker said. “Creators can see what their individual value is. I think that’s a change in the discourse.”

New year, same values

In closing, Kint said that, despite adapting well to a virtual event, he hoped to see everyone back in Miami for the 2022 DCN Next: Summit. In the interim, he advised those in attendance to focus on three key things: strengthening bonds with audiences and partners, understanding the core needs of both, and emphasizing agility in response to change.

“Every member of DCN has a direct and trusted relationship with their users and advertisers,” he said. “Our Summit is the one place where, in the comfort of a closed-door environment, surrounded by others who share our values, we can also share our successes and vulnerabilities.”

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