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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Four global publishers explore the opportunities in digital publishing’s new normal

September 28, 2021 | By John Agger, Principal Industry Marketing Manager for Media & Entertainment – Fastly @fastly

With wide-ranging changes pushed within a very short time span, the publishing world had to rapidly transform many workflows and strategies during the pandemic. We saw trends accelerate and tried and true strategies hold strong. 

Fastly’s SVP of Engineering Nick Rockwell (the former CTO at the New York Times) sat down with a group of senior technology leaders from four global digital publishers earlier this summer to reflect on this challenging period. 

  • Jorge M. Ibarra, CIO/CTO, El Pais
  • Mariot Chauvin, Head of Engineering, The Guardian
  • Marco Kaiser, CTO, Zeit Online
  • Sacha Morard, CTO, Le Monde

Here are a few of the key takeaways from the discussion that publishers everywhere can leverage as they adapt to the new normal.  

Traffic surged and content strategies shifted

Unsurprisingly the four news outlets all saw large traffic spikes at the onset of the pandemic. Traffic records were shattered. What may be a surprise, though, is that though it is tapering off, visitor numbers are higher overall to this day.

A closer look at viewer behavior confirmed that expected content cannibalization took place. Readers flocked to COVID-19 coverage and spent little or no time with other sections of the website. To address this, they decided to expand the coverage of Covid-19 with additional content such as infographics, which are still being referenced by news sources to this day. However, this audience behavior also drove the creation of a “Covid-19-free content” hub, where readers could educate themselves on other world news and topics.

El Pais saw the record traffic extend into other areas such as sports coverage, educational content, and even radio broadcasts.The Guardian observed a similar trend. The site experienced a 25-day streak with more than 20 million visitors. Traffic surpassed 366 million visitors in one month alone – up 50% from the previous record. Like the other participants, they are seeing sustained higher traffic levels with readers being particularly interested in culture, education, food, and crossword puzzles.

Subscriptions numbers are up. Ad revenue, less so

A common thread among the digital publishers on the panel was that they were quick to move Covid-19 news outside their paywalls. (Note: The Guardian does not have a paywall). Therefore, it might be surprising that a news outlet such as Le Monde saw subscriptions jump 3x. 

Prior to the pandemic, Le Monde set a long-term goal of reaching one million subscribers by 2025. During the pandemic, they reached 300,000 paying subscribers and found themselves fast-tracked to reach their target. 

Still, not all business metrics were positive. Several of the panelists which were already experiencing ad revenue declines saw this trend accelerated by the pandemic. El Pais converted to a subscription model in March of this year, which worked well in terms of timing. However, it’s too early for them to comment on the success of the switch.

Zeit Online also saw a 2-3x increase in online subscriptions during the past 18 months. Interestingly, the uptake extended into the paper version (Die Zeit). In particular, they experienced an increase in non-subscription papers sold at kiosks, train stations, etc.

Strategies remain and are reinforced

One might think the recent 18 months had CTOs and engineering teams rethink strategy. But that was not necessarily the case. All four panelists indicated that the pandemic confirmed some strategies that were already in place. However, it spotlighted outdated technology and workflows and sped-up previously planned changes.

The Guardian, for example, already had a cloud migration underway. So, things like running and maintaining systems remotely were already possible because of the programmable content delivery network (CDN) in use. Currently, they are focusing on three specific areas:

  1. Improving SEO optimization to help secure ranking at news aggregators;
  2. Building a fast and responsive website that can effectively compete; and 
  3. Continuing to implement tooling that can help collect data to constantly optimize conversion. They recognize the importance of understanding new audiences to find out what motivates and converts them.

Zeit Online also found that some strategies remained consistent, although acquiring new subscribers and converting trial subscriptions took a backseat. They are planning to catch up on this, though, as there’s obviously a strong desire to capitalize on the additional visitors. 

As far as news aggregators and SEO optimizations go, Zeit Online is currently analyzing the long-term effect of stories being picked up. As Kaiser put it, “We saw the sheer power of platforms like Apple News and Google News. If you get your story listed there, you have a strong increase in traffic. That’s great but it’s fly-by traffic. People will read the article but then they are gone again. It’s hard to convert them. It made us look at what’s really a qualified visitor for us – someone we can convert into a subscriber. It’s an interesting question: How do we engage these fly-by visitors”

The changing needs of the newsroom

As with strategy, the pandemic accelerated the switch from legacy and stationary systems to those able to offer remote access. While a portion of these publishers’ workforce already worked remotely, it was the minority. And, for several panelists, the exercise to get hundreds of laptops in very little time was a daunting task. As many newsrooms are built on proprietary content management systems, they offer very few options for remote access at the scale needed, and new systems had to be put in place.

Interestingly, both Zeit Online and The Guardian have seen newsrooms adopt tools from engineering and other parts of the house to increase productivity and bring together dispersed teams. These include things like stand-ups, JIRA tickets, and other agile tools that for years have helped keep track of progress.

The panel offered a rare opportunity for a discussion between four of the largest European news organizations. In addition to the topics I’ve covered here, their discussion touched on topics such as online security, potential negative effects of the changed workflows, and more. (Feel free to check out the whole thing here.)

It’s obvious that the pandemic profoundly impacted digital publishing. However, it looks like the changes it triggered were not all bad. The switch to a cloud-based workflow has proven especially useful for this segment and the media workflow has likely been changed for good. It remains to be seen if the increase in subscribers will remain but with added visitor and subscriber insight as well as an increase in appreciation for quality content, publishers are rightly optimistic. 

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