“Only journalism will save journalism,” says Juan Señor, an award-winning journalist and President of the Innovation Media Consulting Group. It is heartening that, as he points out, “people have rediscovered journalism.” Its importance has been cemented over the past several years, he says, “starting with The Trump Bump. Then the pandemic. Now we have a war.”
Señor argues that high-quality, distinctive reporting produced during these tumultuous periods has had an impact. Now, he says publishers need to “keep this momentum going.”
This is a point he emphasizes in the latest Innovation in News Media World Report*, which Señor co-edits. He and fellow editor Jayant Sriram write that “we need to build from this position of strength, even as the media world at large is in a period of unprecedented flux.”
How can publishers do this? Based on our conversation with Señor, and his latest Innovation Report, here are five recommendations for publishers as they look ahead to the uncertainties of the New Year.
1. Keep your foot on the subscription gas
“The key thing is to press on with subscriptions,” Señor recommends. He is bullish about reader revenue, stressing the subscription spike many publishers have witnessed in the past few years. “People know they have to pay for news,” he says, “so be the one that they pay for.”
FIPP’s new Q3 Digital Subscription Snapshot finds that “growth for most brands remains healthy, with period-on-period gains of 5% or more for many.” But growth is slowing, cautions CEO James Hewes. Gains are “significantly down” from this time last year, “when low double-digit growth might have been expected each quarter.”
The cost of living crisis, coupled with rises in many subscriptions, may all be contributing to this. FIPP also points to a maturing of this market. That means that “it is inevitable that growth percentages will begin to decline.”
Despite this, Señor urges publishers to stay the course. “Keep pushing [subscriptions] first and foremost as a strategic priority,” he says, “even if it means heavy discounts.”
A key factor behind this rationale is the cost of attracting new subscribers, which is typically more expensive than keeping new ones. That’s one reason why many publishers are increasingly investing in efforts to reduce churn.
The habitual, relationship-based, nature of media consumption also matters. As economic conditions improve, you may be able to nudge up prices or upsell existing consumers. That’s harder to do with audiences who have churned off.
2. Continue to explore opportunities for revenue diversification
Alongside maintaining relationships with existing audiences, publishers need to continue to find new routes to revenue. To help them do this, the latest Innovation Report outlines 14 different business models publishers can adopt. Publishers can mix and match these efforts to pull together a good range of diversified offerings.
Aside from subscription-led approaches, other possibilities include a blend of B2B and B2C models such as memberships, events, affiliate marketing, and “think tank” style output. Educational activities, such as those offered by The Economist’s Executive Education program and Family Handman’s DIY University, may also be a good fit for some publishers and their audiences.
As many publishers know, if you wait long enough, then everything old becomes new again. In this regard, Señor is excited about what he describes as “the original habit-formation tool for newspapers – puzzles and games.”
The New York Times’ acquisition of Wordle is the poster child for this, having brought “unprecedented tens of millions of new users to The Times.” And, as The Innovation Report points out, “If even a fraction can then be converted to paying subscribers it would make for an excellent business proposition.”
Puzzles and games are again in vogue as gateways for publishers to capture new subscribers, generate fresh revenue streams and increase the “stickiness” of their relationships with audiences.
Nevertheless, as Esther Kezia Thorpe suggests, “offering games is not a strategy in itself … Publishers need to find ways to bring regular puzzlers into a deeper relationship,” she says, “whether that be through newsletters, social features, or additional layers to the games themselves.”
3. Unlock the power – and results – of product thinking
Publishers have invested – and continue to invest – considerable resources in areas such as games, newsletters, and podcasts. Much of this is driven by a belief that these ventures can serve as a gateway to your content and drive subscriptions and aid retention by deepening bonds with their consumers. Señor calls them “conversion monsters.”
These efforts reflect product thinking, which has risen to the forefront of media strategies over the past decade.
“Product thinking begins with realizing that every way people experience the news is a possible product or feature,” the Innovation Report observes.
Each of these touchpoints, of course, is also potentially monetizable.
As a result, “publishers must now become product companies and not just news media publishers,” Señor believes. That’s a sentiment increasingly applicable to revenue strategies, as well as content propositions.
“Product is changing everything,” agrees Luciana Cardoso, the Brazil-based Vice Chair of News Product Alliance’s Board Of Directors. Cardoso comments on how product is a driver for innovation “because we need to have the customer at the center of everything.”
4. Be tech-led, not led by tech
This desire to be more consumer-centric, is accentuated by the need for publishers to prepare for a world without third-party cookies. Describing this as a ”first-party data moment,” Señor says these developments are “the key to a stronger future for our industry.”
“First-party data gives us the chance to have a direct relationship, control the pricing, content and dialogue with our readers without intermediaries,” the Innovation Report states. “This is a massive shift and one we must prepare for.”
Publishers must also look to the possibilities of Web 3.0. Señor points to the availability of “journalism without browsers” as one critical dimension of this brave new digital world.
“When you look at how Condé Nast is experimenting with this, it’s very, very interesting,” he told us.
One of their titles, GQ magazine, recently launched on Discord. “The way that we are thinking about it is we are throwing a party, GQ is the host, Discord is the venue and you are invited,” says Joel Pavelski, GQ’s Executive Director of Global Audience Development & Social Media.
Condé’s approach enables them to engage with communities in private online spaces, potentially reaching new audiences and serving existing ones in fresh ways. It’s part of a “conscious uncoupling” some publishers are having with traditional tech platforms; and part of a wider shift in media habits seen within the creator economy.
Tapping into these emerging spaces and behaviors may reveal insights that can inform continued product thinking, drive subscription models, as well as support and shape first-party data strategies.
5. Invest in content, especially visual media
Despite encouraging publishers to keep a watchful eye on emerging tech trends, Señor emphasizes that organizations shouldn’t go overboard.
In terms of the industry’s wider financial footing, “the Metaverse, Web 3, none of this stuff will make the difference,” he contends. “What will make the difference is investment in journalism.”
“We need to do original reporting. A lot of people want that,” Señor says.
As part of this, he stresses the importance of high-impact visual journalism, which he believes is “absolutely essential,” and “perhaps the most exciting new field in journalism right now.”
Product thinking can also shape how – and where – these visual-first stories are told. ”This is transformative,” Señor says, pointing out how many of these efforts are driven by a “story first, platform second” dynamic.
Memorable examples, such as video Op-Ed’s pioneered by The New York Times and The Miami Herald’s award-winning “House of Cards” investigation, can also yield multiple outcomes for publishers. Impactful content can be integral to industry recognition (e.g. awards), and a key driver for unlocking new subscriptions, as well as the retention and upselling of existing consumers.
Strategic synergies: bringing these principles together
Noting that next year’s Innovation Report will be their 23rd annual publication, Señor says the examples they feature are focused on reach, relevance, or revenue. Often, these elements are deeply intertwined.
Parlaying that relevance into different spaces and products, and encouraging audiences to pay for it, remains essential if publishers are to traverse stormy economic waters and successfully navigate their way through 2023.
“Whatever you do, put all your efforts into gaining and retaining subscribers,” Señor advocates. Everything should be “about sustaining, developing, [and] amplifying your subscription strategy.”
There’s a myriad of interconnected ways to do this. This includes multiple means to generate revenues, distinctive products to attract and retain subscribers, the knock-on effect of memorable – often visually-led – journalism, as well as deepening relationships with audiences both on and off-platform; including in new and emerging digital spaces.
This consumer-centric model eschews the shiny object syndrome that many media players have been guilty of in the past. Instead, as a new year begins to loom on the horizon, focusing on solid content-led foundations should be their guiding light.
As the sun sets on 2022, publishers will once again set sail and steer a path into an uncertain future. Meeting audience needs through the trifecta of content, product and subscriptions, must be their North Star as we quickly advance into these unchartered waters.