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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

When creative and commercial work together, digital media thrives

Intensifying pressure on ad revenue requires media companies to deepen audience relationships and leverage emerging tools and strategies to diversify revenue.

January 15, 2024 | By Lisa MacLeod, Director and Head of EMEA – FT Strategies@FTStrategies

The news industry has (finally) woken up to the idea that paying for journalism is a longstanding and effective strategy that must transition from print to digital. Over the past several years, there has been a push to establish reader revenue models which promise the annuity revenue and stability that digital advertising cannot.

While paid-for content is absolutely correct as a concept, the execution is far more difficult. One of the reasons for this is a real fear of trying to tackle and change editorial workflows, cadence and practices to service a digital, willing-to-pay audience. 

The universal truth in news organizations globally is the “separation of church and state.” There is no doubt that editorial integrity should be protected at all costs. But in this modern world the notion that newsrooms should have little or no role in commercial endeavors – including subscription growth – is becoming increasingly obsolete, if not completely counterproductive to sustainability and growth.

As newsrooms become more representative, younger and dynamic and we pay more attention to audience diversity, there is no place for static thinking about our place in the world.

The FT’s subscription engine room

The Financial Times most definitely experienced more change in the past 20 years compared to the preceding 125 years. The advent of the internet, the iPhone, and high-speed connections completely disrupted our distribution channels and our users’ reading experiences. These digital forces also radically shifted the course of the fundamental business model of newspapers – ours included.

Across the industry, print has been in long-term decline for more than 20 years now, and advertising growth has been elusive for almost as long. Very little of our past business remains intact.

At the FT, we’ve benefited from visionary leadership that bit the bullet many years ago. We worked extremely hard (and still do) to build and grow a successful digital business in both reader revenue and carefully considered advertising strategy that has seen digital ad revenues double in the past three years. And it must be said that the development and implementation of this strategy very much included our editorial leadership and cross-departmental input.

Some of the most exciting digital product innovations that have engaged readers of the FT in updated ways are collaborative efforts that include or are driven by editorial. example this “Draw your Own Chart” from the Visual storytelling team and this fantastic visual explainer on AI offer subscribers more creatively engaging ways of getting the information they need. And the launch of FT Edit increased reader revenue by providing an option for audiences that might not otherwise be willing to pay for a full subscription.

Indeed there are vastly different conditions in this new era. So, keeping the engine room of news companies entirely isolated from commercial reality is simply not good for business. At the FT, revenue ideas may come from editorial, as in the case of FT edit, or be driven by commercial EXAMPLE.

As much as we lament the decline of print and advertising and blame the rise of social media and platforms for our woes, much of the news industry is suffering from:

  • A built-in “church and state” stress fracture in our businesses and the industry as a whole
  • Siloed thinking and an inability to collaborate effectively or to think outside the box
  • An unwillingness and genuine fear to try new things and experiment
  • Suspicion of commercial colleagues – a damaging “us and them” mentality
  • Product, engineering and technology teams falling on the commercial side of the fence and an often unhealthy tension between product and editorial

At the Financial Times, we have found that a closer relationship between commercial, editorial and technology can only result in revenue growth in the long term. It is also vital to carefully pick the people who can make this happen. They are the glue that holds an organization together.

There was a session at The Audiencers event in London about bridge roles and how important they are in newsrooms. Panel participant and consultant Dmitry Shishkin has made very good observations about how wonderful things happen when product and content come together.

Reader revenue models help newsrooms transform digitally

The establishment of reader revenue models (subscription or membership) at so many news organizations is positive not only for revenue generation but also for the toughest challenge of organizational and cultural change.

A paywall has a galvanizing effect on journalists who don’t want to see their hard work going on a website for free. For newsroom leaders, it helps with adjusted workflows and better copy flow to publish valuable journalism with a clear value proposition for readers.

Reader revenue strategies are entirely in lockstep with quality journalism, and not with the high-volume game of clickbait and churnalism. More importantly, for a paid model to be truly successful it will be enormously strengthened by the input and commitment of all: and this means editorial too.

On the other extreme, organizations that have not integrated their digital and print operations can suffer from related labor issues. “Print staff” may even actively campaign against transformation initiatives. This might take the form of refusing to do any digital publishing, not attending digital training, treating digitally skilled staffers as inferior, the list goes on. And this puts organizations in a tough spot.

The answer at this point is very simple: strong leadership. In a recent study, created in collaboration with the Google News Initiative, we found that leadership is a pivotal factor for sustainability and the growth and success of news organizations.

It is this trust and leadership from editors that will ultimately make the difference in the long-term fortunes of news organizations. A successful integration of print and digital, and bridging the creative side of the organization with the commercial, comes down to a clear, unified vision for success. 

Print is and will remain a premium product with a definitive market niche. But to ignore the commercial realities – and digital opportunities – of our industry is to be no better than the band leader on the Titanic. Success lies in a common goal and purpose and having all staff in the same lifeboat and pulling in the same direction is the only way to leverage growth and guarantee sustainability.

About the Author

Lisa has over 25 years of experience in print-to-digital transformation, most notably at the Financial Times where she led newsroom operations, was an Assistant Editor and Managing Editor, Associate Editor and Head of Operations for FT.com. She led group-wide digital transformation projects at both of South Africa’s biggest publishers, Tiso Blackstar (now Arena Holdings) and Naspers’s 24.com.

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