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Diversification strategies for the news media industry

Revenue diversification remains a priority – and challenge – for news media companies. However, there are proven strategic and tactical approaches that will improve your efforts

April 23, 2024 | By George Montagu, Head of Insights – FT Strategies @FTstrategies

Despite the fact that the industry has been discussing the importance of revenue diversification for at least a decade, news media organizations remain largely undiversified. In a recent study examining the financial sustainability of the industry, we found that publishers (on average) recorded 84% of their revenue from just four sources: print consumer revenue, print advertising, digital subscriptions and digital advertising. Although publishers anticipate growth in other verticals, specifically events and eCommerce, these revenue streams are negligible. Therefore, they are unlikely to be a like-for-like replacement to falling print and digital advertising revenue in most markets.

That being said, few media companies would object to multiple revenue streams that complement their core business model. In practice, however, media revenue diversification can prove difficult (and expensive) to execute, dilute your brand/value proposition and divert attention away from the core product or business unit. In this article, we will explore how news organizations can structure their thinking about diversification initiatives and explore common best practices when it comes to execution.

How media organizations can think about the path to diversification

We find it helpful for news organizations to think of diversification on a spectrum, where there is a continuum of options for news organizations both in terms of the audience segments they can target and the products they can create. These news media companies can (and often do) concurrently pursue multiple diversification initiatives, which can be plotted at different intersections on the spectrum. This spectrum is visualized in the first image.

On the x-axis is a spectrum of product options. The furthest left on this axis are the products that the organization is most known for. For news organizations, these are typically products that fulfill the core news need: accurately informing people of what is going on in the world or their community in real-time. These products include daily newspapers and news websites (such as ft.com). As you go further right across the x-axis, you expand to other products that meet other needs. 

On the y-axis is a spectrum of audiences. At the bottom of the axis are core target audiences. For news organizations, these are typically people who are deeply interested in knowing what is going on in the world on a regular basis. As you go up the y-axis, you expand into audiences that don’t fit your existing or target audience demographic. 

To bring this framework to life, we plotted a selection of the Financial Times’ diversification initiatives to give a sense of how news organizations can expand within and beyond their revenue diversification frontier (second image).

Best practices when it comes to media revenue diversification

As we mentioned previously, successfully executing a news media diversification strategy is hard. There is no single playbook for how to successfully execute a diversification strategy in the news media industry: success is dependent on the organization, its current position within the market and the overall market context. However, there are a few common traits that we observed when looking at the most successful organizations:

Speak to target audiences/clients and understand their needs

You need to have a good grasp of the needs within your target segment. Never start from the perspective of your own objective – e.g. “Let’s expand into America”, “let’s build a subscription mode” – as this could lay waste to product market fit. 

Understand and leverage your distinctive edge

Your distinctive edge is something that you can provide your audiences or clients with that few or no other organizations can. A distinctive edge might be access to a leading journalist, knowledge of a specialist topic area, ability to produce content in a particular style or format, being home to a difficult-to-reach audience, having a well-respected and trusted brand or something else.

Acknowledge your diversification frontier

Every news media organization has its own revenue diversification frontier. We define a diversification frontier as the “comfortable limit” within which an organization can credibly and effectively expand, based on its brand and internal capabilities. Although companies can expand beyond their diversification frontier, these initiatives are risky and should be approached with caution.

Consider your optimal timing

Media organizations should avoid only exploring diversification initiatives when they become imperative. Rather, organizations should be continuously exploring opportunities for diversification, especially if they are in positions of high revenue concentration or they are experiencing systemic market decline in one of their revenue verticals.

Start small, iterate, gate investment and track key performance indicators

Not all revenue diversification initiatives are going to work. News organizations must avoid exposing themselves to unnecessary risk as a result of overconfidence or overinvestment. Instead, news organizations should run experiments to test new products or their ability to serve new audiences. Gating investment, creating independent advisory boards and setting and measuring performance against key performance indicators are all established ways of ensuring this in practice.

Underwrite new initiatives via upfront payments if possible

Often the best ideas can garner financial support at the concept stage, helping to underwrite the cost of the new initiative, reduce the upfront investment and risk and reveal demand. In practice, this involves reaching out to the most engaged audience members or most loyal advertising clients and asking them to support a new concept. Although this is not a possibility in every instance, it can be extremely effective.

Manage the wider business and be more than the sum of your parts

Once a diversified business model is achieved, the work does not stop there. In fact, successfully managing a revenue portfolio that is equal to more than the sum of its parts is very challenging. Brand uniformity, operating models, organizational design, culture, incentives, investment and financing are all critical aspects to consider and manage.

The future of revenue diversification in the news industry

Revenue diversification will remain top of mind for the news industry as concerns around declining referral traffic, gen-AI disintermediation and a challenging advertising market persist. 

We anticipate that successful media and news companies will increasingly diversify into adjacent revenue streams and products. We believe that this offers news media organizations the ability to develop more resilient and sustainable business models that fund quality journalism. You only need to look so far as Schibsted’s success and their mission statement to see what this extended future might hold: “We empower people in their daily lives.”

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