Sports coverage and analysis is the lifeblood of specialist sites like Defector and The Athletic. However, as the competition for subscription revenue heats up, many media outlets are re-examining the value of sports as a means to connect with audiences. And a rash of hiring and acquisitions shows that is trickling down to regional titles too.
Last week The Athletic raised its subscription price. The increase – the first since the sports news and analysis title launched – followed two failed attempts to tie the brand up with larger publications. The first endeavor saw The Athletic pitch a partnership with Axios, which ultimately came to nothing. The second saw it enter talks with the New York Times, which is currently in the midst of its own drive to add millions more subscribers.
On paper the latter seemed like a great potential partnership. The Athletic boasted over one million subscribers as of September last year, and 1.2m as of May this year. That would amount to an instant addition of over one tenth of the users needed to take the NYT past its target of 10m subscribers by 2025.
It also would have cemented the NYT as one of the definitive sources of sports news online: in addition to its own coverage, it would gain that of The Athletic’s ~400 editorial staff across text and audio. In the face of hungry acquisition of sports content from the likes of Sinclair, it would have put the NYT ahead of the pack to scoop up sports-focused subscribers.
By the numbers
So, what went wrong? The answer lies in the often-omitted information from the story of The Athletic’s early success. Despite (or in part due to) its initial splurge on the best-known sports journalists in countries across the globe, the site is still not profitable.
Even with reported revenues of around $80m in subscriptions, it is not covering the cost of its formidable staff. In an interview with Variety its founder Alex Mather stated: “We have got 450 reporters, writers, editors, producers on three continents producing as much volume as any national newspaper in the world per week”. He then noted that the company was still priced the same for consumers as when it launched with just three full-time employees.
It’s tempting to suggest that The Athletic raising its prices is an acknowledgement that its play for scale to appeal to larger publications has stalled. It is likely that some of those subscribers, brought in through discounted or free subscriptions, will choose to opt out of paying, so it is concentrating on consolidating revenue from its most valuable and engaged users.
However, it is too soon to say that The Athletic as an experiment has failed. Rather, it could be the catalyst that sparks important changes elsewhere. Even in the announcement that accompanied the price hike, there was a note of optimism. As we come out of the pandemic and live sports return in earnest there is an opportunity for sports news and analysis platforms, both at legacy organizations and at the digital upstarts like The Athletic.
Jasper Wang is VP of revenue and operations at sports blog Defector. While it pales in comparison to The Athletic in scale, its smaller newsroom allows it to be profitable at a comparable membership cost to The Athletic. It is effectively right-sized by design. He told me:
“If we take the business model first, we are subscription-supported, because we knew there was a rabid group of readers. Is that millions? No. But is it tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands? Yes. And so the quickest way to get some cash flow was to ask people to pay subscriptions directly. We had 10,000, paid subscriptions within 24 hours of announcing the project. We’re at about 39,000 total paid subscribers right now.”
The rights stuff
So even if The Athletic’s play for scale will lead to it shedding subscribers and some staff again, there is a demonstrable hunger for that content. That’s led to a spending spree in both broadcast rights and editorial output.
In the U.S., for example, Sinclair is still high on its acquisitions horse, attempting to control the distribution and streaming rights to regional sport. Its latest $250m effort to acquire NBCUniversal’s seven regional sports networks (RSNs) bulks up its Bally Sport network. Sport, even at the regional level, attracts huge audiences.
In fact, at ESPN there is growing recognition that, even with smaller audiences, live sports offer a bevy of opportunities to connect advertisers with audiences. “Primetime is when most people are watching, and that’s what sports is. Sports is prime,” says Rita Ferro, president of Disney advertising sales. Perhaps that’s why ESPN Plus is also raising its prices, with the annual cost jumping from $60 to $70.
And it’s on that primacy that some news outlets are betting their fortunes.
Newspapers, which cannot afford or have no interest in becoming carriers for sports broadcasts, are approaching the opportunity from another angle. In the U.K,, for example, Reach plc is investing heavily in creating new roles to tap into engagement from fans through punditry and analysis. Much like The Athletic, it is splurging on bringing new journalists into the fold to boost its coverage.
Jon Birchall, Reach’s audience and content director for sport, said, “We want to bring more views, a wider range of expertise and more round the clock coverage on both our national and regional brands.
“Our ambition is to not only continue to serve our readers, viewers and listeners but also attract new fans and communities.
Connecting with communities
The phrase “new fans and communities” is telling. While national leagues still attract the lion’s share of coverage and therefore subscription revenue, The Athletic has demonstrated that audiences are just as invested in their local teams. Reach’s play, then, is to take back some ownership of the local sports coverage it lost while stripping out costs.
Its timing is significant, too. Reach is currently in the middle of a drive to explode its digital revenue. Lloyd Embley, its editor-in-chief, said: “Over the past 18 months, we’ve significantly ramped up the number of new sites we’ve launched as part of our Live network, many in areas where we don’t have established print titles.
“Thanks to our transformation of editorial operations last year and underpinned by our customer value strategy which ensures we build deeper relationships with our readers, we have created a sustainable model for digital-only local journalism.”
In the U.K., sports subscriptions are also key to the fortunes of titles like The Telegraph. While the cost is less than that of an overall subscription, it is a recognition that sports coverage has its own appeal. In discussing its subscription plans, the Telegraph ranks its sports coverage alongside its politics as among the biggest drivers of subscription take-up; a member of the Telegraph team flagged its upcoming suite of Olympics coverage to me as being one of its primary focuses for the year.
Mind the gender gap
Perhaps most importantly of all there is still a gap in women’s sport, both in terms of coverage and punditry. Research has found that on average women’s sport receives about 4% of the media coverage of men’s. This clearly suggests there is still significant headroom for growth in revenue from subscribers looking to learn more about women’s sports teams and stars.
That’s backed up by research from Deloitte, which demonstrates broadcasters are slowly cottoning on the rising demand for women’s sport. In 2019, CBS Sports Network signed a deal to televise 40 regular-season Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) basketball games. Similar deals have taken place across the U.S. and U.K. for other sports.
Crucially, there is an opportunity for news orgs here too. Women’s sport advocacy group The Fan Project found that audiences are hungry for greater access to athletes and stars. At both national and regional level, investment in teams that can promote those stars will pay dividends for news titles. It’s a far cry from the days when tennis was considered the only women’s sport worthy of coverage in the U.K.
With the rise of online gambling and its integration with news titles, local sports coverage might well be the next great driver of revenue for regional titles on both sides of the Atlantic. Huge great experiments like The Athletic might not work on their own terms. However, they are already spurring a tranche of investment in what could be a key source of subscription sign-ups elsewhere.
When it comes to media consumption, consumers have never had it so good. From streaming services to social media, movies to music and video games, to a variety of linear TV channels, options abound. With so much choice, comes inevitable competition for the providers, as they try to court the consumer. So how can media and entertainment brands form meaningful relationships with audiences? According to the latest Digital Media Trends survey it’s all about understanding generational trends – in particular Generation Z, who could cause the next wave of disruption.
The 2021 survey, which was conducted by Deloitte’s Technology, Media & Telecommunication practice, found that Gen Z demonstrate strikingly different preferences. Other research—and experts—back this up. Let’s take a closer look.
Boomers love streaming video while Gen Z is obsessed with gaming. The group, aged 14-24, place video games as their number one entertainment activity (26%). That’s followed by listening to music (14%), browsing the internet (12%), and using social media (11%). Only 10% of Gen Z said that watching TV or movies at home was their favorite form of entertainment.
“For the first time since we started this survey, Gen Z did not pick watching movies or TV shows as their favorite media. It was gaming,” says Kevin Westcott, Deloitte’s Vice Chairman and U.S. Technology, Media and Telecom Leader. “Obviously there was quite a bit of growth during the pandemic. Gaming is a social activity and a way to stay connected. However, video games were already significantly growing before Covid-19. It will be interesting to see if these preferences persist now that lockdown rules are relaxing in the U.S.”
With the dominance of video entertainment being challenged, media companies need to take a more diversified approach. Publishers should experiment with different storytelling techniques on social platforms, and gamification is a great place to start.
“If a media brand isn’t in the games business, they need to look at how they can make things more engaging,” says Westcott. “Gen Z are looking for more participation and this is where transmedia could help. By utilizing a range of platforms, the audience can interact with content and influence it, rather than just watching it.”
Beyond connecting with the world, social media is a common gateway for consuming a wide range of media content. Although all generations use social media, consumption varies depending on age. According to the Digital Media Trends survey, Gen Z and Millennials both rank listening to music as their main activity on social media. However, Gen X prefer to consume news. The second most popular activity on social media for Gen Z was gaming. For Millennials it’s watching TV shows and movies.
Interestingly, despite these social media usage trends for news, 50% of Gen Z still rank social media as their preferred way to get news, while only 12% select news from network or cable TV. Boomers are the opposite, with 58% getting their news from network or cable TV, and just 8% using social media.
According to a report by Flamingo, commissioned by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, younger audiences differ from older groups in terms of what they want from the news. Young people are largely driven by progress and enjoyment, which translates into what they look for in news. As such, they want news to feel easy and accessible. That means creating formats that are native to mobile and social platforms, as well as including these ideas on their own websites.
The report, entitled How Young People Consume News, also suggests that the news media need to change the way they report the news. This includes tackling issues such as stereotypes, diversity and negativity. It should also influence how news brands present themselves and their content on third party platforms.
A report by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), called Making sense. The commercial media landscape, found similar disparities with the way different generations spend their time on commercial media. Ages 16 to 34 spend 53% on a smartphone or tablet and just 22% on a TV. Conversely, those aged 55 and above spend 53% of their commercial media time on TV and just 14% on a smart phone or tablet.
“The way to drive engagement in younger audiences on broadcast TV is to ensure content is available across multiple platforms,” explains Simon Frazier, Senior Research and Marketing Manager, IPA. “Younger audiences are always media multi-tasking, which is a challenge for media. But broadcasters that tie in with a variety of touch points and blur lines between entertainment and reality enjoy good engagement and a good commercial performance.”
According to a report from VICE Media, in partnership with Ontario Creates, Gen Z is redefining how content is being discovered, consumed, and shared. Three quarters of respondents (75%) report that original content is important to them. Music, video streaming and video games are the top paid services, while cable or satellite TV subscriptions don’t even make it into the top five for Gen Z.
This younger demographic also wants more diversity. Half say that there is a gap in gender diversity, sexual identity, and ethnic representation.
Along with good content, they want ease of discovery. Gen Z were born on social platforms so they play an important part of their content discovery. YouTube is their number one content source, with Instagram a close second, followed by Facebook, and Snapchat. TikTok is also gaining popularity. Gen Z tends to like content on social platforms that is transparent, with few barriers between the creator and the audience.
“With new voices and new platforms entering the media landscape by the minute, the competition for young people’s attention has never been greater,” said Julie Arbit, Global SVP of Insights, VICE. “Combine that with a young generation that has never been hungrier for content or savvier about how to access it and you have a whole new approach to content consumption. Understanding this new mindset is essential for anyone who is trying to reach this young audience.”
The VICE study also found a massive 90% of Gen Z are willing to pay for content if it offers better quality (61%), better experience (56%), and more convenience (50%). Only four in 10 said they wanted an ad-free environment. However, with consumers losing income due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Digital Media Trends noted an increase in churn rates, across all generations, in the past 12 months.
“During the pandemic, churn across streaming more than doubled,” says Westcott. “We call it ‘hit and run’. So, they join for the hit show and then leave to join another service.”
“Instead of focusing on adding new subscriptions, media providers need to shift their focus to long term subscriptions. And the way to do that is to broaden their range of content, and offer exclusive, original, high demand TV series, plus games and music.”
Despite the growth of subscription-based services, IPA reports that 63% of 16 to 34-year olds spend their time using platforms that are commercially funded by advertising.
“This represents huge opportunities for reaching this audience through commercial media,” says Frazier.
In the same group, four out of the top five commercial media properties are socially driven. These findings were backed up by Digital Media Trends. They found that social media influencers and ads on social media are the two most persuasive channels influencing younger generations’ buying decisions. They also typically liked ads on social media more than ads in streaming video content and other channels. On social media platforms, 62% of Gen Z and 72% of Millennials would rather see ads personalized to their likes and activity than generic ones.
Despite these differences, there is a growing convergence of behavior across several generations of consumers, as younger age groups influence older audiences.
“Ten years ago, we did a study on Millennials,” says Westcott. “We thought, as they aged, they would become more like us. But that didn’t happen. Instead, they have influenced older generations, who are now behaving in similar ways. The only way they really differ is that 26% of Gen Z rate gaming as their favorite entertainment, verses just 10% of Gen Z and 3% of Boomers.”
It is this preference for gaming that could challenge video as the leading form of media consumption across all generations. However, according to the IPA report, there was a significant drop in the correlation between how younger and older generations consumed commercial media during lockdown 2020.
It found just an 8% similarity between 16-34-year-olds and 55+ during lockdown 2020. This was down from 21% before the Covid pandemic and 58% in 2015.
“What is clear is that the lockdown has undoubtedly reinforced the dominance of key media for the different audiences and exacerbated the differences,” says Frazier.
So, while media companies may still be video-first, it seems that younger generations are moving away from this platform. The question is, are media brands and advertisers prepared to follow suit?
Covering any Olympics is a monumental challenge. But broadcasters of the Toyko Games face challenges like no other in history. Few are feeling it more than NBCUniversal (NBCU) and its parent company Comcast, which hold rights to the Games. The announcement that Tokyo 2020 would be delayed until 2021 due to Covid-19, hit the media across the business – from advertising revenue to the launch of Peacock, its new streaming service.
However, just as the athletes are coming back stronger from a season off, NBC says this extra year has left them fully prepared for the challenge ahead. It recently announced plans to present 7,000 hours of Olympic coverage, making the 17-day affair the “biggest media event ever.”
“We have spent the better part of the last 14 months learning how to do things differently,” Pete Bevacqua, Chairman, NBC Sports Group, said in a recent press event on the network’s coverage plans. “Those skills … will absolutely apply themselves as we tackle what should be, I think, one of the most interesting and special Olympic Games ever.”
Part of this new, improved package involved working up with other platforms to ensure that people can watch what they want, when they want. In addition to Comcast’s X1 pay-TV platform, partners like Roku and Apple TV will feature Olympic dashboards, which will guide viewers to the Games. NBCU has been working directly with a range of platforms to develop content that fits with the needs of their audience, given the specific delivery channel.
The network has also created strong partnerships with Google Search and Google OneBox. Many people will decide what to watch by going to Google, and NBCU is prominent in the Google OneBox with viewing information and highlights. And, significantly, NBCU will do a major programming push on Peacock, to help build audiences for the streamer. The company also recently announced that Peacock will launch on Amazon Fire TV and Fire tablets.
Peacock will feature new daily live shows and dedicated Olympics channels, as part of its Tokyo Olympics destination, which goes live on July 15. The streaming service currently has around 42 million subscribers. Matt Strauss, Comcast Chairman, Direct-to-Consumer and International, is “very optimistic” that the Olympic coverage will bring a new, larger audience. However, Strauss says the company is not prioritizing premium subscriptions as part of the Olympic push. Instead, the focus on ensuring that consumers check out the free, ad-supported, basic tier of Peacock.
The rights stuff
In addition to the 7,000 hours of content, across a plethora of platforms, NBCU will also flex the fact that it negotiated exclusive rights to the Olympics until 2032, which cuts out rival networks. The deal, which covers all media platforms, including free television, subscription TV, Internet and mobile rights, is valued at $7.65 billion.
What this means is, NBCU has rights across every platform – even those that have not yet been developed yet.
“We have the most complete set of rights of any sport that we have on any of our networks and that any network really has,” says Mark Lazarus, NBCU’s chairman of television and streaming. “Essentially, every technology known today or to be invented between now and 2032. That gives us the ability to try new things and to experiment. That’s what we’ll be doing across the platforms.”
“Our job is to pick the best platform for each piece of content, while trying to take the incredible reach that the Olympics have, the incredible reach that the NBC broadcast network has, and put it on the biggest stage.”
One new partnership they are particularly excited about is Twitch. The collaboration will feature programming tailored to the Twitch community. This includes highlight studio shows, game-ified pre-Olympic activations, Olympic athlete interviews, and Olympic-themed gaming competitions.
“The way that people consume traditional sporting events is changing,” says Michael Aragon, Chief Content Officer at Twitch. “They no longer want to simply spectate. They want to be as close to the action and athletes as possible. We’ve seen this first-hand with the growth of our sports community on Twitch, as viewers tune in not only to watch their favorite athletes but to also take part in pre- and post-game interviews and virtually connect with other fans from around the world.”
Friends and family
Covid not only saw the Games postponed, 12 months, it has also put a stop to any international travel to Tokyo. This means friends and families of the athletes won’t be able to support in person. Plus, the audiences at big events will be capped at 10,000 people, or 50% capacity, whichever is smaller. This means there is even more pressure on the network to provide a ‘real’ experience for those that can’t be there.
This new challenge led to the creation of a new “Friends and Family” production unit, that will capture the reactions of loved ones back home.
According to Molly Solomon, Executive Producer, NBC Olympics and GOLF, the work and thought put into the Tokyo Games, during the pandemic, means they are going to be the “most meaningful Olympics of our lifetime.”
“After everything the world has gone through, as we begin to emerge from this pandemic, the world coming together is an incredibly impactful experience,” she says.
“We really have put together the most ambitious coverage plan ever. We’ve also adapted to the changing consumption habits. Our goal was to be everything for everyone. It’s our most coverage we’ve ever had.”
As the publishing industry seeks stability in the wake of the pandemic, Meredith Corp is making video an increasingly important part of its long-term content strategy.
Meredith’s newly-appointed Chief Digital Content Officer Amanda Dameron is leading an expansion of the publisher’s video portfolio. The most recent launch is a new Food & Wine show, “Pastries with Paola”.
The series, which stars celebrated pastry chef Paola Velez, debuts with 13 episodes. The videos focus on how to make easy desserts like empanadas and chocolate cake. They also celebrate Paola’s Dominican heritage and culinary traditions.
Collaborating with diverse talent is a vital part of Dameron’s vision for video at Meredith, “as represented by Paola’s show, and every show that we have in development. We are interested in telling stories that are uplifting, that are optimistic…and are told in an inclusive way, in a multicultural way, in a way that truly embraces the world as it is,” she said. “We take tremendous responsibility in that.”
Video as a vehicle for expansion
Long gone are the days of a simple printable recipe card. Increasingly, audiences turn to their social media feeds for food inspiration and helpful information.
Dameron believes that video as a format is more important than ever before. “Rising generations are looking for content that shows them how to do something correctly, how to break down the steps,” she explained. More than that, she sees video as a conversation between content creators and the audience. At Meredith, the tone is informal and intimate, and allows for feedback, especially when distributed via social media.
“When you couple that with a platform in which it’s easy for the audience to share their insight, their questions, and to be able to use that insight to refine the series itself, there is no format better made for that than video,” she emphasized.
However, Food & Wine’s video strategy is not limited to short-form on social media platforms. The video team is experimenting with producing content in a range of styles and lengths, from short how-to’s to longer, documentary-style pieces.
In fact, the brand was recently nominated for an ASME award for “Tasting Home”. The three-part video series follows Chef Kwame Onwuachi who traces his culinary roots by travelling to Trinidad, Jamaica, Louisiana, and Texas.
“We’ve been really gratified to see that our audience responds very passionately to the series that we present, no matter what the format,” Dameron said.
It’s not just video length that varies. In response to evolving viewing habits, many of Meredith’s videos are now produced for both traditional landscape viewing and portrait mobile phone viewing. This means that video content has to be carefully planned for both orientations from the outset.
“We have a lot of different versions of a hero asset or video, and we have to apply a high level of rigor to the way that shots are composed,” Dameron outlined. “You have to be mindful of it every moment of shooting the video itself. Having both landscape and vertical perspectives gives the ability to create the best possible viewing experience, no matter where the audience chooses to find us.”
Active engagement for success
For Dameron, the key success metric for Meredith’s videos are views. However, she also takes a close interest in watch time and active engagement. In particular, she uses these as a way to improve programming.
“I’m really interested in a deeper engagement that shows when we are circulating stories and series. What is the audience saying to us? And more importantly, what is the audience asking us?” she explained. This can often be quite a time-consuming, manual process, but Dameron believes it pays off in terms of quality.
“Comments, questions, those active points of engagement, these are things I’m always looking for. When that symbiotic relationship that exists between audience and content creator happens, you start to see content become better.”
“You must be in the plumbing of it all if you are to understand how to really harness your opportunities in the best way possible and to be able to do so with a quickness and a confidence.”
It’s clear that a multiplatform approach is key to the future of Meredith’s content strategy. Dameron’s role sits centrally at Meredith, and she is planning further video expansion across other brands in Meredith’s portfolio. However, although her position working across brands allows her to apply a framework and resources across titles, she is also keen to emphasize that each video strategy has to be as unique as the brand.
“That centralized approach allows us to have a framework that is strong, but flexible. But that being said, it’s really important to emphasize that each particular brand is at the helm of its own creative manifestation in video.”
A flexible, evergreen future
As Dameron gets her feet under the table at Meredith, she is planning to expand the company’s pool of evergreen video content. The goal is to realize longer-term value. “We’re also very interested in developing a long-form video strategy; one which really focuses on the lifetime value of the video library,” she said.
Crucially, this will involve building flexibility into the process, and anticipating how the videos will be used in the future. From being able to shoot for multiple orientations to distributing across social and OTT, careful planning from the outset is essential.
“We want to give ourselves the flexibility to create content and programming across every distribution channel and every screen that exists here today, or is yet to be built tomorrow,” she explained. “If you have a rigor and a framework for assembling the strongest video library you can, then you’re unfettered in the future from distributing it however you wish.”
Diversity of on-screen talent is firmly on Meredith’s agenda. But to ensure it makes the most of that investment for the future, it is also firmly focused on building a diversified video portfolio that is future-proofed both in format and content.
I will never forget back in 2006, when former Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) infamously referred tothe internet as a “series of tubes.” The cringe-worthy statement has gone down in the annals of unintentionally hilarious politician-speak. In defense of Senator Stevens, however, it merely belied a massive lack of understanding throughout the U.S. Congress about the then-burgeoning tech industry.
There are many reasons for this knowledge gap, not the least of which is that politicians aren’t technologists. In addition, most members aren’t “digital natives.” Meanwhile, the internet has grown ever more complex — as have tracking, monetization, and devices. And let’s not forget that Congress has responsibilities for governing on a wide swath of other complex public policy issues, which often leaves members and their staff stretched a mile wide and an inch deep.
Even in 2018, there were still examples of monumental ignorance about tech. But they are becoming fewer and farther between. In part, that’s because Congress has held numerous hearings over the years on tech issues, which has forced the members to become smarter. One tangible piece of evidence is that you can see a huge improvement in the questions asked by Members of Congress to tech executives over the last few years.
Europe first out of the gate
European policymakers have long outpaced their U.S. counterparts in digital savvy, even if the results have been less than groundbreaking. The ePrivacy Directive was an early attempt to provide more transparency for consumers about the mechanisms for online data collection and tracking. The ensuing “cookie banners” were not so great. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was the first major consumer privacy framework against which nearly every new privacy law is compared. Yet we’ve been waiting for more than three years for significant enforcement. This year might be the year… maybe.
Then, in late 2020, Europe rolled out the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and Digital Services Act (DSA). The DMA is intended to rein in the anticompetitive behavior of “gatekeeper platforms” while the DSA is focused on providing protection and transparency for consumers and on addressing harmful content that flows across the web. These proposals represent a more thoughtful and aggressive approach than we have seen in the past from European policymakers who clearly understand how big tech companies have cemented their dominant positions.
[Side note: If you are a DCN member, I highly encourage you and a member of your policy or legal team to attend an event we’re hosting on June 22, "Digital Markets Act: What Is It and Why Should Publishers Care?" We will provide an overview of the DMA followed by a panel of DCN members discussing the pros and cons of the DMA and the parallel proposals in the U.S.]
Congress steps up to the plate
Fast forward to last week, when a bipartisan collection of members of the House Judiciary Committee announced five bills to rebalance competition in the tech marketplace. These bills are an outgrowth of multiple committee hearings held over the last several years. The outcome of those hearings was a comprehensive blueprint for action released by the Committee last October.
The five bills are intended to:
give greater authority to US regulators to break up dominant platforms which unfairly use their dominance to promote their own services;
require platforms to offer data portability and interoperability to consumers;
prohibit platforms from “self-preferencing” and/or discriminating against competitors;
raise the bar for platforms seeking to acquire potential rivals; and
increase filing fees for companies proposing mergers.
Action across party lines
While Washington D.C. is still deeply divided along partisan lines, it is striking to note that a number of Republicans co-sponsored all of these bills. And they did this just days prior to the confirmation of Lina Khan (69-28) in a largely bipartisan vote as she was appointed as the new Chair of the Federal Trade Commission.
Earlier this year, Representative David Cicilline (D-CT), Chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, re-introduced the Journalism Competition and Protection Act (JCPA) with bipartisan support, including from Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO), the top Republican on the Antitrust Subcommittee. Our understanding is that they are working together on ways to strengthen the JCPA in light of the lessons learned from the European Copyright Directive and Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code.
Meanwhile on the other side of the Capitol, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) introduced a comprehensive proposal for reforming antitrust law. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), her Republican counterpart on the Senate Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee, recently introduced his own anti-trust reform bill. However, it isn’t likely to garner any support from Democrats.
While they offered starkly different solutions, the two lawmakers have a long history of working together to highlight the harmful conduct of big tech platforms. With the news that Senator Klobuchar is reportedly working on counterpart legislation to the House bills, it will be interesting to see whether a similar bipartisan dynamic plays out on the Senate side.
Taken together, there is a distinct shift in the posture of Congress. They have moved from hearings and investigations to remedies and solutions.
If Vegas bookies offered odds on whether Congress will pass any significant legislation in the next 18 months, it would be considered a long shot. It’s not easy to get a majority of 435 members in the House to sing off the same choir sheet. It’s even harder to find agreement between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and 60 of their colleagues (most of whom have their own fiefdoms and presidential ambitions). But you have to start somewhere. And, right now, both parties appear to be clamoring for legislative action to rein in big tech platforms.
There will be a lot of debate in the coming months about the specifics of the House bills, the companion bills which are reportedly coming from the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the DMA and DSA in Europe. And you can be sure that the big tech platforms, which are the unquestioned targets of this scrutiny, will be spending copious time and money trying to muddy the waters and blunt these proposals.
But this much is clear: Policymakers have a come long way in better understanding the tech industry since the “series of tubes” analogy. We have reached the point where they are poised to write rules for the road that reflect how the modern world operates.
Audiences are spending more time than ever consuming content. Still, even an explosion in digital subscriptions couldn’t prevent massive job cuts across the nation’s newsrooms. Any argument that closures hit companies that churned out poor quality journalism or fake news falls flat when looking at the data. Of the 10 newspapers that have earned Pulitzer Prizes for local reporting in the past decade, all but one were impacted by cuts in the last year.
Why is online news in a crisis? There are lots of theories. Many point to the impact of the Google/Facebook duopoly. The two behemoth companies gobble the bulk of ad revenue, leaving scraps for news organizations. Others suggest that the digital media industry itself is to blame. Ethan Zuckerman points to the “original sin” of building the entire Internet around advertising, putting algorithms, not audiences, in control.
New research confirms that media organizations need to do a critical rethink, but not just of the business model. It appears that media organizations are relying on a faulty content-creation and evaluation formula. The good news is that there’s plenty they can do to rethink storytelling to better engage and monetize audiences.
The findings, part of the Clwstwr Policy Brief project, reveal that audiences prefer “inclusive and reflective” storytelling models that help them understand and navigate their world. This, the research says, “challenges the perceived – and long-established journalistic principle – that the inverted pyramid model of news storytelling is the most efficient way to deliver news.”
The traditional approach for news — arranging facts in descending order of importance — lacks creativity and flexibility. What’s more, the research says this style alienates younger audiences that crave a “more thoughtful, considered and purposeful approach” to online news. They want it to reflect the reality of their lives, rather than industry norms.
Media organizations have an opportunity to rethink the way that they report the news. And, with new formats, they can encourage consumers to engage more actively with content.
Continuing with our series of video interviews, I talk to the lead author of the report, Shirish Kulkarni, an award-winning journalist and researcher. He makes a case for a complete rethink of news storytelling models. He shares the “seven building blocks” that successful news stories have in common. These include a linear narrative, personal context, and transparency about where the information comes from in the first place.
Kulkarni also walks us through the “narrative accordion,” a prototype model that gets high ranks from readers because it allows them to sort and skim through the key elements of a story on their terms. Finally, he discusses how news organizations can drive meaningful engagement and revenues by harnessing AI to “individualize” content at scale.
WATCH OR LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW
Peggy Anne Salz, Founder and Lead Analyst of Mobile Groove interviews Shirish Kulkarni, a researcher focused on identifying and prototyping innovative forms of news storytelling.
Peggy Anne Salz: Mainstream journalism is in crisis. Now we may think it’s due to a lack of trust or a lack of interest, but new research suggests people aren’t consuming news because the wrong stories are being told in the wrong way, by the wrong people. Now, new storytelling models, provocative prototypes, new building blocks.
They may offer the answer and we get the inside track on this and more today on Digital Content Next. I’m your host as always Peggy Anne Salz, mobile analyst, content marketing consultant, and frequent contributor to DCN. My guest today is an award-winning journalist and researcher, who’s going to share eye-opening results of his latest research project that goes to the core of what is broken in online journalism and how to fix it. Shirish Kulkarni welcome to Digital Content Next. It’s great to have you.
Shirish Kulkarni: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here.
Salz: Now you’ve got our attention with these results, the wrong people, doing the wrong thing, in the wrong way. That is something pretty provocative. You spent the last two years asking these fundamental questions about journalism, and now you’ve come up with a construct for a model of what you call reflective journalism. Now it’s not just, you. It’s had global impact. You’ve presented it at Reuters Institute, World Association of News Publishers, and many more. Tell us what is reflective journalism.
Kulkarni: Yeah. So I think we have…well, I have two reasons really, for calling it reflective journalism. Firstly, I think it’s important that we, as journalists, reflect on what journalism is for, right? What the needs of audience is rather than our organizations. Because that’s something that’s really been missing a lot in journalism. And we need to take the time. We’re in a crisis, as you said, and we need to take the time to stop and think, what are we doing wrong? What could we do better?
The second reason is that it also is super important that our industry is much more genuinely reflective of society. So, largely, if we’re talking about Western Europe or the U.S., this is a very homogeneous industry. And frankly, it’s driven largely by white, middle class, Metropolitan men, for the most part. And actually, when you think about it, that is a really small proportion of the population. And they don’t reflect, or frankly, understand the experiences, the day to day lives of most people in society. And as journalists, I think it’s our job to reflect what’s going on in society. And I don’t think as an industry, we’re actually structurally prepared to do that. So, two reasons for calling it reflective journalism, because we need to reflect both on the industry and also reflect society.
Salz: And it’s interesting Shirish because you’re making this point that. We need to reflect, and we’ve done that in a way you could even say we’ve been forced to reflect. Let’s put it that way. So we do know what is broken in principle at the core you’re stating it’s all about new forms of narrative. We need new forms of narrative. This is actually very good news because we know what is broken. We know how to fix it. And this is where your policy brief, your news storytelling, storytelling research hits upon the answer. You propose linear narratives. Now, how does this differ from what we’ve been doing? Because what we’ve been doing is the inverted pyramid style. So what makes linear better?
Kulkarni: It helps to start by thinking, why do we do the inverted pyramid, right? And actually, the kind of prosaic reason for that is because of the telegraph, the original news wire. But actually, the telegraph, when it was used widely, was expensive and unreliable. So people thought, let’s put all the important stuff right at the top, because then it’s cheaper. And if it drops out, then we haven’t lost too much of the important stuff, we’ve lost some of the boring stuff, right? So, technology has clearly moved on by about six generations since the telegraph. But largely, we are using those same habits and formulas, which come from the telegraph era. So that is strange in and of itself. So that’s why we use the inverted pyramid now. And actually, there’s not really a reason for it anymore.
When I talk about why writing linear stories is better, or producing stories of whatever kind, whether that’s text or whatever, in a linear format is better, we just go back to what are stories for? And stories are there for a kind of evolutionary, anthropological, there’s a neuroscientific basis for storytelling. They help us navigate the world. If you wanted to bring in kind of modern day techniques, they’re like a virtual reality simulator for the world. That’s what stories teach us. And I’d really recommend a book by Jonathan Gottschall, called “The Storytelling Animal.” And in that, there’s a really beautiful quote, where he says, “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.”
And so, we know that to be true, right? But those stories aren’t told in inverted pyramid style. They’re told as a linear narrative. Starting at the beginning and ending at the end. And that is what we’re hardwired for as human beings. But as journalists, if we’re writing in an inverted pyramid style, we’re essentially going against what we’re hardwired for. We’re putting up a barrier between the storytelling and the engagement with a story, from the get go. And that, again, is not logical. It’s not rational. It doesn’t make any sense.
So actually, just on that kind of linear storytelling, we built a bunch of prototypes. But actually, what I was really interested in testing, for exactly the reasons you’re interested is, what if it was just linear storytelling, there’s no other formatting, would people find that interesting? So we did a prototype, which we just called kind of a plain text, dramatic prototype. And that was literally plain text, writing a story, sort of casting it quite badly, in my own opinion, because I wrote it, in a kind of three act dramatic structure, like we were just talking about. And the results from that were absolutely startling.
We tested it with more than 1300 people, against options of news which were currently available to them. And what we got the people to do was essentially, say whether they thought that it was more engaging, more informative, and more useful. And we created, I guess, a net approval rating. So on the kind of engaging axis, people have found just a plain text narrative more engaging than a BBC story, or an ITV story, or Sky News story here in the UK. The rating for that was plus 57, not 57%, plus 57, of the positives against the negatives. On informative, it was plus 41. And on useful, plus 37. So those are big, big numbers. And in some ways, you’d say for news organizations, they’re a no brainer, right? If you can, tomorrow, do something which is more engaging, more informative, and useful by big margins, just by essentially changing the structure of your story, why wouldn’t you do that?
Salz: Now we’ve had some companies here on Digital Content Next, they have been sharing what they’re doing and they are already taking a more modular approach to news and to storytelling. So there are companies moving in this direction. They understand that just by encouraging readers to skim, they’re not really driving engagement. And they have to do it in a different way. They need to break down the stories. How can news organizations further improve what they do to draw their audiences in? What is it that you’re telling them?
Kulkarni: So the very first thing is clearly thinking about what the audience, what citizens want, right? So when I was writing my prototypes, really, the first thing was to blank my brain. I’d tried to forget all the conventions of journalism, and ask myself the question, what do I actually need to know about this story to help me understand this? Rather than, what would a journalist normally write here? Because those two things are actually surprisingly different. And I think it’s where I think the kind of practice of journalism has become quite disengaged from the purpose of journalism. And as you say, there’s lots of hand wringing over, you know, people in newsrooms looking at analytics, when they are looking at analytics, and probably not enough people are sort of hand wringing over, well, people only spend 10 seconds on our page. Well, kind of, of course, they only spend 10 seconds on your page if you write an inverted pyramid style, where you’ve put in the headline, and in the first paragraph, something that looks like everything you need to know about that story. And then people think, well, actually, it gets more boring, and less interesting as I go down.
Now, actually, the truth is, it’s not everything you need to know about the story, because we all know, headlines don’t represent a story. They’re largely used as a sales technique. And the first paragraph often is a kind of one side of the story or just a really quick summary. But actually what people are telling us they want routinely, and not just me, in lots of research, they want more context around a story. What we tend to do is drop people into an on the day story, just on the day. And not everyone consumes news in the same way as journalists, right? They don’t read the news necessarily every day or every hour. We need to explain to them what’s led up to this point, and actually to some extent, what’s going to follow from this point. And so, actually providing all those things as a service, because yeah, journalism is a service, again, something which we forget. Then all those things are going to help people engage.
Salz: News as a service, you’re absolutely right here. And you’re also talking about what news organizations need to do to embrace the linear approach. Fortunately, it’s something they don’t have to do on their own because your research also shows that it’s really about collaborating, co-creating whatever you want to call it with AI to keep reader attention, as the story unfolds. Even determine the best starting points in the news. Ways to draw the audience in. So how does this collaboration working with AI? Look, what is the role of AI to get people to come into the story and stay?
Kulkarni: Lots of journalism organizations are using AI very well now, already. And so this is going to be the future of journalism. The next stage of journalism will be driven by automation and AI. So we have to be in that space. And I think the starting point is, look, right now online news is largely just newspaper articles put online, right? We’re not using, we’re not taking advantage of all the digital and technical storytelling tools that are available to us.
And I think what we’re seeing is that we should be in a post-article world, right? We can’t provide, or we shouldn’t be providing exactly the same article to everyone, right? We can’t be all things to all people. And where that leads to is personalization, essentially. That actually, we can provide news, information, in a way that is personalized to meet individual user’s needs in a really efficient way. So that might be, for example, I’m based in Wales, where we have quite a big immigrant community as well. If I’m a Chinese person living in West Wales, accessing BBC Wales’s news, wouldn’t it be interesting if I could access that in my first language, even though it’s news about Wales? That’s going to be more accessible to me. Working in that modular way, where we’re taking out a lot of interstitial language, we’re building short modules of information, which we’re putting together in different ways for different people. That, for example, takes out a lot of translation problems. It actually takes out a lot of inherent bias that exists within us as journalists. So it’s more accessible and more inclusive in that way.
So providing fact-based modules of journalism, that can be put together in different ways, by AI, to match the personalization preferences of users, citizens, audiences, has to be one big part of the future of journalism, I think.
Salz: That’s fascinating Shirish because we did start with personalization in news. It was about the categories asking audiences to choose the categories they wanted. Now it’s about personalization taking that personalization to a next level, a new level. And we agree it’s about the audience. It’s also about context, transparency, diverse perspectives.
Now these are the guiding principals, but it also comes down to the experience and that’s where your research also offers some answers. You’ve come up with ways to allow a different experience for different readers. The linear story is the concept, but you have accordions, timelines, videos. What can you tell us about the best on-ramp right now for organizations listening in, they want to know what is the best way to make the biggest difference in their stories and their metrics?
Kulkarni: The narrative accordion is really my favorite prototype. And actually, the favorite generally, with users. And what we’ve done here, essentially I’ve gone back to the basics and asked myself the question, what do I need to know about the story? What’s going to help me understand it? And I put these kind of expandable and collapsible questions, which means that people can either read them from top to bottom, so they make a linear story from top to bottom. Or if you’re interested in a particular question, such as, is this a green solution? I can go straight to that and check out the answer to that first, and navigate around exactly how I want it. Because what audiences really told us they wanted was some agency in storytelling. They wanted to be able to decide how they navigated the story. And we all understand that, don’t we? Like, when we go to find something out ourselves, we remember it better. We understand it better, because we feel like we’ve been part of that investigation process.
And as I say, the narrative accordion overall, in our testing, did really well. So basically, 75% and upwards, comparing the narrative accordion to options which are available to them in the general market, said it helped them understand the story better, and was more engaging.
Now, again, going back to the commercial needs or publishers, if you can do tomorrow, this doesn’t take a lot of kind of tooling or engineering, you could do tomorrow, something which more than 75% of people say helps them understand the story better, and is more engaging. Now, that, in a commercial sense, to me, is a no brainer, right? If you can do that tomorrow, why wouldn’t you?
Salz: That makes perfect sense. Absolutely. It’s a no-brainer and there’s no reason not to pursue that, but you’ve also found something else interesting in your research. You’ve found out that we are hard-wired, literally for the hero story or the heroine story. We want to have that arc of the story. Now, how can organizations apply that to journalism and still keep a credible balance? Because of course, drama can quickly become melodrama. It can become exaggeration very easily. So how do they approach this to give us the story? But again, also the engagement, because that’s the way of generating revenues.
Kulkarni: So, I see the tension, I’m all for kind of fact-based journalism, which sometimes, we get into kind of click bait stuff, which is about creating a particular kind of drama, right? When I’m talking about, this kind of hero, heroine story, it’s that fundamental evolutionary need for a particular kind of story, which you might describe as essentially, a fairy tale, is a great example of that. It’s why they’re so popular and successful. And that could be by just thinking about who are the characters in this. We don’t have to go off into kind of writing “non-objective,” but I’m going to put objective in quotation marks there, “non-objective” stories. What’s the sense of character, a resolution as well, because fairy stories always have a resolution. And new stories very rarely have a resolution. And actually, at that evolutionary level stories which don’t have a resolution leave us feeling uncomfortable.
So actually, that’s where we get into kind of news avoidance, because so much of our storytelling is inverted pyramid storytelling. Leaves us feeling uncomfortable and unresolved. So that’s a really important point as well.
Salz: So the answers here are context, narrative, linear narrative, AI, imagination, innovation, engagement, but achieving this, internalizing, this can take time, maybe even other talents. So what would you leave us with here? Give me a few steps news organizations can take right now to change the old habit.
Adopt the new model, adapt the new prototypes that you’re proposing such as the accordion, and also integrate AI more into this process. What can they do that they’re not already doing?
Kulkarni: When I started doing my research, I think people wanted me to come up with some kind of nonlinear gamified piece of storytelling, innovation, right? And I quickly realized that’s like putting a $100,000 kitchen in a house which doesn’t have a roof, right? We need to sort out the fundamentals. It’s journalism which is broken, and we need to fix that.
So, that comes down to understanding the user need, the audience need, remembering that journalism is for citizens, it’s for people. It’s not for journalists. So our audiences shouldn’t be other journalists. They should be what people really want from journalism. And so we need to listen to that research, not going with preconceived ideas of what we think journalism should be like in the future. We need to listen to what people actually want from journalism and then action that. And in terms of the storytelling, yeah, I think it’s using personalization, meeting people where they are, meeting their needs. And to do that, we need to leverage AI, essentially. Because to do that at scale, we need to use automation.
People want that information, they do want to understand the world, they do want to engage with it, but they’re feeling let down by journalism at the moment. So there’s repressed kind of need for that, which we can tap into. And actually, yeah, people are willing to pay for that if they get something which meets their needs. I talk about it in terms of, if you were working at Procter & Gamble or Unilever, and you never listened to your customers needs, you just carried on doing what you’ve always done without thinking about what you need to change, then you wouldn’t work at Procter & Gamble or Unilever for very long. But actually, in journalism, that’s what we do. We just carry on doing the same thing we always did, because we like doing it and we know how to do that. Regardless of the fact, we know people aren’t engaging with it or consuming it. So, there’s a really clear, hardnosed business model for doing storytelling better.
Salz: Shirish, I can’t thank you enough for sharing and, yes, for being exactly like your research, open, transparent, a bit provocative. It’s been great to have you.
Kulkarni: Thank you so much. It’s been a real pleasure.
Salz: Thank you. And of course, thank you for tuning in taking the time.
Of course, more coming in the series around how media companies are taking charge of changing their business and also increasing revenues. And in the meantime, be sure to check out digitalcontentnext.org for great content and including a companion post to this interview. And of course, join the conversation on Twitter at DCNorg until next time I’m Peggy Anne Salz signing off for Digital Content Next.
When the pandemic took hold in spring 2020, travel publishers had to think, and move, fast. In a world where travel became unsafe, if not outright banned, this segment of the publishing world faced long odds. However, many—including Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Thrillist, and National Geographic—refocused their strategies to keep housebound audiences informed and entertained. But now, as parts of the world reopen to travel, while others are still profoundly struggling with Covid-19, travel brands are poised to make another pivot.
Destination for information
Last spring, Conde Nast Traveler shifted its digital content strategy away from bread-and-butter destination content to travel news. In particular, it dove into how the unfolding Covid-19 pandemic was impacting travel. And, after a precipitous drop off when the world essentially shut down in March, traffic began to rebound in April as homebound readers spent more time on the site, driving up total engaged minutes 10% in 2020.
As lockdowns set in around the world, Conde Nast Traveler focused on creating a deep well of
evergreen content aimed at inspiring grounded readers to daydream about future travel. It highlighted adventures closer to home. It also provided virtual travel experiences to transport and engage housebound audiences.
However, now that actual travel is back on the rise, Conde Nast Traveler is pivoting again. “As regulations ease and attitudes towards travel shift, we’re focusing on content that helps people get back out into the world,” said Jesse Ashlock, Conde Nast Traveler’s Deputy Global Editorial Director.
Traffic to domestic destination-based content and road-trip related content began to climb last summer. Interest in vacation rentals also spiked. Audience time spent with that content rose more than 1,100% between January and October 2020. Ashlock expects those trends to continue through this summer, as people explore the great American outdoors.
Travel + Leisure made a similar pandemic pivot, leaning into the leisure aspect of the brand as the world was shutting down in the spring of 2020. The brand even updated its Twitter bio to reflect its #LeanIntoLeisure strategy.
“We maintained a very flexible approach to our content, particularly in March, April and May 2020, so that we could be nimble and change course depending on what made sense given shifting world events,” said Deanne Kaczerski, T+L’s Digital Content Director.
The brand also shifted it’s commerce-related content from travel gear toward products related to face masks and work-at-home accessories.
Aspiration and inspiration
On Instagram, Travel+Leisure chose to double down on aspiration. The team shared images meant to inspire far-flung daydreams and asked followers to share images of the places they missed most. “We didn’t entirely abandon the aspirational element of travel,” Kaczerski said. The brand continued to highlight dreamy itineraries for cooped up wanderers looking for an escape from daily pandemic life but also began covering more wellness stories.
There are several indications that strategy worked. “Overall, the website experienced tremendous traffic in the last year. People sought out trusted information, expert advice and compelling content to satiate their wanderlust in a very challenged time,” Kaczerski said.
At Thrillist, the gaze shifted toward learning more about the places that captivate travelers.
“Rather than encouraging people to go out, we encouraged people to dig into learning the history of spaces,” said Helen Hollyman, Thrillist’s Editor in Chief.
As the world reopens, Thrillist’s focus is on service journalism that aims to help readers figure out their pandemic travel comfort level. While things are looking up, “it’s still a little bit of a question mark where things will be at the end of 2021,” Hollyman said.
Given the uncertainty of international travel, Thrillist opted to emphasize domestic travel by highlighting adventures that can be had. These include camping, stargazing, and exploring national and state parks.
Advertisers are ready for the change, Hollyman said. “Everyone’s kind of in this space of let’s get back in there,” she said. “People are tired of Netflix, and they’re tired of streaming.”
George Stone, Editor in Chief of National Geographic’s travel coverage, described the pandemic as a bit of a break. It offered a breather, which allowed the publication to shift gears and return to its roots. “In a way, it gave us the opportunity to do better National Geographic storytelling,” he said. “We were stepping away from consumer travel objectives, and that was a relief.”
With consumer travel largely off the table for several months, National Geographic felt free to focus its website on looking at the world through the lenses of science, history, and culture. “We started to dig into the stories of people and places more so than the immediate story of the traveler,” Stone said.
There were also more Covid-19 stories, a reflection of National Geographic’s deep commitment to covering science. “Our traffic really shot up last March,” said Alissa Swango, Managing Editor for National Geographic Digital.
Homeschooling parents drove up demand for science-related kids content like experiments to supplement schoolwork. A popup pandemic newsletter has remained so popular it still hasn’t pivoted. “Our open rates are still very high,” Swango said.
As travel opens up, National Geographic hopes to help usher in a new more thoughtful era of travel. Like other publishers, it plans to focus more on sustainable travel and responsible tourism through its content.
The goal is to “encourage people to get out into the world for a firsthand encounter with the issues,places, communities that bring geographical and cultural context,” Stone said. “We want people to know the world and love the world as conservationists and explorers.”
There are a number of reasons why legacy media faces fierce rivals in digitally native media – such as Netflix, Spotify, and Stitch. However, a critical competitive differentiator could be the fact that many of these brands are committed to delivering accurate, actionable recommendation systems.
Recommendation engines aren’t just about recommending content to your readers, according to Michael Schrage, a research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Initiative on the Digital Economy and author of Recommendation Engines. They are platforms that facilitate online interaction. When designed well, they help organizations rethink how they can get more value from their data. They also offer more value to their customers.
“The biggest mistake media companies make is they think they are in content business. But they are the data business – and their data management sucks,” states Schrage. “While they won’t be able to rival Netflix, they still can engage with their communities so much better. It’s not just about how to tell a better story, it about how we can learn from people who read our stories and engage with them.”
Recommendation engines, or recommenders, are nothing new. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos spoke about the value of recommenders back in 1998. He said that they offer an “opportunity to develop very deep relationships with customers.”
The good news is that, while they were once a feat of extraordinary technological effort, machine learning is changing that. In fact, it’s the ease with which they can be built, applied and utilized that makes them the most exciting and valuable applications of machine learning right now.
“The big difference now is that anyone can build a recommendation engine,” states Schrage. “They are cheaper, faster and better than ever. Plus, the underlying algorithms have moved away from simple correlations to much deeper and richer analytics, around diversity and relevance. As a result, the levels of sensitivity and specificity of recommenders have improved. And they keep learning how to get better.”
Virtuous cycle of engagement
That is the key to well-designed recommenders. The more people use them, the more valuable they become. And the more valuable they become, the more people use them, creating a virtuous cycle of data with audiences. However, according to Schrage, legacy media often miss this vital opportunity to improve both customer insights and engagement.
“These organizations treat recommendation engines as a sales tool. But they need to understand how to use their data and turn it into virtuous cycle,” says Schrage. “And the low-hanging fruit is advice and recommendations.”
In other words, recommendation engines are more than a UX differentiator. When effective, they enable organizations to build customer lifetime value (CLV). The former is transactional, while the latter embraces a longer-term view.
“It’s the difference between ‘always closing’, and a salesperson who wants to forge a relationship,” says Schrage. “The question is: Do you treat customers as ‘one offs? Or do you seek to use data-driven advice to get people to come back and explore, while also building brand credibility?”
Reader regularity is a key factor in preventing churn. The industry has long been concerned about unengaged subscribers. Recent research reinforced this concern when it revealed nearly half of digital subscribers to local news outlets are ‘zombie’ readers who visit a site less than once a month. These customers are far most likely to cancel their subscriptions than are frequent visitors.
The study also found that personalized, local content is a key factor in retaining subscribers – which is where recommenders play a big part. One great example of this is with the Dutch newspaper, NRC. After personalizing its newsletter, using an AI tool, 22% more readers demonstrated habitual reading behavior. However, there is a lot more to recommendations than personalization.
While recommendations can be personalized, it’s not the only – or the best – option. Personalized recommenders require large amounts of data on users, which a system won’t have with new visitors, or those that don’t sign up. This can cause what is commonly coined ‘cold start’ problem. This occurs when a recommender system cannot draw inferences, due to a lack of information. Another problem with personalized recommenders is the potential for bias, which can be a particular problem for news sites.
This was a concern for the non-partisan news organization POLITICO Europe, when it launched Pro Intelligence in 2019. Pro started as a pure news service. However, it bought the start-up Statehill in 2018, so that it could build out a one-stop shop for policymakers. The platform, which accounted for 60% of POLITICO’S income in 2020, now offers news, analysis and relevant, external information within a single dashboard.
Every piece of content on the Pro platform features recommendations, from legislation to court cases, and press releases to news from the editorial team. However, the algorithm doesn’t require user input to customize the experience. Instead, it employs an auto-tagger, which uses key words, dictionary mapping and natural language processing. [Editor’s note: An in-depth look at this is available to DCN members.]
“We don’t have the engineering capabilities in our organization to dedicate to a personalized algorithm. And we’d probably be too afraid to introduce it, in case of bias,” said Karl Laurentius Roos, Director Technology Development. “But our auto-taggers mean we can surface news and data automatically, which has a real impact on the end user’s productivity and understanding.”
Pushing news, via email or mobile notifications, remains POLITICO Europe’s most effective way to integrate their services into their users’ day. However, Roos and his team are currently building products that will pull the user into their ecosystem.
“If we can enable user access to pull more content themselves, we’re increasing the product utility and value captured each time a user accesses our content,” said Roos. “For us this translates into connecting news with data and wrapping it seamlessly across our desktop and mobile experiences.”
According to Schrage, other media brands doing a good job with their recommendation systems include the Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones, Bloomberg and Pocket. However, not everyone agrees that recommenders are beneficial to business. Slate built Myslate in 2015, which worked on personal recommendations, based on users telling them what they wanted, rather than machine learning. After an initial experiment, the online magazine decided that keeping the infrastructure running wasn’t worth the amount of reader minutes it generated.
“For the recommendations to work we needed to ask them to sign up, which added friction to the experience,” explains Greg Lavellee, VP, Technology at Slate. “But I’m not convinced that recommendation systems are worth it. People tend to personalize their own experience. They know where they want to go on the site. They find the content they want – you don’t have to shove it in their face.”
Try telling that to the likes of Jeff Bezos, Reid Hastings, and Katrina Lake. Nonetheless, media brands may be concerned they don’t have the capabilities, budget or data to build a successful recommendation system. However, Schrage says the issues aren’t necessarily technological or financial, they are organizational and cultural. Recommendation systems don’t just require an IT upgrade, they require a rethink of business fundamentals.
“Legacy media have had the sh*t kicked out of them by companies that literally didn’t exist 10 or 15 years ago,” he states. “It’s because the tech giants have committed to using data to learn. They take good design, good data and good recommendations seriously.
“This is what other media brands need to emulate in order to bridge the digital divide.” In fact, he says that media companies need to learn how to leverage customer’s behavioral data to drive value and grow business. “Algorithmic plagiarism is essential to future health of legacy media.”
The tectonic plates of the internet advertising economy shifted last week as Apple began to push out iOS 14.5 to over one billion devices worldwide. We’re also feeling frequent tremors as various proposals to address Google’s unilateral decision to ban all third-party cookies bubble-up in the industry lava. As we react to this industry tumult, it is important to keep one thing in mind: Pervasive user “tracking” has eroded the advertising opportunities of publishers large and small.
Tech inventory takeover
Just over six years ago, nearly half of the impressions across DCN members’ websites and apps, including both video and display, were sold directly by the publisher. When we receive final 2020 numbers next month, we expect that number will have dipped below 20% for the first time. The driving force here is data.
Third-party adtech firms have a competitive data advantage because they are able to track users without their knowledge across the web and apps. This pervasive audience-targeting, combined with the scale and ease of buying through these large third parties, has significantly shifted sales channels away from publishers and into the arms of data aggregators.
Tech financial takeover
Shifting to a reliance on third parties to sell 80% of publisher impressions didn’t need to be bad. Unfortunately, it is. Very bad indeed.
A majority of these ads are purchased based on microtargeted audiences — often using Apple’s IDFA or third-party cookies as a proxy for real people. In this process, publishers’ apps and websites are treated as interchangeable commodities. These third parties, Google being the largest, extract data and detach it from the inventory. This allows audiences to be targeted elsewhere on the web at the cheapest price available. That’s why advertising purchased directly from a publisher is sold at 5x the rate of inventory purchased through these third-party channels. Publishers are able to monetize the value of their brand, content and user relationships when selling the ads rather than being repackaged into a nameless audience bundle.
Two big winners: the two biggest “trackers”
In the two largest sales channels (Facebook and Google), premium publishers’ inventory must also compete against the two firms’ own inventory, and an insurmountable data advantage.
Between 2015 and 2019, this data advantage allowed the “duopoly” to capture 86% of the incremental U.S. digital advertising growth. Last year, the trend continued with the two taking 87% of the digital advertising market growth in the U.S.
Industry, regulators and, most importantly, the public, have grown to understand the core of the two companies’ business models relies on unbridled data collection. The numbers below clearly back this up. The bar chart on the left shows the change in sales channels of U.S. digital advertising from 2015 to 2019 and the percentage of the growth (right pie chart) captured by only two companies in 2020.
The privacy and data protection scale is tipping
There is little debate that users overwhelmingly choose privacy over tracking when they are asked which they prefer. The most famous privacy law to date, Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), has yet to fully bare its teeth. However, it is grounded in clear purpose limitations that minimize tracking and other uses of data that fall outside consumer expectations without very specific consent.
This inspired the most significant privacy law in, not coincidentally, the most populous U.S. state: California. Its latest incarnation (CPRA), which allows users to opt-out of tracking, is set to go into effect next year. It has even spawned the Global Privacy Control (GPC) to make this a simpler process which the Attorney General has recently endorsed as legally enforceable.
Meanwhile, Apple’s restricted use of its universal identifier IDFA, which has long been used for tracking, in the latest push of its iOS. Apple now mandates, for the first time, that apps ask their users to make a choice: They need to either ask the app not to track them or give explicit consent to track them. Unfortunately, this can create collateral damage even when an identifier is only being used by a service provider to the publisher that the user values and trusts.
Early reads on the data are that well over 90% of the users choose not to be tracked. So, Facebook had good reason to predict an earthquake coming its way since it’s not a service provider — but is the poster child of distrust. I can’t endorse a podcast more highly to distill the implications of this battle between Apple and Facebook than NYT The Daily. They elegantly illustrate that this is a high-stakes global war. And it’s patently obvious you wouldn’t want to line up on the side of Facebook in a battle over privacy.
But won’t this hurt ad prices and only make Google and Facebook stronger?
The two key arguments against data protection like Apple’s update are that 1) it will hurt ad prices and 2) make the duopoly even stronger. Indeed, third-party inventory is worth a lot more when it is coupled with third-party data. Unsurprisingly, adtech-funded research likes to tout this.
However, that perspective only looks at prices for a narrow type of targeting. There are very few empirical studies that examine the full marketplace. And these tend to show only modest benefit to publishers from unbridled third-party data. Publishers that have leaned into their first-party data ahead of the market are in a position of strength going forward. And, as the bar gets raised across the industry, they should see the increase in value from other more acceptable forms of targeting. Blunt technical solutions that fail to understand the nuance and trust of the publisher pose a risk to this opportunity.
In terms of Google and Facebook getting stronger, remember that they already have an insurmountable data advantage and their business results back it up. Clearly, Facebook wouldn’t have run national ad campaigns against Apple (even — ironically — threatening an antitrust lawsuit), if Apple shutting down IDFA tracking would have actually helped Facebook.
And no one actually believes that the Facebook behemoth is the champion of small business. They claim that personalized ads are the lifeblood of small business advertising and that offering consumers the option to forgo tracking would limit these businesses’ ability to effectively reach customers. Apple, however, points out that users are welcome to opt-in to data collection, thereby enabling personalized advertising. And let’s face it: In a privacy first digital advertising environment, those with first party data and trusted relationships with audiences will still reach them.
However, Facebook’s data dominance isn’t based upon a clear exchange of data for services. In fact, U.K. regulators issued a report (figure 2.3, page 50) showing that more than 50% of Google and Facebook’s data is collected when people aren’t actually intending to use a Google or Facebook service. This is the very definition of the kind of unbridled “tracking” that is so damaging to trust and the digital advertising business. That’s a critical data point — and one these companies aren’t crowing about in national ad campaigns.
Ok, yes, both companies have a significant amount of first-party data. However, shifts towards privacy pose a significant challenge to keeping this data fresh and enriching their interest profiles. This is spelled out in their 10Ks every time they file. Additionally, antitrust lawsuits focused on their data practices, along with new regulations like the Digital Markets Act in Europe, are squarely directed at them. Soon, they will appropriately put heightened data limitations on these powerful “gatekeepers.”
What to do if you’re a premium publisher
These changes are happening with or without us. The timeline, like all tectonic shifts, is unpredictable but the aftermath will be significant. However, publishers who understand the possibilities, see the emerging white space, invest in their direct consumer relationships, and are forthright about user expectations will have an advantage. Risks lie in allowing large tech platforms and lawmakers to define the terms and conversations impacting premium publishers.
I encourage publishers to lean into DCN to make sure we’re properly informed on your plans. We’re here to help you evaluate the risks and face unexpected challenges. DCN has technology supporters that are paving the way for publishers who need help. No doubt, there are elements of Apple’s move which can break core, and expected, functionality as they limit tracking.
Apple has used the definition of “tracking” developed years ago by a multistakeholder group, which included DCN and all sides of the industry. However, blunt technical enforcement always creates unintended consequences. We need to understand these issues so that we can help guide tech firms, lawmakers, and regulators to address consumer interests and the publishers who serve them day in and day out.
We feel the digital advertising landscape shifting. Yes, things will get broken. Some of those will not be missed, however. And, when the dust settles and we take stock of the reshaped landscape, we will see that the crumbling cookie and the fall of pervasive and invasive “tracking” will clear the way for our industry to build better solutions. These will be based upon quality experiences and transparent and in-context data collection. And this, in turn, will build a strong foundation for effective marketing and revenue that rewards companies that truly value their customers.
Last Friday marked 100 days since Donald Trump officially left the White House as U.S. president. His departure ended a chapter crammed with chaos and controversy for hundreds of millions of Americans, and many more around the world.
As the pandemic enters a second year, a deafening lack of Trump has been coupled with a general public malaise from too much news. As a result, the historic ratings bump enjoyed during the Trump administration quickly turned into a slump. Few outlets have been spared.
The Washington Post reported that of the three largest cable news networks, only Fox News has held relatively steady. Its three prime-time opinion shows fell just 6% in viewership since the first weeks of the year. MSNBC and CNN, meanwhile, declined 26% and 45% in the 8-10 p.m. ET time slot, respectively.
But it’s not just cable networks that have been affected. The Washington Post itself saw a 26% fall in the number of unique visitors to its website from January to February. The New York Times experienced a 17% decline in the same period.
A slump by any other name
While the “Trump Slump” is a legitimate reason for the downward trend, it’s not the only cause. Nor is it a universal experience.
At The Atlantic, SVP of growth Sam Rosen says that, “We’ve found even in just the past five or six months, what has really changed is that the motivation to understand this historic moment has decreased and the desire for personal intellectual growth has increased.”
As he points out, “It’s been an exhausting five years for many people and especially the past year. So, it kind of makes sense that the core desire to just understand what’s happening in the world still exists. But people want to invest in their own growth.” And the company is banking on that willingness to invest.
On the retention side, The Atlantic focuses on the fundamentals. For example they’re migrating as many subscribers to auto-renew as possible. Targeted email campaigns are also reawakening dormant subscribers.
Acquiring new subscribers has been more colorful. For example, experimenting with new slogans such as “Read. Think. Grow.,” which are a change from more newsier lines of messaging in the past. Rosen said The Atlantic thinks of its audience in terms of psychographics: people that are curious, interested in the world, willing to consider multiple perspectives, and open to new ideas.
“Looking at the vanguard of marketing technology is one of our biggest priorities right now,” Rosen said. “We’re evaluating a slew of technology partners that do customer journey orchestration, dynamic paywalls, personalization, and content recommendations. So that is where we’re doubling down.”
Not content with the content
Another newsroom building value not reliant on Trump’s hoopla is Axios, which was launched in January 2017. The well positioned itself strategically for a post-Trump world. Though the fall in traffic is unmistakable, Axios’ director of audience and growth, Neal Rothschild, believes this could actually be a good thing.
“I think if you were going to ask the founders of the company [Axios] whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, they would say it’s 100 percent a good thing,” Rothschild said. “Jim VandeHei, our CEO, has maintained that people needed to wean themselves off of politics during the Trump years. It was like fast food and it became very unhealthy. So, we’re starting to see the news landscape kind of clear out and make way for the topics that were core to the founding of Axios. Though it may not have seemed like it just because Trump sucked up so much oxygen.”
Those other topics include the rise of China, climate change, and the gaming industry. For the latter, Axios hired Stephen Totilo and Megan Farokhmanesh from Kotaku and The Verge, respectively, to write Axios Gaming. Their newsletter launched this week and will focus on the multi-billion dollar gaming industry. Rothschild added that the company isn’t limiting its expansion to specific topics. Its strategy of hiring experts to build readership extends to local journalism in news deserts, where just a single outlet currently operates, or where no community newspaper exists at all.
“To stand up a newsletter in each city, we try to hire two experts that can helm that newsletter so that we can speak to the city and have it growing quickly. I think that’s a departure from previous models for supporting local news. Usually, you need more of a physical presence in that city or at least need to invest more on the ground,” Rothschild said. “That’s not a huge site traffic audience strategy. But it is a pretty good growth and revenue strategy. And it is increasing our footprint around the country.”
As important as local news has been to CBS, Trump was an international story. Significantly, the international audience it gained over the past four years remains. While many U.S. outlets have cut their international presence in recent years, CBSN — CBS’ 24/7 streaming news service — last year expanded to almost 100 countries. That global presence was critical in CBSN delivering 291 million streams in the first quarter of 2021, up 30% from the same period a year ago.
Christy Tanner, EVP and general manager of CBS News Digital said her team has only just scratched the surface of its global potential. Through Network 10 in Australia, which ViacomCBS owns, its partner the BBC and its own international bureaus, it’s creating even more international programming.
“With streaming audiences, we do not see what was at one point conventional wisdom in the news business: Allegedly, U.S. audiences are not interested in international news. That’s simply not true from our perspective.” In fact, Tanner said, “We think it’s an important differentiator. It’s important to tell the stories. We at CBS News digital have been extremely fortunate that CBS has continued to invest in international coverage.”
The local news
That said, Trump was as much a local story as he was a national and international one. So, CBS is also taking advantage of the dearth of local newsrooms. It now offers 14 total live streams including 10 in local markets such as the Bay Area, Pittsburgh, and Minnesota.
One new feature Tanner is especially excited about are video push alerts. Launched last fall, the proactive alerts nudge CBSN viewers whenever news is breaking across the U.S. Instead of only watching that day’s White House news conference on the national live stream, viewers could easily toggle over to CBSN Minnesota to watch Minneapolis’ police chief providing an update to the George Floyd case.
Tanner says her team sends out alerts dozens of times a day. This means that viewers are engaged in numerous stories, as opposed to any one story such as Trump or Covid-19.
Fail to prepare, prepare to fail
The past four years certainly provided newsrooms across the country with a welcome surge in readership. However, the smartest strategists were planning for Trump’s inevitable departure well in advance. As a result, the fall in traffic hasn’t been enough to hurt their bottom lines too much.
For Tanner, who entered journalism as an editor at the AP in 1991, the Trump presidency was just another wild cycle. And she’s experienced many. Tanner says to work in digital media, one always has to be ready for what’s next, and make intelligent fact-based decisions.
“Things are constantly changing and those who don’t adapt fall by the wayside.”
Launching a new product during a global pandemic could be classed as a bold move. However, given its customer-centric approach, The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) team knew the time was right. “The feedback from our clients was they didn’t want things at EIU to change. But they wanted to navigate our products more easily, so that they can compare information at speed,” EIU’s Chief Digital Officer, Sharon Cooper told DCN.
Launched this month, EIU Viewpoint integrates EIU’s subscription-based services into a unified digital platform. It combines the EIU’s expert insights and analysis with forecasts and proprietary data to offer clients a 360-degree view of the world, encompassing politics, policy, and economics. “Before, these were separated, so clients might only have one aspect,” says Cooper. Now EIU has integrated them under one umbrella product. This allows them to provide “a more nuanced perspective of the world and the forces shaping it.”
However, EIU Viewpoint wasn’t launched in response to Covid-19. It launched in spite of it. “We had to deliver Viewpoint remotely, with every single person working for home. We didn’t miss a beat.” She says that “It’s testament to the global nature of our business, as we have over 650 analysts in 130 countries. It was also our ability to pivot quickly, but not lose sight of the thing we needed to deliver for the client. We stayed focused on our end goal. But were flexible to the changes brought about by Covid.”
A customer-focused approach is at the heart of EIU, which was created back in 1946, in response to the needs of The Economist’s readers. They wanted to know how to better run their business in a challenging and changing post-war environment. Today its team of economists, industry specialists, policy analysts, and consultants help businesses, financial firms, academics, and governments understand the shifting global landscape.
It’s a business model that clearly works. EIU revenue increased by 1% for the six months ending 30 March 2020. And The Economist’s circulation revenues rose by 6%. EIU Viewpoint hopes to build on these figures by combining EIU’s award-winning political insights, policy analysis and economic outlooks, with curated forecasts and proprietary data.
This global view includes forecasts for the global economy, daily insights, and country economics. It also incorporates political analysis, medium- and long-term forecasts, macroeconomic datasets, and proprietary ratings and rankings. But what makes Viewpoint’s offering unique is the editorial team.
“Anyone can access the data we produce. But our key differentiator is our analysis. It’s a critical part of what we do” says Cooper. “EIU Viewpoint isn’t a news business, it’s a forecasting business. We are saying what will happen as a result of the news. EIU Viewpoint allows clients access to our editorial team’s thinking. We try and contextualize the news for each of our clients.”
Creating a platform that offers such a tailored user experience had it challenges, as their clients range from industry experts to total amateurs. “Bringing this context to life and making it simple to navigate was the toughest part of the build,” says Cooper. “We had to ensure lots of different types of users could navigate the same system and get all their questions answered in a consistent way.”
Preparing for opportunities
The product is a great example of how listening to your audience and responding to their needs adds value to a brand. The Economist is a well-respected title that offers news. EIU is a trusted resource that explores the impact of that news. The two go hand in hand to offer an independent and authoritative voice, which has resulted in loyalty and high levels of engagement with some of the biggest brands in business.
“Our content is about looking forward and thinking ‘what does this mean for our clients?’” explains Cooper. “There might be 101 things that happen in a day. Rather than just giving a bunch of facts, we weave them together to make a comprehensive overview of a country and how its changing.”
As a result, EIU has been able to guide their customers during the toughest times over the past 12 months. This includes providing a “huge amount” of additional data, to help with risk management and forecasting. The EIU also built its own Covid tracker, which looks at when the global economy will get back to pre-pandemic levels. It also reports on vaccine rollouts and how they impact the economy.
“It’s all about preparing for opportunities and helping our clients understand the whole market” says Cooper. “There are different models for different countries. We think about each one, in terms of what is happening today, what this will look like tomorrow, and what this means for our clients.”
EIU Viewpoint manages to hit that sweet spot that all media are trying to achieve: identifying opportunities for customers that translate into revenue opportunities for their own business. By working closely with their clients, EIU has become an integral part of their business. Thus, its clients have a “strong commitment” to the brand.
“If you look at most big banks, NGO organizations and governments around the world, you will find EIU at the heart of them,” Cooper says. “We believe Viewpoint will consolidate this relationship. It will help both our clients and the Economist Group plan for the future in order to operate effectively and profitably.”
BBC News presenter Ros Atkins and I often talk about “pinch yourself moments” when it comes to 50:50 The Equality Project – a grassroots initiative he started at the heart of the BBC’s London newsroom four years ago.
He wanted to increase female representation on his program Outside Source by monitoring the contributors his team could control. Now, more than 100 organizations in 26 countries are using the data-driven core principles he came up to improve the gender balance on the content they produce.
That in itself could constitute a moment – reaching 100 partners. For me, however, a moment of truth has come. We can see how the global network is preforming. For the first time, the BBC invited 50:50 partners to join our annual challenge to see how many of us could feature at least 50% women contributors on our output.
The BBC Director-General Tim Davie found the results encouraging. He called on others to take up the next challenge. As he said, “We are now also seeing a real impact beyond the BBC on a global scale.”
This time around, 41 partners took up the challenge. So how did they fare? As a collective, 50% of the content reached gender balance. That’s up from 31% compared to when those organizations first joined the project.
Our 50:50 Impact Report 2021 details how even those organizations that did not reach gender balance showed signs of improvement. Over three-quarters (77%) of content-makers featured more than 40% women contributors on their output. That’s compared only 58% when they first joined the project.
BBC upward trend continues
Now, the 50:50 partners network has set itself a benchmark. So, next year’s challenge will be a real test of the progress 50:50 is making collectively. However, it is achievable, particularly if the BBC’s performance is anything to go by.
This was the BBC’s third challenge. For third consecutive year, there has been an improvement in the number of teams reaching gender balance. In fact, 70% of content reached 50:50 compared to 36% in the first month of monitoring. Plus, no team monitoring for three years or more featured less than 40% women contributors. That is a big first.
Audiences are noticing these equity advancements. A survey of more than 2,100 BBC online users found that 62% felt there were more women contributors on output. Meanwhile 58% of women aged 16-34 said they consumed more services as a result of greater female representation. That’s a 12 percentage point increase on comparable data from last year.
There are now 670 teams committed to 50:50 in the BBC. 50:50 Project Lead Lara Joannides is proud of the teams that took part in this year’s challenge. She said: “This is an incredible achievement, especially considering the extra demands teams have faced as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The results prove that ensuring fair representation of all audiences across our content remains a priority for 50:50 teams, no matter what.”
The Australian way
ABC News in Australia was one of the very first partners to join the BBC in implementing 50:50. Together, the two organizations are creating real impact at opposite ends of the globe. In March, the Australian broadcaster saw 75% of their participating teams reach 50:50. That’s a big jump from 29%, when they first joined the project.
The scale of implementation of 50:50 at ABC means they have a core team to drive the change across the organization. Their 50:50 Equality Project Leads keep themselves attuned to the evolving news landscape so that they can provide support to ensure women’s voices are heard.
The changing working practices for journalists due to coronavirus is a good example of that. The ABC team gently reminded content-makers of the role 50:50 had in ensuring different voices were heard at such as crucial time.
“We also asked them to consider how the pandemic was specifically impacting Australian women, to tell the story of the health crisis in a way that surfaced women’s perspectives and gave voice to those on the frontline – nurses, doctors, care workers and teachers,” explained Emma Pearce and Rhiannon Hobbins in the report.
They added that there were unexpected benefits emerging from the pandemic too: “Some teams found it easier to reach and engage female talent, particularly in our afternoon and evening timeslots, as working from home became the norm and school pick-ups and commuter runs no longer affected their availability to do a quick Zoom, Skype or Slack interview.”
Covid-19 was not the only story the team had its eye on. At the start of 2021 there was a series of headline grabbing stories concerning the treatment of women in politics and the culture faced by women working in Canberra Parliament House.
ABC’s 50:50 Leads said: “Our 50:50 work fed into and enhanced our journalism on these issues. Our coverage incorporates female perspectives and the specific impacts on women. And our teams are alert to the need to empower and respect the agency of women at the centre of the stories.”
From Australia to Austria
In Europe, the Austrian public broadcaster ORF had 90 teams taking part in the March challenge. Overall, 52% of teams taking part featured at least 50% women.
ORF equal opportunities commissioner Katia Rössner said ORF is seeing improvement beyond the March snapshot. Over half of teams (55%) taking part for six months or more reached 50:50 by the end of March. That marks a 3% increase on the overall ORF performance. She said: “This confirms the fact, that the longer the teams are part of the challenge, the more likely they reach a quota of 50% in their programs.”
Rössner acknowledges in her submission to the 50:50 Impact Report that there was some trepidation when ORF started to implement 50:50’s core principles. She wrote about an observation by a regional news editor who told her: “At first there was some skepticism regarding ‘token women.’ But the team started focusing on interviewing a female intensive care doctor instead of a man. We found a great doctor who has the potential to become a new coronavirus expert on our show.”
For Rössner the “competitive and sporting spirit of the 50:50 Challenge” appealed to many ORF program-makers. She said: “Honest engagement and even small steps towards 50:50, no matter where you start, makes you a winner.”
Building a 50:50 future
One promising sign for the future is that 50:50 has a growing network of universities and journalism schools. Lecturers use it to get their students to think about the diversity of contributors during their News Days or Weeks.
Nottingham Trent University is one of 19 academic institutions taking part. In the report, BA Journalism student Emilia Roman said implementing 50:50 was “an eye-opening experience” for her.
During the first week, the students were asked to monitor their content but not change their way of working. In that week, Emilia said they recorded 29% women contributors across their website. Week two, the students focused on equal representation.
“The challenge of incorporating the principals of 50:50 into our work came down to one crucial element of story development – research,” said Roman. “Accepting the first reply and focusing on ‘getting the story up’ was not enough to help us drive a significant change in our coverage.”
By the last day of production, the students’ content featured 49% women contributors. Emilia said that “It’s pretty clear to us that recognizing the need for equal representation can significantly change the way your content looks.”
Spreading the 50:50 word
As evidenced by the universities, the 50:50 network now spans outside of media, with 50 partners coming from a range of sectors – public relations to legal to corporate. They use 50:50 to monitor their websites, social media, spokespeople, and event speakers. They seek to understand whether they are reflecting in their content the gender balance of their organizations.
Richard Purnell is communications manager at the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) and he said 50:50 “has helped draw attention to the issue of diversity in our organization, and given us the tools to do something about it.”
He said, “While it’s clear we have some way to go, 50:50 has triggered a whole series of conversations about equality which weren’t really happening before. As a result, we are now planning to train and develop a new set of media spokespeople. That should improve the breadth and depth of insight we can provide.”
An everyday movement
What the 50:50 partners have demonstrated is that we can all make small changes that are in our control and they can have a much wider impact.
The BBC’s Director of Creative Diversity June Sarpong reminds us in the 50:50 Impact Report a quote from American feminist Gloria Steinem: “The future depends entirely on what each of us does every day; a movement is only people moving.”
She goes on to say she believe 50:50 is creating that movement. I leave you with her words: “Every day, thousands of people are counting the 50:50 way. A small action for one individual, but a powerful tool of change – a movement. I would urge as many people and organizations as possible to join us so we can work together to reach a common goal – creating content that better reflects our world.”
About the Author
Nina Goswami is the BBC’s Creative Diversity Lead and is spearheading initiatives to support the Corporation’s aspiration that its on-air representation reflects society. Nina is also a journalist and, before her current post, was a BBC News senior producer. She has worked in media her whole professional career including The Sunday Times and The Sunday Telegraph.