Industry-watcher Simon Owens notes how bootstrapped content entrepreneurs are harnessing platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and Substack to engage new audiences, often through verticals overlooked by mainstream outlets. Some are also very successfully monetizing these efforts. Globally, more than two million creators have six-figure incomes, as they tap into opportunities for sponsorship, subscriptions, and other revenue.
Excitement about this potential has unlocked more than $800 million from venture capitalists in recent years. This is “sending strong signals confirming the creator economy is not only legit, but a force to be reckoned with,” Influencer Marketing Hub suggests.
“This is really a new form of work and a new form of entrepreneurship,” according to Kaya Yurieff, a former CNN journalist who covers the creator economy for The Information.
The rapid rise of this sector is evident in the flurry of deals, creative campaigns, and platform developments featured in a four-times-a-week newsletter Yurieff and her colleagues have produced since April 2021.
Five actionable lessons for publishers
Collectively, the size of this market, its characteristics, and projected growth makes this a sector that media companies should not just report on. They should be learning from it too.
Below are five ways that publishers can learn from the creator economy.
1. Harness the value of niche
“As solo operators, creators handle everything from content creation to marketing to monetization,” Owens explains. “This forces them to be incredibly innovative if they want to compete with much larger media organizations for subscription and advertising dollars,” he adds.
One of the ways that they have addressed this is through niche content verticals. Yurieff points to Substack newsletters focused on indigenous news as an example of one “area that traditional publishers historically haven’t dedicated a ton of resources to.”
“Creators have proved that there are audiences for maybe more varied topics than we’ve seen traditionally in the media,” she says.
For publishers, this demonstrates the potential to superserve smaller, targetted, audiences. It isn’t always about scale. Rather, the focus should be on tapping into passions and subjects that audiences will engage with – and potentially pay for.
2. Learn how creators are growing their businesses
Niche verticals don’t necessarily have to remain small. “The most successful of these solo operators eventually end up hiring staff and acting more like traditional media companies,” Owens points out.
The transferable lessons from these types of success stories are highly relevant to the digital strategies being developed and deployed by publishers. As such, they should be required reading in the C-Suite.
3. Understand it isn’t just about flashy new social networks
Many of the methods used by independent creators to share content and generate engagement – such as newsletters, podcasts, groups and messaging apps, paid memberships, subscriptions and other tactics – will be very familiar to traditional publishers.
That said, in doing this, they are more likely to use newer platforms like Patreon, Discord and Geneva, than traditional publishers. But in terms of their approach, it shows you don’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel. However, you do need to offer something valuable and distinctive. Content is King. Yet, in many cases, community is nearly as powerful. Distinctiveness can arguably be rooted in content, tone of voice, distribution channels and/or a combination of all three.
The Mamamia podcast network features around 50 different shows and 90 female hosts. According to their website, “it’s the largest women’s podcast network in the world.” Their podcast journey will be of interest to traditional publishers with similar audio ambitions.
Areas such as events, courses and research are among the tactics a number of publishers are also exploring as part of their efforts to diversify their revenues. The lessons Front Office Sports learned from these efforts is therefore relevant beyond the creator economy.
4. Reach new audiences where they are
Publishers are increasingly moving into spaces like TikTok and Twitch in an effort to engage new (often younger) audiences. To make these efforts more successful, it can pay to hire staffers conversant with the style and tone of the creator economy.
NPR’s Planet Money might seem like a venerable show, but its TikTok account counters that perception. Run by 25-year-old Jack Corbett, it has nearly 750,000 followers. Teen Vogue describes Corbett as “a wacky-professor figure, a talented TikTok comedian, and most importantly, a guide through the largely inaccessible world of economics.”
For NPR, Corbett’s skills potentially brings audiences to Planet Money’s content who would otherwise find it inaccessible, or assume it wasn’t for them. It’s a tactic others should study, if not try to duplicate.
5. Unlock the potential for partnerships
Publishers might, rightly, see the creator economy as a source for talent. But, those hires don’t necessarily need to be full time. Partnerships offer another approach that can potentially work for both parties.
Moves such as this enable publishers to benefit from a creator’s established audience and recognized expertise. (And in turn, creators may also benefit from an association with, and the resources of, a trusted mainstream media brand.)
Creators have a built-in following and have demonstrated that audiences value their voice and viewpoint. Partnering with them can help publishers diversify their own voice and content offering. This provides a gateway to new audiences for other content and products.
What’s next? Two trends to follow.
The creator economy is home to valuable case studies, talent and skills that the wider media industry can benefit from.
This may become especially acute given the latest set of changes to Facebook’s mobile product. The move is part of what New York Magazine’s John Herrman refers to as social media’s “race to see who can copy TikTok the fastest and with the least dignity.” As a result, It may put a premium on the style and types of content that are the bread and butter of what many top creators produce.
“The algorithm changes will probably push publishers to create more short-form video content,” predicts Owens. “I wouldn’t be surprised if publishers start looking more and more for prior TikTok/Instagram Reels experience when hiring out their social media teams.”
For Yurieff, one potential trend to note is the migration of online conversations into “more private spaces… I think that’s something really to watch,” she says.
She cites Discord as an example of a platform which now has “lots of different niches and groups and audiences using it.” It’s part of a wider move among online users to connect in smaller groups, communicating privately and potentially going deeper on certain topics, Yurieff says. These are principles more publishers might want to get on board with.
In that vein, The Information’s move to create opportunities for its subscribers to network directly with each other demonstrates how some of the community principles evident in the creator economy can be applied by media outlets.
The growth of the industry, and the success of some of its proponents, means that if the creator economy is not on your radar yet, then it should be.
For publishers, the maturing of the creator economy, and the growing numbers engaged in (and with) it, present a number of learning opportunities. We need to be looking at the creator economy, as well as the more traditional media industry, for case studies, talent and insights into how to respond to the next wave of digital disruption.
Yet, despite its growth, “this new breed of creators may be looked upon as charlatans and opportunists by some purists in traditional publishing,” suggests Josep Nolla, VP, Business Development & Partnerships at the e-commerce provider Bolt. “But the reality is there are more similarities than differences between this exciting new economy and traditional publishing,” Nolla advises.
Creators, like traditional publishers, are looking to drive subscriptions, diversify their revenues, and generate engagement and loyalty. They may use different platforms, content styles, or verticals to do this. But arguably, a lot of their core business goals are the same. And there’s a lot to be learned in these similarities – and maybe even more from the differences.
Care to disagree? Then let’s debate it on Discord!
The Center for Cooperative Media sees collaborative journalism as a way to share power among journalists, readers and others to deliver information that centers and addresses people’s needs. They believe that collaboration can be particularly impactful when it involves the community.
Their research analyzes three collaborative journalism experiments in Europe:
The Bureau Local in the U.K is a nonprofit collaboration of journalists and non-journalists (data scientists, academics, citizens, etc.) engaging in topic-driven reporting projects.
“L’Italia Delle Slot” in Italy is a collaboration among one legacy, and two start-up news organizations focused on a single topic.
Lännen Media in Finland is a co-op collaboration among regional news organizations through shared content production and distribution.
They conducted 29 interviews among journalists, senior management, community organizers, data analysts, technical experts, and others.
Each of the three publications offers different collaboration models:
This is a co-op model where similar news organizations join on specific topics and do not compete. They manage daily reports via video conferencing and skype with editors and share a content management system to follow what they work on in the different newsrooms.
This setup allows journalists to rotate into the cooperative from the regional newsrooms for two or three years and then return to their original masthead. While larger newspapers contribute more, all members share the costs of running Lännen Media.
“L’Italia Delle Slot
A contractor model that establishes a commercial contract to dictate the collaboration among organizations with specific areas of expertise. In this case, a large legacy news publisher combines efforts with two data-journalism-focused start-ups. In 2013, Effecinque, a start-up, began researching the increase in slot machines in Italy. Effecinque partnered with Dataninja, a data-journalism network, to investigate if slot machines in Italy correlated to the rise in gambling addiction. Effecinque and Dataninja partnered with GEDI Visual Lab to produce a web portal, data visualizations, videos, and other interactive content to showcase the details of the investigation.
This approach allowed the two start-up organizations, GEDI and 13 local newspapers, to define their roles based on areas of expertise. Further, the 13 local newsrooms provided local knowledge to tell the stories about their community using the data set.
The Bureau Local
This project-based collaborative model relies on a nonprofit to act as a central hub that coordinates and supports parallel investigations. It’s often a diverse collaboration from regional BBC bureaus to commercial, chain-owned newspapers to independent local dailies, community-owned sites, and freelancers. Many organizations share data managed by a NGO nonprofit newsroom focused on public interest. This also allows for non-journalists such as data scientists, designers, and others to work together. This type of collaboration often coordinates investigations across national and local levels to help drive discussions among local and national politicians and policymakers.
The digital media ecosystem is a great environment to start collaborations such as establishing networks across localities and shared resources. Jenkins’ and Grave’s research illustrates three collaborative journalism models to showcase each of their unique approaches. Lännen Media’s co-op model shares resources across regional newspapers, “L’Italia Delle Slot’s” contractor model engages expert journalists on short-term investigations. The Bureau Local NGO model manages a shared database by a nonprofit. Each model offers a viable model for publisher sustainability – maintaining a healthy structure of shared economics, goals, and healthy competition.
Sponsored content plays a sizeable role in publishers’ revenue model. According to eMarketer, ad spend on sponsored content in 2021 neared $57 billion. Advertisers find the high production quality of today’s sponsored content a compelling marketing vehicle. As a result, audiences often find it difficult to differentiate between sponsor content and actual news content. Therefore, the FTC requires publishers to label it as advertising. As the market for it grows, it’s essential to understand how the publishers’ production and reliance on sponsored content affects news content.
An advertising quandary
While sponsored content has been around a long time, it’s grown significantly in the past 10 years in the digital media sector. Marketers value the “halo effect” of a publisher’s editorial integrity offering strong reader engagement. Sponsored content is usually a narrative, which contrasts with display and video ads. It often includes custom video, interactive elements, and high-end graphic designs.
Many premium publishers have content studios dedicated to creating sponsored content. The New York Times (NYT) launched T Brand Studio, The Washington Post (WP) owns BrandStudio, and The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) has The Trust.
In a two-step process, Amazeen and Vargo identified 27 sponsored content articles in WP, the NYT, and WSJ across five years. They first scraped the content studios’ Twitter accounts to identify sponsored content links. They then used a custom Bing program to search for sponsored content links inside the news websites. The 27 sponsors include Verizon, Airbus, Volvo, American Petroleum Institute, Dow Jones, Qualcomm, Holiday Inn, Huawei, Purdue Pharma, Netflix, Gartner, Subaru, Oracle, Fox Sports, Deloitte, Walmart, Nordstrom, Allergan, Accenture, Lockheed Martin, Samsung, IBM, Wells Fargo, MetLife, Delta Air Lines, Aetna, and Starz.
The researchers then used the Global Database of Events Language and Tone (GDELT), a news article database, to match sponsored content mentions of corporations and brands to articles matching the corporate or brand sponsor. In all, they found 2,707 articles related to the companies and brands sponsoring content.
The research assessed the relationship of corporate sponsorship to news coverage of the same company across time. The analysis evaluated whether publishers filtered and shaped their news accordingly to accommodate corporate sponsorship. This practice is known as agenda setting. It refers to how the news publishers can influence which issues become the focus of public attention. In the case of sponsored content, publishers can add news coverage of a company and brand or reduce and cut their news coverage.
They divided the news articles into two segments for further analysis:
Elite publishers (NYT, WP, and WSJ), and
General (non-premium) news media landscape.
Omitting any seasonality mentions (i.e., earning calls), 20 of the 27 sponsored content companies showed at least one instance of agenda cutting or agenda building.
Further, of the 27 brands analyzed, only three companies showed an agenda-building effect among elite publishers: Huawei, Qualcomm, and Purdue Pharma. Amazeen and Vargo conclude that agenda building is a less likely occurrence with sponsored content companies or brands.
In addition, seven brands showed significant agenda-cutting effects among premium publishers: Netflix, Nordstrom, Starz, Wells Fargo, Aetna, Oracle, and Qualcomm. The researchers also found a significantly higher agenda-cutting effects across the entire U.S. media landscape — 14 companies and brands.
Amazeen and Vargo acknowledge that the news media is not immune to internal and external forces in their newsrooms. Publishers often set guidelines for creative and narrative executions in content studios. Amazeen and Vargo suggest publishers monitor and develop measures to assess the additional news coverage or lack of for companies and brands of sponsored content.
When we talk about minority groups should we use BIPOC, POC, something different or nothing at all? It’s a question posed in America many times since the death of George Floyd in May 2020 – from Newsweek to The New York Times.
His murder sparked a similar debate across the pond over the United Kingdom’s equivalent acronym: Should BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) be used by British broadcasters?
Taking collective action
At the end of 2021, four of the UK’s major broadcasters formulated an answer. They committed to avoid using the collective term in their corporate communications, content and editorial news content. Instead, they would use more specific terms where available.
For Miranda Wayland, the BBC’s Head of Creative and Workforce Diversity and Inclusion, the departure from the catch-all term allows for a greater acknowledgement of the experience of people from different ethnic backgrounds.
“As a creative industry we are focused on increasing representation, so our content reflects society,” she said. “At the heart of representation is how we recognize people’s varied lived experiences and their identity. The more specific we are when describing someone’s heritage, the better we represent them. In turn, we create more inclusive and relevant content for our audiences.”
UK broadcasters – the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5/Viacom CBS UK – agreed to avoid “wherever possible” the BAME acronym following a report the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity. Commissioned by the BBC, the study stated that “A major concern, apparent in recent public responses to BAME, is that it homogenises culturally distinct social groups.”
A question of trust
Through interviews and audience research, the report’s authors found there was a lack of trust around the term BAME because of a belief that it has been used to hide failings in the representation of specific ethnic groups. They wrote: “Several interviewees illustrated this point by saying organisations are quick to announce hitting ‘BAME targets’ but what does that mean if there is still massive black under representation or east Asian representation.”
The researchers did acknowledge, however, that it would not be realistic to remove BAME terminology altogether because it is widely used in society. However, where BAME must be used, content-makers will strive to ensure that any use of the term is accompanied by an explanation. This will be achieved, for example, by stating that ”data for ethnic groups is unavailable.” Another solution is writing out the acronym in full – “black, Asian and minority ethnic” – to recognize the constituent groups that make up the collective term.
Sarita Malik, Professor of Media and Culture at Brunel University London and Academic Lead on the Report, said broadcasters need to acknowledge the importance of language as part of wider work to tackle racial disparities.
“Language is a really important issue for media and cultural organizations to look at when trying to tackle inequalities,” she said. “At the heart of the issue is a power dynamic; a power dynamic between those who have the power to label and those who are labelled. Our research identified a mostly negative sentiment towards the grouping of people under collective terms.”
She added that “Committing to use language in more culturally nuanced ways can help to deepen understandings of different ethnic groups. This is one of the ways in which trust can be built with audiences.”
Supporting cultural nuance
As Professor Malik observes, broadcasters need to give their content-makers the right support and resources so they can get their language right and add nuance to their work. At the BBC, the content-makers’ inclusion toolkit seeks to provide such support. Tools include Ipsos MORI’s Language Matters audience research, which echoes the findings of the BAME report by concluding that “specificity around identity is key”.
“In communicating, we often seek to oversimplify. But, when it comes to identity, ensuring the full nuances of someone’s identity are acknowledged as important,” said the Ipsos MORI researchers. “We see this when it comes to how ethnic and national identity interact with one another and how individuals navigate between these two aspects of their identity.”
Participants in the research succinctly illustrated the point. “I always say I’m Indian even though I am a British citizen. I am proud of my Heritage,” he said. Another explained: “My identity shouldn’t be defined by what ‘colour’ I am. I’m an individual and part of a diverse community with a diverse heritage.”
We are not the same
Understanding this type of nuance is at the heart of the BBC Audience’s BAME: We’re Not the Same report. It explores the culture, identity and heritage of the six largest ethnic minority groups in England and Wales – Indian, Pakistani, Black African, Black Caribbean, Bangladeshi and Chinese.
BBC Senior Audience Planner Helen Xa-Thomas began work on the report after noticing that content-makers had no tools to help them move away from “bucket terminology” and address the “nuance” within groups.
“All our identities are so multifaceted and complex. We are never just one entity of our identity,” she explained. “Labeling is a symptom of the shortcuts that we use as an industry. We all think very much demographic first and that can be problematic. For example, when we say ‘youth’ as if all young people are exactly the same.”
She continued: “It’s about understanding, culture and identity for different groups and making us more consciously aware of those differences. Because we are not the same.”
The BBC Audience’s report is backed by the Corporation’s Director of Creative Diversity, June Sarpong, who encouraged people “to grab a coffee and take a moment out to read this insightful BBC Audiences research”.
“This report starts to unpack ‘BAME’ because a ‘one size fits all’ approach doesn’t help us appreciate the complexity and richness of identities that fall within it,” she wrote in her foreword to the report. “One of the barriers we face when seeking to address the diversity deficit is the limits of our own perspective.”
She also pointed out that “The catch-all term of BAME may feel a like a convenient box for those interested in counting people. But when you fail to acknowledge the difference in people’s lived experience and history then people won’t feel like they count.”
As stated previously, four of the UK’s major broadcasters have committed to ensuring that people feel better represented by avoiding the use of BAME.
Marcus Ryder, Head of External Consultancies at Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity, applauded the decision to adopt the report’s recommendation. He believes there are wider themes that can be taken from the research and applied by content-makers – trust, transparency and the need for bravery.
“As a Black person, when I see the Covid reports I am thinking ‘how does it affect Black people?’ When a journalist just stops short and says People of Colour, it feels as if they’re not representing me properly,’ he said. “So even if you don’t have the information you should acknowledge it as you’re acknowledging that question of how it affects me.
“Admit what you don’t know. If the story was ‘Covid affects People of Color or BAME more according to the latest statistics’ but there’s no breakdown, then say that they have not provided us with more detailed information as to how it affects individual specific races.”
Ryder also said content-makers need to ensure that they are not using BAME, or BIPOC or People of Color because they are “scared to use the term white”.
“Sometimes collective terms are used as a way to avoid using the word white and so we should also ensure that we aren’t just using a term as a way to avoid white,” he explained.
“Lots of studies have shown that white people often think of themselves as being raceless. If we want to have a serious conversation about race, then we need to ensure that we don’t just talk about race of non-white people.”
What each of the reports and research illustrate is that catch-all terminology erodes the trust of the audience, which could cause them to tune out (or worse, log off). As we address increasingly diverse audiences, there is an altogether reasonable expectation that our language, and its use, adapts.
Make it short. Show real stuff. This may seem obvious, but these are best practices in video length and content authenticity for Gen Z audiences.
Gen Z, born between 1998 and 2016, spends a lot of time watching videos on social media. And last year, Gen Z’s video consumption increased: Snapchat reported that Gen Z watched over an hour each day of video content on social media apps alone. They value video more than any other media platform, by a margin of roughly 2-to-1 over social, gaming, music or Google search, according to a recent study by DCN. They prefer video, specifically user-generated content, due to its relatability and personability.
Understanding that Gen Z viewers and consumers have different behaviors, values, and attitudes when it comes to video is important because it can impact your audience of the future, your strategy, and your revenue. It will also help you withstand shifts in viewer tastes and larger shifts in the media landscape. Building relationships with this generation of viewers, readers, consumers, starts now.
Video length on TikTok
Video length varies by platform, and there are a lot of platforms to choose from. Gen Z favors Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, according to a Pew survey in 2021.
Video content on TikTok must be extremely short. In fact, 50 seconds is long, according to Erin Weaver, Group Nine Media’s Senior Director of Audience Development. For Gen Z-favored platforms Snapchat and TikTok, video length needs to be short and videos need to be fast-paced, according to Weaver. “On TikTok, I consider anything between 30 and 60 seconds to be almost the default. And then slightly longer is over one minute up to three minutes. We’ve seen some success with longer videos, as long as they’re really engaging and interesting.”
Brittiany Cierra Taylor, director of audience development at BET, says she sees similar results. “Our audience development team has been trying out shorts and they’ve seen that they were amazing in getting new views, new viewers and from an ad perspective, we see more ads, more earned views. That shortness really is the key because we noticed that the sweet spot on TikTok is seven seconds where you see that jump that engagement,” she said.
“Our TikTok partners always encourage us to create shorter and more succinct videos, as they do tend to perform well on the platform,” says Kelsey Alpaio, an editor and producer with Harvard Business Review’s Ascend brand for young professionals, “But, that doesn’t mean long videos are off limits. The majority of our top-viewed videos are more than 50 seconds long. If people are interested in the content, they will stick around.”
Video length on YouTube
On YouTube, videos that are 2-4 minutes long work well for Harvard Business Review, but they also see success with videos that are longer, about 10-14 minutes each.
Scott LaPierre, Harvard Business Review’s senior editor for multimedia, says that for YouTube, trends around length are similar. Length is less important than topic and storytelling. LaPierre says HBR’s more authentic and honest videos on YouTube, which are casual, host- and personality-driven, perform about as well in the long run as their more traditional content. “Both have about an even number of breakout successes, and comparable average performers,” he says. “The video’s topic, and how compellingly it delivers on that topic are still the primary factors in the number of views and how long people watch, whether traditional or authentic in style.”
Short and medium-length videos at about two to nine minutes each work best on YouTube, for a broad reach. And longer (10-15 minutes) seems to work to deepen engagement with established fans, LaPierre said. “Shorter videos seem to have broader reach while longer videos seem to have deeper engagement. Long for us is around 10-15 minutes. Short is two to four. Most of our current video lineup is in the middle: six-to-nine-minute range. Anything over about 15 minutes does not perform great on our channel.” (Live video is a different conversation where lengths over 15 are more the norm.)
Optimize for story
“It really depends on the goal of the story and whatever length makes the storytelling complete,” says Zainab Khan, associate director of audience, video at The New York Times. “We might do a months-long investigation that merits a 12-minute video. What we see, because we edit our videos for pacing and storytelling, if a video is longer, we get more overall watch time. But we’re really rigorous about thinking about length so it fits the needs of the story. And in some cases, that means the best way to share a story means to do a quick 30-second snippet, showing viewers what’s happening on the ground.”
All of the digital content companies we spoke to said that storytelling trumps minutes and seconds. Video content should be as long as it needs to be, to tell an engaging story. LaPierre says, “Topic and storytelling generally trump length or style. So, my rule of thumb is: make it as short as possible, but no shorter.”
Best practices for user-generated content are that video content must be low lit, not super polished, and not have a high production quality.Often, it is a selfie-style cell phone footage. It’s casual, host- and personality-driven. It is concise, engaging, and easy to produce. It shows people talking about what they care passionately about.
Harvard Business Review aims to make some of their videos in that user-generated style, LaPierre says. “For me, the best way to get authentic-feeling video is to have people talk about what they care passionately about,” he says.
Ascend Multimedia Producer Andy Robinson explains they try to find a sweet spot between having a polished feel and showing the real world. “My rule is, show the real stuff whenever possible. We’ve been leaning heavily on less-overly produced elements in our video content. Audiences can smell something that is highly produced, over scripted, over thought.”
Group Nine makes a point of putting people as the focal point of their UGC content, explains Weaver. “For PopSugar, a tutorial on applying makeup does a lot better than a product review or something that’s mostly focused on beauty products or a workout. You should see people doing the workouts, not so much like a description of the movements.”
At The New York Times, best practice for finding authenticity in a creator’s work is to have a deep understanding of the company’s values and to find common ground with their audience, Khan says. “It’s really important for us, when we want to build trust with our audience, we show our authentic selves. We literally put our reporters on screen in a way that helps the audience understand who is doing the reporting,” Khan says.
Gen Z has a bullshit detector
Gen Z’s desire for authenticity has been well documented. They want brands to be transparent, authentic and trustworthy. Gen Z audiences have spent their lives surrounded by digital technology. They’re incredibly discerning and know how to filter content that lacks the right tone, language, relevance or value. “What I love about Gen Z is that they hold companies more accountable,” Taylor says. “They’re doing the fact-checking, they’re doing the homework, they’re seeing if your staff resembles the world, if your content resembles the world year round. Is your message consistent and congruent in the content that you showed me? That’s actually one thing I love about them because it forces brands to be authentic.”
Authenticity is the way to grow audiences, Taylor explains. “I think that if you want to stay around, that is the basic component that audiences are resonating with. So, if you’re not going to be authentic, you’re not going to meet the KPIs you want, you’re not going to grow your audience, you’re not going to hit your revenue… So, from an audience perspective, a revenue perspective, authenticity is just the way to move forward.”
Be real, not trendy
“In the long term, if your identity and authenticity are dependent on a trend, you only last as long as that trend,” Khan says. “On the other hand, if your company has a handle on its core values, and what sets you apart from your peers and competitors, you can choose which trends to follow. And it means you can withstand shifts in the media and shifts in viewer taste.”
LaPierre says content authenticity connotes honesty, vulnerability, transparency, and relatability, which may not always have been top priorities for publishers. “And, we’ve seen some of the distrust in media that can result,” he says. “Show your flaws, show that your content is made by real people with real concerns that overlap with your audience’s, and show your work–it’s about building a trusting relationship over time.”
For their audience of the future, digital content companies need to put real intention behind the content they create and innovate constantly. As one expert put it, you need to think about who you’re talking to, and create content that is meaningful to them. It’s a lot of effort trying to please Gen Z, but if you’re not putting in the effort, you’re not going to get the results. This is your future audience, after all.
The business case for diversity has been made time and again. In fact, according to McKinsey, the relationship between ethnic, gender, and cultural diversity and financial outperformance has only grown in the years since the company first outlined its importance. And when it comes to newsrooms, the philosophical, moral, and business rational for improving diversity are also evident.
It is certainly heartening to see the impressive — even historic — rise of female and diverse newsroom leadership in the past year or two. For the first time ever, Black executives lead every major broadcast news network in the U.S. Women and people of color have also assumed leadership roles at dozens of major media brands. However, as HuffPost Editor-in-Chief Danielle Belton, who is Black, suggested to CNN, truly diverse representation in media won’t be achieved simply by hiring women and people of color to fill top roles.
In order to better serve the diverse population it reaches, the media industry must reflect that population from the boardroom to product development and from the newsroom to the sales team. It must also reflect these audiences in its sourcing and reporting. Hiring is one of the most visible ways media organizations are changing right now. However, there are also a number of taking tactical approaches that are meaningfully moving the needle.
50/50 and beyond
In 2017, the BBC launched the 50:50 Project, challenging its teams to achieve 50% female representation in BBC content. Today, the company says that 70% of its content features 50% women contributors. And this initiative is not limited to the BBC. The project partners with more than 100 organizations in 26 countries. The network includes public and private media, academia, conference businesses, law, public relations, and corporations. The 50:50 Project recently announced it will also strive for better inclusion of ethnic minorities and disabled people and those. The aim to achieve a 50:20:12 balance.
The BBC approach is fairly straightforward. Participants monitor the numbers of contributors in their content to set benchmarks for their chosen diversity measures. They then track their progress against those benchmarks as content is produced. Teams continually share and discuss the data which informs editorial decisions.
The BBC has found that the longer teams monitor and share data regularly, the more likely they are to create cultural change. 50:50 has enabled teams to identify topic areas where women or other diversities are under-represented, such as science or sports. It has also encouraged content makers to think differently about the stories they choose to tell. Reporters continually seek new voices and different perspectives to enrich their output.
Working on workflow
NPR recently announced a new initiative to track the demographics of its sources in real time. The tool, called “Dex”, is integrated with the company’s content management system. Dex allows NPR reporters to easily monitor the diversity of sources’ race and ethnicity, gender identity, geographic location, and age range. Over time it will also become a robust database to identify more diverse sources as well.
Deputy director of news operations Rolando Arrieta told Poynter that incorporating the tool into the company’s CMS makes diversity an integral part of the newsgathering and reporting process. Dex also allows for continuous monitoring, unlike the annual diversity reports many organizations produce. And, as Arrieta points out, simply counting sources is not enough. Creating a continuously updated resource for diverse sourcing and integrating diversity into content creators’ processes facilitates continuous awareness and improvement.
Tactics and tools beyond hiring and sourcing are increasingly emerging. They are intended to assist in diversity objectives, but sometimes create a business opportunity in themselves.
Nielson introduced a tool earlier this year designed to better allow content creators, distributors, and advertisers to quantify their progress in diversifying representation on the small screen. Gracenote Inclusion Analytics measures how the screen time of various identity groups (such as people from a specific gender identity, sexual orientation, race, or ethnicity) stack up against certain benchmarks.
Bloomberg’s Gender-Equality Index (GEI) tracks the performance of public companies committed to disclosing their efforts to support gender equality through policy development, representation, and transparency. The organization’s New Voices initiative works to increase the representation of women and minority executives as sources in both online and on-air content. Recently, the company expanded its objectives to be more inclusive of a range of gender identities as well.
Certainly, it is heartening to witness the recent spate of DEI executive appointments. It is encouraging to see the newsroom leadership begin to lose its pallor. However, it is also significant to see media companies not only recognize the value of diverse leadership, but also the critical role of incorporating diversity into the culture and workflow of their organizations. If diversity is the goal, there is no one simple answer. But with a combination of leadership, trust, transparency, and tools the media business can begin to build solutions.
Though automated journalism is not new, the pandemic — characterized by a slew of data driven stories — accelerated adoption for some newsrooms. By in large, automated approaches use a natural language generation (NLG) application to automatically transform data into human-readable text. It has long been used for weather and sports, as well as financial market updates. However, it has been making significant in-roads at a wide range of newsrooms and other coverage areas over the past decade.
Early adopters included The Los Angeles Times, which used NLG to for earthquake alerts and to report on homicides, and the Associated press, which used it for corporate earnings. Today, numerous media organizations are adopting automated journalism in their newsrooms and a wide range of storytelling practices.
In a new report, Samuel Danzon-Chambaud, a Knight News Innovation fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, examines how automated news has been used to cover the pandemic. Covering COVID-19 with automated news outlines use cases at nine news outlets in eight countries to reveal both opportunities and stumbling blocks in adopting automated storytelling processes.
The media organizations include:
Bayerischer Rundfunk (Bavaria’s public service broadcaster, Germany);
Bloomberg News (news agency, United States);
Canadian Press (news agency, Canada);
Helsingin Sanomat (newspaper, Finland);
NTB (news agency, Norway);
Omni (news service, Sweden);
RADAR (news agency, United Kingdom);
Tamedia (media group, Switzerland); and
The Times (newspaper, United Kingdom).
Rethinking the process
Using automated storytelling tools requires newsrooms to rethink their process from data sources to workflow and operations. For starters, it’s important to ask the following questions:
How will the automated content serve readers?
What metrics are needed?
Who are the data sources?
How often will you update the data?
How will you upload the data into a usable information?
Will your CMS allow easy data integration?
How does the automation process fit into the current workflow?
In terms of the pandemic, automated news coverage offered timely updates on the spread of the virus. News outlets were able to provide audiences with dashboards and newsletters as well as automated or semi-automated graphics. Publishers also created new news products such as an automated-live blogging platform.
Case studies show challenges met in real-time
Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR), Bavaria’s public service broadcaster questioned which metrics to track. They started by tracking absolute increase in Covid cases and total numbers of cases. However, early in the process they realized the data did not allow them to track the evolution of the virus. They quickly pivoted and switched their focus to access more detailed data points such as doubling times, reproductive numbers, and 7-day incidence rates. This allowed for more robust reporting and updates on the virus.
For some news outlets, CMS issues can prevent full-on automation. At The Times, a newspaper in the UK, the process could not be completely automated. After the text was generated and edited, it had to be copied and pasted it into the newspaper’s CMS. Unfortunately, the numbers were often outdated by the time the story was ready for publication. The data and interactive team were called upon to change their workflow until the automation process could be integrated into the CMS. The new workflow allowed journalists to update the data in their articles without an editorial review, unless the story’s lead changed.
Using automated news to develop new workflows
Bloomberg News, a news outlet in the U.S., uses their automated news process to extract relevant information on companies’ financial statements and reports. The automated system is connected to an AI-powered system to analyze the data through “knowledge graphs.” These graphs combine different data silos and illustrates the relationship between them.
Bloomberg’s process includes machine-learning elements in the analysis of the knowledge graphs. However, it’s also important to point out the human effort is needed in writing scripts in advance to prepare for the potential scenario in the analysis. Bloomberg News was able to include their business insight in their Covid-19 analysis to assess the economic impacts of the pandemic. Their Covid-19 analysis included assessment of metro riders to flight reservations, restaurant bookings, and supermarket visits.
Automated news invites new technology — and opportunity —into the newsroom. Increasingly, newsrooms are thinking of new ways to incorporate automated practices into their product development roadmap. Next steps include ideas such as an alert system to inform teams when new data is being released and cloud storage services to keep track of historical data.
The more that media practitioners engage with automated news systems, the better their ability to manage the process and foresee potential disconnects. Importantly, keeping reporters involved in this process will ensure that journalistic standards are encoded into the automated content creation process.
Allow me to pose a few questions: Why doesn’t the U.S. have a modern high-speed rail system or solve the issue of droughts? Why doesn’t the U.S. have a national electronic grid to leverage solar and wind power? At least part of the answer is a reluctance to accept and adapt to new technologies.
Blockchain can and will play a significant role in each of these applications and services. However, blockchain is plagued by the negative stain of cryptocurrencies and a lack of understanding of the technology and its capabilities. That does not mean that we can afford to ignore it.
So, my question for you is, “Are you preparing your company to take advantage and leverage blockchain technology to grow your business and remain competitive?”
Without a doubt, blockchain is poised to impact the media business. That future will demonstrate the full force of Tim Berner Lee’s paper about the semantic web and blockchain will play a critical role. The blockchain train is about to leave the station, and you’d better make sure you have a ticket and get on board.
Blockchain technology will create new business opportunities in all sectors. Media companies have been slow to adapt to some critical technology evolutions in the past, which cost them dearly. We can’t afford to let blockchain to be another missed opportunity.
Are you blockchain-ready?
As an executive, understanding new technologies is essential. That’s because it could mean the difference between growing your business or going out of business.
So, how ready are you and your company for blockchain? Take this simple quiz to find out:
My company and I have a complete understanding of blockchain technology.
Blockchain will become an intricate part of business processes and applications.
We have or are currently working on an application of blockchain technology.
We have a working blockchain application that we are commercializing.
My company sees blockchain as the strategic next technology for the next 10 years.
For every question that you answered, yes, give yourself 20 points. I have applied a score across each section of Roger’s Diffusion Curve in my rather unscientific study.
If you scored under 60 points, I would like you to consider the “what ifs” of not first understanding blockchain technology and how it could play a significant role in your business.
History has taught us that even brilliant minds can miss out on significant shifts. To put this in perspective, here are three examples of how a leading company ignored emerging technological and business model changes and eventually lost their business as a result.
Telerate vs. Bloomberg
Before Bloomberg, there was Telerate. Founded in 1969, the Telerate system was the dominant terminal for Fixed Income Securities in the world. Dow Jones & Company, Inc. initially purchased a 32% stake in 1985. Eventually, Dow Jones purchased the remaining shares, bringing their total investment to $2 billion.
Founded in 1981, Bloomberg’s terminals first started to appear in Merrill Lynch offices in 1985.
By 1998 Bloomberg had displaced Telerate. Dow Jones had to sell Telerate to Bridge Information Systems for $510 million, a loss of $1.4 billion!
What happened? How did Telerate lose their luster, their dominance, and market share to Bloomberg? Data analytics, back-office systems, and customer service were the differentiators.
Blockbuster vs. Netflix
Founded in 1985, Blockbuster, became the dominant player in the consumer movie rental business, only to be upended by Netflix just over a decade later. Netflix created a new business model by mailing discs versus Blockbuster brick-and-mortar stores. The Netflix business model provided selection, convenience, low price, and satisfaction.
But Netflix did not stop there. Instead of just shipping DVDs, Netflix created a streaming service that competed with linear television and every premium film channel. Netflix beat HBO in a business that HBO created. Now media brands are trying to claw their way back with branded streaming offerings, but this isn’t going to be easy to do.
Sears vs. Amazon
Last but not least is Sears, which published the Christmas wish book catalog, and iconic brands like Craftsman and Kenmore, only to be squashed by the e-commerce king, Amazon. While Amazon was building a seamless ecommerce platform, Sears remained anchored to brick and mortar. Consumers loved the convenience of shopping from home. So, Sears — along with any number of retail businesses that failed to evolve — fell by the wayside.
Time and again, newcomers leverage new technology and business models to overtake the industry leaders. Blockchain is no different. If you aren’t already figuring out how it will transform your business, you are ripe for disruption by someone who is.
These days, blockchain is being used for Asset Management, Insurance Claims processing, Cross Border Payments, Smart Property, and the Internet of Things. This article from Sam Daley highlights 30 Blockchain applications across many industries. The developments he outlines are just the beginning.
Blockchain and the future of media
Clearly, media companies have fully embraced digital. However, they are overlooking the possibilities blockchain has to offer to improve many aspects of their businesses. Blockchain technology can be integrated into multiple areas but here are a few examples that should appeal directly to media executives:
Launched in 2019, Eluvio Content Fabric uses blockchain technology to enable content producers to manage and distribute premium video to consumers and business partners without content delivery networks. It provides low latency, high quality (4K) content distribution, content monetization, and just-in-time streaming. It’s already being used by MGM Studios and FOX Networks, so it’s time to consider new ways to deliver streaming content.
Blockchain-based smart contracts are contracts can be partially or fully executed or enforced without human interaction. Smart contracts are digital and embedded with an if-this-then-that (IFTTT) code, which gives them self-execution. In real life, an intermediary ensures that all parties follow through on terms.
Mediachain uses smart contracts to get musicians the money they deserve. By entering into a decentralized, transparent contract, artists can agree to higher royalties and get paid fully and on time. Streaming giant Spotify acquired Mediachain in April 2017. Given the increasing complexity of multiplatform content distribution, media executives will want to take a closer look at this business opportunity.
MadHive is a blockchain-based advertising and data solution for digital marketers. The platform tracks, stores, and generates reports on customer activity, saving all the data to a private blockchain. MadHive’s targeted audience reports and real-time data monitoring give advertisers’ insights into their customers without compromising data privacy.
Clearly, digital advertising remains one of the largest revenue streams for many media businesses. However, increased consumer concern (and regulations) around privacy point to a need for new strategies. Blockchain provides detailed and precise information and data points that media executives would be wise to explore.
Steem is a social media platform backed by blockchain. Its “Proof-of-Brain” community uses tokens as incentives, encouraging people to create original content. The amount of tokens distributed is based on the number of upvotes each article receives. Steem has paid over $40 million in tokens to creators. Blockchain is providing new business models and content creation models like this and media executives cannot afford to ignore the possibilities.
Blockchain for better business
My recent book, “Transforming Scholarly Research with Blockchain Technologies and A.I.”, provides a slew of examples of how Blockchain is transforming a wide range of industries. Don’t be lulled into under-rating its potential to impact the media business because of the shadow of cryptocurrencies. Blockchain will open new networks, improve efficiencies that will reduce cost, increase accessibility, transparency, and effectiveness.
Media companies that adopt this technology will position their company and team members for extraordinary success.
About the author
Darrell, an experienced digital publishing executive, has been at the forefront of significant information industry initiatives, i.e., Factiva, ScienceDirect, Scopus, BiomedExperts.com, ReviewerFinder, Underline, and Ripeta. Gunter Media Group, Inc. has advised many CEOs from startups to the most prominent publishers.
He is the author of the edited volume, “Transforming Scholarly Research with Blockchain Technologies and A.I.” His other publications can be accessed via his ORCID profile.
He is a graduate of Seton Hall University’s W. Paul Stillman School of Business (B.S. Business Administration- Marketing) and Lake Forest Graduate School of Management (MBA).
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.”
When the Covid-19 pandemic shut down gyms across the United States last year, people were forced to get creative with their workouts. POPSUGAR met the moment by bulking up its fitness content. However, even as gyms open up, the women-focused digital lifestyle brand is betting at-home workouts are here to stay. They’ve also seen that fitness serves as part of an overall content and monetization strategy that is good for audiences, and the brand’s bottom line.
Fitness was a core part of POPSUGAR’s video strategy long before the pandemic upended lives around the world. POPSUGAR got into fitness content in 2006. It launched a signature video franchise, dubbed Class Fitsugar, in 2012, which now sees an average of 1 million views per video.
Fitness content helped propel POPSUGAR’s rapid growth on Facebook in 2015. By January 2020, the brand launched a curated 4 Week Full-Body Fusion program. The collection of 25 workouts, each under 45 minutes, carries a one-time fee of $19.99.
As the Covid-19 pandemic spread in 2020, POPSUGAR released more than 200workouts across social media platforms and its own website. It amassed more than 3 million new subscribers on YouTube in 2020 alone, where its total audience now stands above 5.5 million.
The brand, which is part of Group Nine Media, now hosts live workouts with top trainers on Instagram stories and YouTube. It launches Snapchat popups, and posts on-demand workouts to Facebook, Twitter, and the POPSUGAR website. “This year, we’re continuing to see growth and audience attention on these workouts,” POPSUGAR GM Angelica Marden said.
Bite-sized multiplatform content isn’t just for news
Have just a few minutes to spare? No problem. POPSUGAR created a series of short workouts that require nothing more than a phone.
Unlike going to the gym, working out at home is about fitting fitness into your life wherever you can, according to Jennifer Fields, a new deputy editor hired from WebMD to oversee POPSUGAR’s fitness content. That could mean sliping a 5-minute ab workout in between zoom meetings or a 3-minute BTS cardio workout whenever you can carve out 270 seconds for yourself. Or it could be making a 15-minute HIIT class on YouTube part of your morning routine.
POPSUGAR’s goal is to “meet audiences wherever people spend their time,” Fields said. “So many people are looking for ways to exercise at home. There’s a freedom that comes with at-home workouts.”
The rise of at home fitness over the course of the pandemic has made it possible for friends to workout with one another despite geographic separations and differing time zones. It’s also made it easy for audiences to take classes from the farthest flung of their favorite fitness instructors.
Free is key
In early 2020, the company was exploring audience-supported models, such as it’s flat fee Full-Body Fusion program. In fact, it had plans to release a subscription app with a recurring monthly fee last spring. However, in March 2020, the company shifted gears to better serve their audience in need. They released the app as a free, ad-supported product and – with hundreds of thousands of downloads to date – have opted to keep it free.
POPSUGAR’s free online workouts are far more affordable than even a bargain gym membership and certainly cheaper than a new Peloton. In addition to amassing audiences across platforms, the strategy serves as a bridge between popular fitness experts and people who may not otherwise be able to afford or access their services. And now that audiences are acclimated to the flexibility and cost savings, the company thinks they’ll stick with the POPSUGAR plan in the long term.
The strategy aligns with that of parent company Group Nine Media, which traditionally monetizes video content through sponsorships and advertising on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and its website. It also licenses content to OTT services including Discovery+ and Xumo and syndicates some content to linear TV. Group Nine also generates revenue through affiliate product sales.
It’s about more than exercise videos
Nowadays, the lines between fitness, wellness, and health are blurring. That’s a theme Fields plans to surface more this year in POPSUGAR’s content. “Fitness isn’t a separate bucket adjacent to your health anymore,” she said. “It is your health.”
Fields takes a broad view of what fitness and health content can be, one that includes mental health, particularly among women of color. That view is one that’s already begun to emerge in POPSUGAR’s content strategy.
In fact, last May, POPSUGAR launched a mental health content hub. At the time, POPSUGAR Founder and President Lisa Sugar described the project as a way “to help readers feel connected and less alone in their daily battle.”
More recently, POPSUGAR launched a Snapchat show aimed at helping Gen Z audiences answer their questions about things like anxiety and depression. The show aims to provide practical, actionable advice to viewers.
“We feel this is really an important conversation for us to be a part of,” Marden said. “Our goal across everything that we create and all of our programming is to offer an inclusive positive safe space for our audience and to help them live their best lives.”
With restaurants, bars and clubs closed, you might assume that Covid has created a surge in live TV viewing, but it has not. If you compared U.S. TV audiences in September 2020 with the previous year, all television watching was actually down 10% during prime time. This may seem counter intuitive considering that the average time spent interacting with media has shot up 17% to a whopping 12 hours, 21 minutes a day according to Nielsen’s Total Audience Report for August. However, digging into the reasons why reveals important opportunities to re-engage audiences.
There has long been a simplistic narrative that live sports viewership is declining. Yet the reality is that huge amounts of sports content is still being consumed. And that number is growing, especially in international markets. The change is predominantly around two axes. The first is that sport is no longer “the only game in town.” It must co-exist within a much wider array of activities. The second shift is that fans are redefining what “sport” content means to them – along with how they want to consume it.
This diversity of content is highlighted by 2020 offering up another landmark. As the year when time spent using an app and/or web via a smartphone or tablet finally overtook live and time-shifted TV. This cross-over has undoubtedly accelerated due to Covid, given increased home working, less travel, and more screen time. However, the data has been moving that way for a few years. Nielsen also points out that 25% of total TV consumption is via streaming. This includes the rise of highlights and “instant” sports news services that are the equivalent of fast food compared to the three-hour banquet of a typical NFL game.
Highlights packages are not new but what has changed is the way in which they are delivered. The big networks have jumped onboard. Fox, ESPN, and others have now added more content available via the web. Yet the mindset for many is still around the “big game” and reporting that fits into a traditional schedule.
In a generation, Netflix transitioned from renting a million DVDs through the mail to touching 200 million monthly global subscribers. However, sports media still trails behind the curve when it comes to the model of instant access.
Bleacher gets it right
However, sports publications like Bleacher Report highlight one possible direction. The Turner owned brand has always delivered exquisite reportage but its rapid diversification into video and social has been striking.
Its “House of Highlights,” an Instagram feed offering highlight clips across several sports, now reaches over 20 million subscribers. Their viewership that has grown 150% in just two years. Highlights describes itself as “Everything you need to see in sports and youth culture.” It offers huge amounts of user generated content. And, while this content is still sports themed, it has much broader in its appeal – especially to younger audiences.
Bleacher is joined by a growing cohort of app and clip-based ways to consume sports content including CBS Sports and Fotmob – with the latter particularly good at notifications. If done well, personalized mobile app notifications, can drive customers into full game viewing as well as scores and highlights.
These brands and others recognize that it’s not all about the game. They help people get their highlights and sports fix from following athletes, teams, leagues, and media companies via social on the go. They also feed the growing sports engagement around fantasy and sports betting. However, these data points do not necessarily translate into full game viewing.
The fear of cannibalizing traditional TV audiences through online offerings is still deeply ingrained in the psyche of TV executives. But instant gratification culture means that failure to offer a wider buffet of visual sport experiences will make decline inevitable.
And it’s not just creating a like-for-like facsimile. The audience expectation of TV watching versus engaging with on-demand via smartphone, embedded highlights on Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, or the cacophony of social-led platforms requires producers to rethink program formats.
This raises several challenges. It starts with nurturing a new generation of creatives that are digital natives, with the ability to engage with fans of today. There’s also a need for technical retooling to simplify the production and distribution process. This enables content to be disseminated easily across multiple platforms. It needs to be done efficiently and with the controls in place to ensure that rights obligations are enforced as demanded by contract terms. Last, but no means least, is the ability to monetize multiple platforms by spreading CPM across a wider reach and unlocking far more targeted advertising models.
A great example of innovation in action is NFL RedZone, an all-in-one channel that when a team reaches the 20-yard line, (i.e. the “red zone”) cuts to the local broadcast of that game. The channel also offers the option to watch any turnovers, game-changing plays and scoring plays outside of the designated area. RedZone also has an “octabox” mode with simultaneous 8 game highlights designed for fantasy football fans.
This ability to deliver “highlight packages on the fly” uses dynamic playlists. It is is part of a surge in Cloud based technologies that are leading the charge to build streaming platforms that can pivot output to match the increasingly diverse audience profile.
The long-term issue is more cultural than technical. Live sport is still a huge deal in terms of direct and ad-related revenue. Messing with a successful formula is certainly a hard call to make. However, the Bleacher report and its siblings illustrate ways to respond to a shift in audience demand. Ignoring the opportunity makes the prospect of an empty dinner table much more likely.