So, how can media leaders best harness these developments? What are the steps they need to have in place to make the most of these advances? Here are seven things you need to consider:
1. Don’t just jump on the bandwagon
The media has long been guilty of shiny object syndrome, chasing after the next big thing in the hope that it will help solve multiple short-term and long-term structural issues. All of the noise that’s being made about AI can make media leaders fear that they are behind the curve. From the publishers I have spoken to recently, the FOMO (fear of missing out) is very real.
Yet at the same time, there’s a wariness too. After all, the media landscape is littered with many other developments (the Metaverse, VR/AR, pivot to video, blockchain et al) that have been simultaneously held up as saviors and disrupters.
Will AI be any different? I think it will be, not least because elements of this technology have already been deployed at many media businesses for a while. Developments in Generative AI are the next stage in this evolution, rather than a wholesale revolution.
2. Take time to determine the best approach
Findings from a new global survey published by LSE seem to reinforce this. They found that although 80% of respondents expect an increase in the use of AI in their newsrooms, four in ten companies have not greatly changed their approach to AI since 2019, the date of LSE’s last report.
Adoption of new tools at this time may therefore be lower than you think. Perhaps that may give you the confidence to take a beat. Rather than jumping on the bandwagon too quickly, take the time to determine what you want AI to help you achieve.
This approach can help to lay the foundations for long-term success. Strategies should start with the end in mind. Set goals and ascertain how you’ll know when they have been achieved.
3. Set up a taskforce to understand what success looks like
To help them determine their own approaches to the latest wave of AI innovation, companies like TMB (Trusted Media Brands) and others have set up internal task forces to understand the risks, as well as the benefits that AI may unlock.
In doing this, media businesses can learn from the mistakes of those who’ve arguably rushed into this technology too quickly. CNET, Gannett and MSN are just some of those who have recently had embarrassing public experiences as a result of publishing (unchecked) AI-written content.
4. Bring the whole company with you
Given the breadth of activities that can be impacted by AI, these internal bodies need to be diverse and include people from across the business. This matters because media firms should see AI as more than just a cost-saver.
Harnessed correctly, it may help to create fresh revenue streams and to reach new audiences. To realize this value, publishers need to cultivate company-wide expertise and carefully assess where AI can drive efficiencies, enhance existing offerings, or enable entirely new products and services.
One way to help offset this concern is to upskill your staff and ensure that representatives from across the company are involved in setting your AI strategy. A further practical step involves creating a clear set of guidelines about how AI will be used in your company. And, indeed, what it will not be used for.
There are also opportunities to engage your audience in this process too. Ask them for input on your guidelines, as well as being clear (e.g., through effective labeling) about when AI has, or has not, been used. This matters at a time when trust in the media remains near record lows. AI missteps only risk exacerbating some of these trust issues, emphasizing why elements of this technology need to be used with an element of caution.
6. Understand how to protect your IP
Together with labor concerns, another major issue that publishers and content creators are contending with relates to copyright and IP. It is important to understand how you can avoid your content being cannibalized – and in some cases anonymized – by Generative AI.
Although tools like the chat/converse function in Google Search and Microsoft’s Bing provide links to sources, ChatGPT does not. That’s a major source of concern for media companies who risk being deprived of clickthrough traffic and attribution.
As Olivia Moore at the venture capital firm AZ16 has pointed out, ChatGPT is by far the most widely used of these tools. Its monthly web and app traffic is around the same size as that of platforms like Reddit, LinkedIn, and Twitch.
This summer, the Associated Press agreed to license its content to OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, making it the first publisher to do so. Not every company can replicate this. How many outlets have the reach, brand and depth of content that AP has? Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see if other major publishers – as well as consortia of other companies – follow suit.
The media industry has learned from past experience that relying too heavily on tech companies can undermine their long-term sustainability. Short-term financial grants and shifting algorithmic priorities may provide temporary relief but fail to address deeper impacts on creative business models.
Creating quality content comes at a cost. Having seen revenues eroded and journalism undercut previously, publishers are rightfully wary about how this will pan out. So, it will be critical to weigh any payment schemes and financial relationships against the larger industry-wide impact these tools will have on content creators.
Addressing this issue is not easy, given how nascent this AI technology is and how quickly it is developing. However, the potential risk to publishers is understandably focusing a lot of minds on identifying and implementing solutions. For now, as this issue plays out, it’s one that needs to be firmly on your radar.
Moving Forward: diversification and compensation
The rapid evolution of AI presents a heady mixture of both promise and peril. The companies that are most likely to flourish will have to balance the opportunities that AI offers while avoiding its pitfalls and threats.
That’s not going to be easy. However, the relationship between AI developers and content creators will remain a deeply symbiotic one.
Given this, arguably it’s all the more important that the media industry is rewarded for this value. “We should argue vociferously for compensation,” News Corporation’s chief executive Robert Thomson says.
At the same time, media companies also need to be cognizant of the fact that AI-driven changes in areas such as search and SEO, as well as consumer behaviors, are likely to impact traffic and digital ad revenues. This is akin to “dropping a nuclear bomb on an online publishing industry that’s already struggling to survive,” contends the technology reporter Matt Novak.
With regulation unlikely to come any time soon, arguably it will be up to publishers, perhaps working together collectively, to navigate the best solutions to this thorny financial issue. That may include collective bargaining and licensing agreements with AI companies using their materials, as well as creative partnerships like the new AI image generator recently announced by Getty Images and Nvidia.
In the meantime, it will be more important than ever for media companies to diversify their revenues, as well as step up their efforts to rethink their business models, operations, and products to ensure that they are fit for the age of AI.
This means that publishers will need to focus on originality, value, in-house knowledge and skills, as well as the ability to bring their organization – and audience – along with them.
These are major challenges, and we need to acknowledge that AI offers both challenges and opportunities to media companies. Steering through this uncertain period will require making smart strategic decisions and keeping abreast of a rapidly changing landscape. The AI-driven future is hard to predict and navigating this transformation will require both vision and vigilance. But one thing is certain. It’s going to be a bumpy, creative and fascinating journey.
I have a request: Please stop the fearmongering and exaggerated claims surrounding the future of local news. Local news is still here, and it’s going to stick around.
With approximately 15 years of experience in news media revenue sales leadership, I am driven to address the frustrations and challenges faced by local news outlets in connecting with advertisers and audiences.
Yes, local news is still here, but it is facing challenges. The ad model that supported it for hundreds of years has been critically impaired. So, while I believe in the importance of local news and see its value on a personal and professional level, I also see some issues that need to be addressed to turn things around.
The ad business will never be the way it once was. But whether the revenue that sustains local news comes from advertising, subscriptions or other means, it all starts with serving local communities.
My perspective stems from countless conversations I’ve had over the years with local organizations, sponsors, and community members who genuinely express concerns about the content produced in local news media. They find it frustrating when local news outlets overlook crucial community topics. However, overcoming these challenges requires a complete rethink. While that’s no small ask, reconnecting with the community, attracting more subscribers, and increasing revenue are achievable goals.
Audiences of all ages
But let’s think about audience for a moment. Media companies are often focused on “attracting younger audiences.” Ok, sure. On the surface that makes sense since keeping that audience funnel full should maintain audience size or help it grow.
However, I’d say that, instead of patronizing and pandering to the youngs (i.e., hiring some younger people to communicate with the younger people, and maybe one day they’ll have a story on page three), local news organizations must strive to be authentic and become an integral part of the entire community served.
Though subtle, a slight condescending undertone related to younger audiences has become apparent. Fact is, these so-called “younger” people are fully grown, adult, tax-paying audiences with their own families, income, and ability to afford subscriptions and the products advertised in publications. They should be treated as such.
This type of thinking is applicable to other generations and demographics as well. Rather than overly-segment coverage, think about serving broader audience needs. There are informational resources that are universally sought after, regardless of age or demographic. These extend beyond the traditional topics of weather and politics, encompassing areas such as finances, health, entertainment, local culture, and advocacy.
For instance, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials have young grandchildren and/or children and they universally seek entertainment events and activities to enjoy together. They are all concerned with local greenspaces, educational funding, maintaining infrastructure, sustainability, and much more. In terms of the local news, they have a lot in common.
It is crucial to invest time in understanding the needs, interests, and concerns of the entire community. By providing content that resonates with their daily lives and challenges, engaging in meaningful conversations, listening to their feedback, and addressing their worries, you establish trust. You foster genuine community connections instead of fragmenting content to target certain groups.
This approach is going to be uncomfortable because it requires a creative shift in outlook. Think of this perspective as something like: Star Trek fans are Star Trek fans regardless of age group or generation because it appeals to a consensus of wonder and exploration inherent across generations. For local news, this sense of shared engagement can arise from pride in the community and access to informative resources.
Furthermore, the current structure of local news heavily relies on a skewed interpretation and representation of news. While it is important to cover national and regional political issues, a lack of local community coverage and insight can lead to subscriber and advertiser avoidance, resulting in churn and attrition. Additionally, there are numerous outlets competing for attention on the national stage.
If one is in the local news business, the mandate is different. It is essential to deliver reliable, informative, relevant, and resourceful information that is specific to the community and audience. This approach is a vital component in enhancing subscriber engagement and retention. Your goal is to establish a platform that fosters a profound sense of connection, where the community feels anchored and takes pride in supporting it.
Also, while disasters often dominate the headlines, it is equally important to remind people of the positive events occurring, especially within their communities. People need hope, a sense of connection, and pride. These can be found in the contributions made by ordinary citizens, organizations, and companies that enrich and inject vibrancy into these communities.
From a revenue standpoint, this shift will transform your platform into one that people genuinely esteem and feel compelled to support, rather than feeling obligated (or worse, disinterested).
And, once a local news organization re-establishes its value proposition with the community and engagement picks up, interest in advertising sponsorship will follow. Businesses are always looking for engaged audiences to enhance their brand value and generate interest in their products and services. This means they “fish where the fish are.” Tethering a local news organization to the community provides clear value to advertisers, along with a sense of belonging and support they’ll get from being associated with a trusted local news brand and supporting something of value within their community.
Delivering the news
Moreover, the traditional approach to presenting news assumes that one or two distribution methods can meet the diverse needs and interests of a growing audience. However, serving your whole audience goes beyond a print and digital reader dichotomy. The key lies in finding different ways to conveniently deliver information and create an excellent user experience.
Transforming local news involves becoming a reliable source of information, whether it’s on a weekly, daily, or even hourly basis. Since (valuable) information is not bound to any specific medium, it can be effectively shared across all platforms.
For instance, imagine a subscriber who reads in-depth content about well-researched parenting tips specifically tailored to children diagnosed with ADHD in their local community newspaper. They can keep that issue of the newspaper and refer to it whenever they desire. Additionally, they receive a newsletter highlighting family activities in the community, condensed online articles, podcasts, and social media posts related to parenting. They may also receive text alerts to inform them about topics or events that matter most to them.
This comprehensive approach enables community readers to stay well-informed, nurture personal development, and maintain a strong connection to what matters. However, the key ingredient in all of this lies in identifying and utilizing the most valuable information available, with the local community as a resource.
It all comes back to the audience
That said, it’s important to note that while this multi-medium communication approach has become more commonly employed, what it often lacks is relatability and cohesion. Relatability stems from the understanding and belief that local news organizations genuinely comprehend their audience—knowing who they are, what they look like, what aspirations they hold, and what truly matters to them.
Cohesion is about enhancing the overall experience and connection with the subscriber in a way that is simple and easy to digest. Create an atmosphere that makes readers feel as though they’re being met where they are with the most topical and relevant information, which helps them navigate their daily life.
The single most important part is to ensure content is topical, relatable, and relevant to the impact of the day-to-day life of the reader. Unfortunately, this essential essence is still missing in many local news platforms.
Here is the sticking point: authenticity and genuine engagement are key to unlocking this. News organizations across the country are striving to engage with their audience, but it’s crucial to stay true to the identity as a community news organization. It is essential to embody and reflect the values and aspirations of the audience they serve. Celebrate the vibrancy of the area, acknowledge the past, embrace the present, and look to the future with innovation and creativity.
Successful news organizations are deeply connected to the community. It’s not just about providing resources or making efforts to be inclusive; it’s about genuinely loving and connecting with the audience you serve.
At the 2023 Collision Conference, held June 26-30 in Toronto Canada, DCN’s editorial director Michelle Manafy sat down with three media executives to discuss the ethics of using generative AI in journalism. The conversation covered the evolution of AI and its usage in the media, up to today’s much-discussed generative AI tools. Panelists weighed in on a range of use cases and where they would – or would not – permit (or even encourage) the use of generative AI in their media organizations. They also discussed whether or not generative AI is an existential threat to journalism, journalists — and even humanity as a whole. Listen to the discussion here and/or read a few highlights below.
Navigating the ethical landscape of generative AI and journalism
Gideon Lichfield – Global Editorial Director, Wired
Harry McCracken – Global Technology Editor, Fast Company
Traci Mabrey – Head of News, Factiva
Michelle Manafy – Editorial Director, Digital Content Next
A few highlights from the panel discussion:
Traci Mabrey: We’ve been using [machine learning and AI] forever and that’s a really important component as we look at this. This new horizon is going to be something, and I don’t think any of us know exactly what that is yet. But we have been using the building blocks of it for quite some time…
Gideon Lichfield: I think what’s changed is that it now has the capability to produce something that looks like something humans would create from scratch. And I emphasize looks like because it’s very clear that what’s going on is imitation… the fact that it became available as an easy to use interface was really crucial… this technology was around already for a few years, but it wasn’t that easy to access. The big change last year was just that it became easy to access…
Michelle Manafy: We’ve heard of late that some big tech leaders, some really smart folks call generative AI an existential threat. Are we afraid? Should we be afraid? And I don’t just mean as the media. You guys all think about larger issues in society. Is this good? Is it bad? Should we all be scared?
Harry McCracken: I think the worrying about it blowing up the world or killing us all is a little overwrought, particularly because there’s a pretty long list of genuine concerns that are either an issue right now or pretty clearly will be over the next few years involving things like misinformation. There are huge privacy concerns with a handful of large companies grabbing all our data and synthesizing that for their own benefit. I’d say there are plenty of things to worry about with A.I… but destroying the world might be more like the way that social media has, in a lot of ways, degraded the human experience…
Gideon Lichfield: …the increasing volume of just sheer garbage that is out there that is going to be generated by AI: that’s a that’s a real worry. And the job displacement part is also a thing that I worry about. But I think there is a way to use it. There is a way to use A.I. that empowers people, gives them extra tools. But it’s also a great temptation for companies, for employers to simply look at it as a way to save costs…
Harry McCracken: …Journalism is unusual in that the writing is the product. Most of the writing that exists in the world is not the product, just the byproduct. There are a lot of cases where having a computer draft your internal memo or whatever makes a lot of sense and will fill you up to do more important things…
Traci Mabrey: …I think if we look at our journalists and our editors around the world, there’s a very personal scope that goes into everything somebody is writing and somebody is speaking about. And I think that’s a really big component when you look at it. The technology, as Gideon was saying, it is bringing up a set of words. It’s able to make 500 words on X topic regarding this. But that is not the way that I would infuse that information into the world. And it’s not those types of things that make organic journalism and all of the real nuggets that we get from it… I think for the drafting process and the information gathering, certainly saving a lot of time. But we’re certainly on the path of that being a still a very personal end product.
Learn more about how media leaders are developing their policies around the usage of AI and generative AI in their organizations:
Who’s covering that story? Depending on the topic, it might be easy to guess. Some beats are still disproportionately covered by journalists of a particular gender, ethnicity, or race, according to new 2023 analysis of Pew Research Center data gathered from a 2022 survey. The analysis also broke down beats by age of reporters, and coverage by freelance journalists versus those employed part or full time by news organizations.
Sports beats are mainly covered by white journalists (82%) and men (83%).
Health topics are more often covered by white journalists (78%) and women (64%).
Travel and Entertainment beats are more often covered by freelancers (57%).
Education and family beats were disproportionately covered by young reporters aged 18-29 (22%, though the generation was 14% of the survey) and women (63%).
Science and technology beats are disproportionately covered by men (58%) and white journalists (77%). Freelancers contribute 46% of science and tech stories even though they make up 34% of the journalists surveyed.
Environment and energy beats are overwhelmingly covered by white reporters (84%).
Asian reporters were over represented on topics of science and technology, covering 7% of these stories even though they made up only 3% of the survey, and underrepresented in sports (1%) and local issues (2%).
Black and Hispanic journalists cover local and state issues disproportionately (20%) compared to their overall representation among survey respondents (6% and 8% respectively).
Gender imbalances linger
Consumers of U.S. news are still getting most of their sports coverage from men (83%) and most of their health coverage from women (64%). Other topics more likely to be covered by men: government and politics; science and technology; economy and business. In addition to health themes, women were more likely to cover education and family, as well as social issues and policy.
The gender balance is more even when it comes to covering crime and the law, local and state issues, environment and energy topics, as well as travel and entertainment. The original online survey data was drawn from 11, 889 U.S.-based journalists, 51% of whom were men and 46% women.
Beats vary by race and ethnicity
The percentage of newsroom employees who are white is higher than the overall portion of U.S. workers who are white. 76% of the journalists responding to the online survey were white, 6% Black, 8% Hispanic, and 3% Asian.
Black reporters were more likely to cover social issues and policy (15%, although they comprised only 8% of the journalists surveyed). Black and Hispanic reporters were over represented when it came to covering local and state issues (20%) in proportion to their overall representation in the survey. Asian reporters were more likely to cover science, health, as well as social issues and policy. The original survey was available in English and Spanish only, which may have excluded some journalists working in the U.S. who spoke other languages.
While nonwhite reporters are significantly underrepresented in general, Black reporters are particularly so when it comes to issues related to the environment and energy, and science and technology (2% and 3% respectively). Hispanic reporters were particularly underrepresented in coverage of sports and environment and energy (6% of each of these areas).
Interestingly, age seemed less likely to influence the beats of reporters. If there were any surprises, it might be that the youngest journalists, those ages 18 to 29, who were 14% of the survey participants, were somewhat underrepresented in the areas of science and technology (10%) and entertainment and travel (10%).
However they were over represented in education and family (22%) as well as crime and law (19%). The oldest generation of journalists, 65 and older, made up 14% of the survey and were underrepresented in topics of crime and law (8%). More than two thirds (68%) of the journalists who responded to the survey were between the ages of 30 and 64.
Freelancers versus staff
Pew also evaluated the percentage of journalists who are freelancers compared to those employed part or full time by a news organization. While 34% of reporting journalists identified as freelance or self-employed overall, the percentages were much higher for the entertainment and travel beat (57%), as well as science and technology (46%). The percentage was also slightly higher in the category of social issues and policy (38%).
In contrast, journalists reporting on crime and the law were much more likely to be full or part time employees of a news organization (87%), as were those who report on government and politics (77%), and those covering local and state issues (75%), as well as education and family issues (71%). Overall, 65% of all the reporting journalists surveyed were full or part-time employees of a news organization.
This is significant given that freelance news journalists are less likely to receive formal training on equity issues. Data showed freelance reporters were 37% less likely to have had formal training or meetings on issues related to diversity and inclusion in the workplace and 27% less likely to have had training on how to cover diversity and inclusion when reporting the news within the 12 months.
The climate crisis is on everyone’s mind. But journalists have an extra burden when it comes to the biggest challenge of our time: telling the story. Traditionally, this has been a tough topic to tackle because it is big, complex, and even polarizing. However, the media seems to have turned the corner when it comes to climate coverage — learning how to walk the fine line between doom and gloom, education, and impact.
Climate coverage: How it started
Reuters’ “Journalism, media, and technology trends and predictions 2023” report reminds us that media hasn’t always achieved the right tone when it comes to climate coverage: “The news media are routinely criticized for covering these stories breathlessly, without joining up the wider dots or following through on the lasting consequences. Others argue that the media have too often treated climate as a discrete subject, rather than as an integral part of wider political and economic decision-making.”
Meanwhile, attempts to present “both sides” of the climate story have ultimately led to a credibility problem and audiences with a distorted perception of the issues at hand. A Northwestern University study “found that false-balance reporting can make people doubt the scientific consensus on issues like climate change, sometimes making them wonder if an issue is even worth taking seriously.”
With the problems clearly articulated, the media has taken note and is adjusting accordingly.
Climate coverage: How it’s going
Better coverage of the climate crisis takes many shapes, but there are some overarching goals. An EBU News report, “Climate Journalism that Works: Between Knowledge and Impact” suggests journalists must help “audiences find the facts, understand the magnitude of this crisis, and discover opportunities to act.” For many organizations, that means dedicating resources to climate coverage.
The Reuters report found that 49% of respondents have created a climate team. Among them is The Washington Post. Speaking at Aspen Ideas: Climate, Sally Buzzbee, executive editor, explained why the Post developed a “Climate Solutions” section. “We’re trying to actually capture what we see as a change in the audience and push that forward to what journalism is needed now,” said Buzzbee.
In order to provide the kind of journalism the world needs now, Austrian publishers “recently got together to create a set of guidelines for newsrooms including the accurate use of language, coverage of solutions as well as problems, separation of fact and opinion, and the creation of resources and structures to support better coverage across disciplines,” according to Reuters. In practice, that’s translating into bigger staffs and a wider lens through which the media is examining the climate crisis.
One of the key ways editorial teams are rethinking how they cover environmental issues is by recognizing the need to find the climate angle in every beat. As the EBU News report puts it, “the protection of our planet and our lives must be the frame through which all of journalism operates—just as it is with democracy or human rights.” And the media has gotten the message. Reuters found 44% of respondents are “integrating dimensions of the climate debate into other coverage (e.g. business and sport).”
Making climate coverage a priority isn’t just a moral imperative, it’s good business. Buzzbee said that she’s seen a shift in recent years and that audiences are hungry for this kind of coverage. On the same panel, Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of The Guardian, said that climate coverage is a revenue driver. In fact, The Guardian noticed readers often donate to the publicly supported organization immediately after consuming content about climate change.
Significantly, organizations like The Guardian also seem to understand the importance of establishing credibility by walking the walk when it comes to climate. Reuters found that 33% of news executives say they have taken steps in the last year to improve sustainability. For some, that means reducing their carbon footprint and putting out a sustainability report. At The Guardian, Viner said they have committed to no longer taking ad dollars from fossil fuel companies, to show readers “we mean what we say.”
Opportunities remain for climate coverage
As the media finally finds firmer footing on this topic, it’s only natural to wonder what’s next. Well, there are still challenges to be met. “People from the climate units keep telling us, the gatekeepers at the news desk pay lip service, but they don’t really get it,” Mark Hertsgaard, Executive Director and Co-Founder at Covering Climate Now, told EBU. “They still think it is optional.”
This may be changing as more newsrooms put together climate teams and instruct every desk to look for climate-related angles to the stories they tell. Still, to break through the noise, journalists should think about better ways to tell those stories. Other Reuters research found that“more people say they pay attention to documentaries (39%) than to major news organizations (33%) for information about this topic. This is the case across all markets in the aggregate, as well as across age groups.” This suggests that there is an opportunity for long-form content that takes the time to deep dive into the intricacies and nuances of climate science. If a documentary is out of the question, think about other visually compelling ways to tell the story.
Reuters also states that, “audiences express more interest, pay more attention to climate change news, and feel more inclined to support journalists taking a stand in places where the direct impacts of climate change are acutely felt.” This makes sense. However, it may also suggest that driving home the story requires journalists to find the local angle. That makes it the role of local journalists especially important in this fight.
Moving forward, news organizations cannot afford to fumble the ball on climate change. Whether you look at it from an ethical or an economic point of view, finding ways to reach audiences with environmental stories is a must for every editor.
There are over 300 streaming video services in the U.S. – and that number doesn’t include FAST channels. Consumers have a plethora of OTT services and access points across connected devices. So, how do media companies attract and retain viewers in such a large and fragmented marketplace? Parks Associates partnered with SymphonyAI Media to identify core analytics to help guide market strategies in the OTT ecosystem. Their new report, Optimizing Video: Enhancing Content Performance for OTT Success, looks at data solutions to best optimize content investment and performance.
According to Parks Associates, 87% of U.S. internet households now subscribe to one or more streaming video service, and 20% subscribe to eight or more OTT services. Consumers are adding new hybrid-model and FAST channels to their viewership mix. Netflix and Disney+ are two examples of media businesses launching ad-supported business models to attract new viewers to monetize content.
New niche streaming services are also popular among select audience segments. While appealing to a smaller audience, they offer unique and often obscure content. Sixty-one percent of consumers added other subscriptions in addition to the big three – Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu. Interestingly, very few consumers have an exclusive single-service subscription.
Content continues to be a key driver of subscriptions, with 48% of consumers referencing content availability as the primary reason for subscribing to an additional service. However, while churn appeared to stabilize last year, nearly half of streaming subscribers leave one service for another multiple times within a year.
Media companies continually invest in content to attract, engage, and retain viewers. Content analyses offer a direct link to profitability. They are essential to understand viewership and forecast the revenue generated by a specific property, series, or partnership. They also help assess workflow efficiencies and revenue opportunities across SVOD, AVOD, and FAST.
Internal data necessary:
Content data – genre, series, season, episode, asset I.D.
Distributor data – terms, avails, distributor I.D., distributor type
Revenue data – subscribers, transactions, units sold, forecast
Advertising data – impressions, CPM, fill rate, minutes streamed
Measuring content performance helps quantify consumer engagement. Each of the essential analyzes offer important metrics and insights to assess performance across business operations.
Content performance provides a foundation to assess spending on content. It allows objectivity when looking at program performance.
Assessing workflow metrics, from managing content libraries and editing ad breaks to costs associated with programming FAST channel schedules, offers insight into revenue optimization and deal terms.
Predictive content analytics are important to understanding what to charge or pay across the customer lifecycle. These analyzes assess the consumer value of the content investment and provides insight into pricing strategies.
Content ROI assesses content value across different business models ‒ subscription, ad-supported, and even transactional. It allows media organizations to understand and optimize the impact of business decisions on financial metrics.
Analytics are essential to evaluate content performance and optimize operations across revenue models ‒ ad-supported and subscription businesses. Investing in automating, standardizing, and normalizing data structures in an organization are important next steps to streamline the analytic processes.
Established in 2017, the Vox Media Podcast Network has enabled the publisher to bring together the podcasting efforts of its brands under one umbrella. Its 150+ shows span technology, news, pop culture, emerging trends, business and sports, with centralized teams to streamline production, monetization, workflows, and more.
Vox Media recently promoted two of its top podcast executives, Ray Chao and Nishat Kurwa. Chao is now SVP and GM of Audio and Digital Video, and oversees Vox Media’s digital video business as well as talent deals and distribution partnerships. Kurwa is SVP and Executive Producer of Audio, leading programming, production operations, content strategy and new show development across the Vox Media Podcast Network.
Having led a number of successful expansions of Vox Media’s podcasts into other platforms, Chao and Kurwa have a great deal of expertise in what does and doesn’t work for publishers looking to take shows to the next level. They spoke to DCN about their priorities for Vox Media’s Podcast Network this year, and what to consider when building out a podcast brand into live events, video, licensing and more.
Here are three factors that have made Vox Media’s podcast extensions so successful, and what other publishers can learn from them.
An audience-first approach
Vox Media’s podcasts have a wide range of extensions designed to engage audiences beyond just listening. Some, like tech and business podcast Pivot, have partnered to produce videos of the show, as well as launching their own tech conference. Others, like narrative series Land of the Giants, have been adapted into TV series. “When we’re thinking about extensions, everything is on the table for all of our shows,” said Kurwa.
When it comes to deciding where and how to expand, audience signals are crucial. “We get a lot of feedback from our audiences, which is really meaningful and helpful,” Kurwa explained. If they get a lot of the audience saying they’d love to see hosts on video or suggesting other ways of interacting, the feedback is all taken into consideration. “It’s a strong indicator for hosts as well when they think about how they want to spend their time,” she noted.
The audience is also the first measure the team turns to when evaluating the success of an extension. “We always ask ourselves, does this expansion resonate with audiences?” Chao said. “Is this something that our listeners, our viewers and our audiences are excited about? Are they listening and watching and engaging with the content?”
Getting this kind of feedback can be challenging with podcast listeners. It’s important to encourage communication early on – and respond – via channels like email and social media. This in turn will help when assessing which extensions will work well for audiences and the response to them.
Pivot is one of the publisher’s early forays into video podcasts. Their partnership with Salesforce+, an on-demand streaming service for business professionals, gives the platform four exclusive clips each week from Pivot. The partnership has been running for just over a year, and has taught the team a great deal about video production.
“You might think it’s as simple as sticking a camera in the recording room, taking that video and posting it, but it really does take a lot to get polished video, even for a conversation show like Pivot,” Chao explained. “We’ve learned a ton just in terms of video production and workflow.”
Videoing the shows has also given the team the opportunity to experiment with posting short clips on social. “It’s been so exciting for us to see how much listener engagement we have when we post short highlight clips of Scott [Galloway] or Kara [Swisher] reacting to something a guest has said on a show,” said Chao. “It’s been really beneficial for us not just for the audience feedback, but because it helps us build and foster the community in a space like a social media platform. Those videos also spread the word about Pivot for people who might not have listened yet.”
Although it’s difficult to attribute growth specifically to clips on social, Chao said that Pivot has seen a lot of healthy audience growth recently, which they believe engagement on the video clips on social media has contributed to.
The Verge has also been experimenting with video clips across its two podcasts, Decoder and The Vergecast. The team behind the shows have been taking short video clips from the podcasts and posting them to TikTok and YouTube with the primary aim of finding new listeners.
“We are very much in a test-and-learn phase with video,” he acknowledged, when asked if any other shows would be trying it out. “We’re approaching it on a show by show basis.”
The power of the Podcast Network
The Vox Media Podcast Network, where all of the podcasts are produced and supported under one umbrella rather than as individual brands, also lends strength to multiplatform extensions. “By having the network, we can pursue bigger, more exciting and more holistic growth opportunities than if it was one brand or one show on their own,” explained Chao. “We’re very connected to other parts of the business and editorial stakeholders that are working on projects and initiatives outside of the audio space.”
One example Chao illustrated this with is podcast subscriptions. Podcast Network division CAFE, which has a weekly interview podcast with former Manhattan U.S. attorney Preet Bharara as its flagship show, has a subscription product rooted in podcasting.
“We learned a ton just by operating that podcast subscription product, growing it, and working with that team,” he said. “We’re now not only applying those learnings on the podcast subscription front to other podcasts that we’d like to launch subscriptions for in the future, but we’re leveraging a lot of the internal infrastructure that we’ve built for subscriptions outside of the podcast base.”
Whether it’s New York Magazine’s established subscriptions business, Vox’s contributions model, or paid newsletter experiments at The Verge, consumer revenue opportunities can work across both audio and non-audio. “On the business side, the product side, the engineering side and the marketing side, we’re able to really share learnings and best practices across the network to find new opportunities for growth,” Chao added.
Focus on the podcast first
Despite the success of the publisher’s various podcast extensions, Kurwa and Chao were adamant that when developing new shows, the quality of the podcast always comes first.
“We don’t approach our podcast conceptualization or production thinking about television adaptation,” Kurwa emphasized, when discussing the recent TV adaptation of their podcast Land of the Giants. “We’re focused on the podcast first. And that alleviates pressure.”
It’s an important lesson, especially as stories grow of podcasters selling out arenas, landing huge licensing deals, and more. If a podcast doesn’t work as a podcast first and foremost, any planned extensions are futile.
Finally, both executives urged caution with successful multiplatform extensions. What works really well for one show may not for another.
“We’re not going down a laundry list of ‘here are all of the different things that a podcast could expand into’, but we’re trying to be thoughtful about what makes sense for the audience, what makes sense for the show, what makes sense for the host and the show teams, and what they have bandwidth for,” Chao noted. “We’re really looking for those types of opportunities that check all of those boxes for us.”
For savvy publishers, the opportunities to extend podcast brands beyond audio are limitless. But true success comes in expanding wisely.
You’ve put in the hard yards, integrated an effective Digital Experience Platform (DXP) with engagement and moderation solutions, and finally established a safe space for your audience. With a community framework in place, and a moderation solution in action, you can use your newfound spare time to give due praise to the golden geese of your flock: the user generated content (UGC) contributors.
First things first. You need to answer some questions: Who are the high energy User Generated Content Contributors eager to publicly make their mark? Can their contributions be used as aspirational behavior for other more passive users? If so, what are some ways to go about this that don’t feel disingenuous?
Positive reinforcement is a sure way to encourage users further down your audience funnel and strengthen retention.By putting the contributions of your community up on a pedestal, you reward those ultra-valuable UGC Contributors with recognition. However, you also broadcast to your community and beyond the kind of behavior your brand values and celebrates.
There will be clear ROI once you’ve integrated a solid UGC contributor element to your existing audience-first content strategy. You should experience ample revenue gains (in both ad and subscriptions). You will also foster a consistently expanding community of users steadily flowing through your audience funnel.
In order to determine how best to integrate UGC Creators into your strategy, you’ll need to first consider what tools and techniques are available to you. Then, consider how to optimize the efficacy of UGC Content. And, most importantly, how to do it in a way that uplifts your brand and drives its success.
Highlight user comments
On a smaller day-to-day basis, implementing a pinned comment strategy is a great way to highlight members of your community as well as set the tone for budding conversations.
In some cases, having your editorial/content team kick off the discussion in the comments section with a pinned comment as a conversation starter can lead to immediate engagement and user contributions. Once those user comments roll in, swap out your comment with a user contribution that endorses your brand values, sets the tone, and encourages others to join in.
A useful strategy is to think about where you can reach different audiences at different stages of the audience funnel. For example, if your editorial team sends out a newsletter, including a piece of UGC in an “Editor’s Pick” segment is a great way to show you value the contributions of your community members. It gives registered members a reason to bring their own opinions and perspectives to the table in the hopes of being featured as well.
To reach audiences that may not be signed up for newsletters, building these Editor’s Picks into readily available on-site content can inspire registered users and connect with as of yet unregistered visitors. Sharing these contributions with a broader audience has the potential to, once again, establish an aspirational behavior for other users to strive for and improve engagement.
Not unlike highlighting what your UGC Contributors have shared, badges are a way for you to distinguish between different types of users engaging with your content and help foster a unique community specific to your site. Rewards beget rewards in this case, as users who have put in the time and energy to earn a badge of their own are far more likely to keep up their efforts and stay active and engaged.
Harness the unique value of UGC
At the end of the day, the audiences that seek out content and invest their time, energy, and money into your publication are the bread and butter of the publishing world. Now more than ever their involvement in the content creation process could easily be considered a collaboration. Not only do their unique data offerings help publishers steer nearer to providing pitch-perfect content, but their content contributions have the potential to help boost subscription and ad revenue. Not to mention their enthusiasm has proven to be contagious and drives abundant audience growth.
When we celebrate our audience members’ loyalty and contributions, we demonstrate how much we value them, and strengthen our connection. That, in turn, allows us to learn more about them so that we can continue to provide them with the high-value interest focused content that they deserve.
The podcasting boom shows no signs of slowing just yet. As publishers get to grips with flagship shows for their brands, some are now exploring ways they can turn other content into podcasts.
Following the success of its existing shows The New Statesman Podcast and World Review, news publisher the New Statesman launched its third podcast in April of 2022. Both The New Statesman Podcast and World Review doubled their listenership since the creation of an in-house audio team in 2021.
While the first two podcasts followed a more typical interview and discussion format involving the New Statesman’s journalists and guests, Audio Long Reads takes a different approach. Each week, one of the publication’s feature articles is read out loud then published as a podcast that is about half an hour long.
Long reads debuted with four features covering Macron’s France, the anti-ageing industry, a refugee hotel and Cary Raditz’s side of the story. Since then the New Statesman has released an episode every Saturday, focused on the idea of one big listen every weekend.
Many publishers have experimented with audio versions of their articles in order to improve accessibility of written content and open up another way for readers to interact. However, those who have taken the next step and published these as full podcasts are fewer in number.
“The reason that we wanted to do it for the New Statesman was because long-form, deeply reported journalism is one of our greatest strengths,” said Chris Stone, Executive Producer of Audio & Video at New Statesman Media Group. “It is one of the things that the brand has been known for over the years, and so it seemed like a natural thing to adapt from our existing stable of content.”
The importance of curation and selection
The New Statesman publishes multiple features in its website and magazine a week and produces one of them as a podcast. Features Editor Melissa Denes oversees all the written features output, including commissioning and editing the long reads. She also decides which of the New Statesman’s many features get the audio treatment.
There are a number of criteria that a feature has to match to be considered suitable for a podcast. The first is the narrative. In other words: Is it a strong story that is going to engage a listener for an extended period of time? The second factor is the shelf life of the story. Audio Long Reads “have to be evergreen, because we want this to be a catalogue of things that people can come back to,” Stone explained. “We see that people listen to one and then go back and listen to earlier episodes.”
However, being evergreen doesn’t mean they can’t be current or topical. The themes are often chosen based on what’s happening at the time. One recent example released at the end of July is “Boris Johnson: the death of the clown”, looking at how the ex PM’s “buffoon” administration came to a close. Other episodes have covered topics from exploring the surge in adult ADHD diagnoses to the history of women’s football.
Article length is not a determining factor, as Stone cautioned when giving advice to other publishers looking to turn their features into audio products. “Just because something is long, doesn’t make it a good audio long read,” he said. “What is the determining factor is the quality of the story, how much it grabs you, and the authority and eloquence.”
Because the majority of the work has already been done in terms of the content, the workflow for turning a feature into a podcast is straightforward. “We wait until we have a ready-to-publish version of the article before we record it,” said Stone. He notes that they often batch record a few weeks before release. “Compared to doing a conversational podcast, it’s an easier lift.”
Once the audio version is published as a podcast, it has a dedicated podcast article on the New Statesman website. The audio player is also embedded in the full written feature as well, which gives audiences an option to listen to or read the article.
A premium listening experience
One surprising point Stone noted was that production values are particularly important for the Audio Long Reads podcast. “I think you can get away with Zoom calls for conversational podcasts,” he explained. “But for these, the actual pleasure of the listening experience comes into it as well. The ones that have been recorded with the highest production values have seen longer listening times.”
The New Statesman has found that certain voices and certain readers perform particularly well. They have experimented with journalists reading their own stories versus having voice actors doing it. “It’s really nice if we’ve commissioned someone to do a story to give them a chance to read their own,” Stone noted. “But we can’t manage to do that all the time, either for logistical or creative reasons.”
Stone has also explored the possibility of using an AI voice. A growing number of publishers offer AI text-to-speech on their sites as an alternative way to consume a piece. However, for these stories, the richness of the listening experience is of such importance that it’s not a task AI voices are up to taking on … yet.
“The performance element is not to be underestimated,” Stone emphasised. “It only works if you’ve got people who are really good at reading out loud.”
Text-to-speech would also only benefit existing subscribers as the New Statesman’s written content is paywalled. Having a curated selection of features available as a podcast allows the publisher to build a relationship with those who don’t otherwise interact with their journalism.
Although Stone wouldn’t divulge specific listening figures, he did say that it has surpassed his expectations, with listenership growing steadily week on week. “When we launched it, I set a benchmark of getting to 2,000 downloads in the first two or three months,” he said. “Actually, it has far surpassed that. We’re getting thousands of listens a week.”
As a subscription-focused publisher, the Audio Long Reads podcast has been designed to show off some of the New Statesman’s best long-form reporting outside their paywall. Although the podcast is still in the experimental stages, Stone hopes that it will increase users’ propensity to subscribe to their other products.
It’s a strategy which could work well for other publishers with hard paywalls. The content itself has already been created. Repurposing features into long-read podcasts is an inexpensive way to broaden the top of the subscriber funnel, as well as giving existing subscribers another way to interact with the work.
For the New Statesman, being selective is one of the biggest reasons Audio Long Reads has been a success. Carefully choosing which pieces would work well being read aloud, then matching those pieces with people who are good at reading creates a strong product which can build habit and loyalty.
Digital publishers work hard to create quality content that engages audiences and keeps them coming back for more. When an article or video receives a surge in views, that means mission accomplished, right? Not so fast.
Since invalid traffic (IVT) makes up for nearly 40% of all website traffic, it’s likely that some of these viewers are non-human, or “bots.” And, unfortunately, when bot traffic is included in analytics reports, it can skew data and give an inaccurate look at content performance.
Here are steps publishers can take to achieve more accurate website data, which allows them to make more informed editorial and marketing decisions.
Identify traffic sources and spikes
To understand how content and promotions are truly performing, it’s important to identify and remove invalid traffic from data reports. A first step is to determine traffic sources. If a visitor comes from an unusual website or unfamiliar referral source, it can be an indication that the traffic is not human. This includes traffic from locations beyond the typical readership area. Or it might be a slew of visitors from one city, which could be the site of a datacenter.
Another indicator could be the time of day that visitors view content. If many arrive on the site at an unusual time such as in the middle of the night, it could indicate that the traffic is robotic. Other non-human behavior such as spending zero seconds on a page or achieving a 100% bounce rate are also signs the traffic might be robotic.
Analyzing traffic spikes might also uncover increases in legitimate visitors, which offers insight into why content performed well. For example, an increase in an article’s views could indicate that it was picked up by another news source, shared on a popular website, or received a greater attention on social media. Identifying traffic sources and patterns can reveal what articles are truly performing well. And, of course, that is likely to influence future content decisions.
Filter bot traffic
Not all bot traffic is malicious. Search engines send bots to crawl websites to learn more about them, which helps inform search results. However, bots also visit websites for harmful reasons including scraping content to create fake sites, inserting malware to steal user data and injecting spam. Publishers can also unintentionally invite bots to their website by purchasing website traffic.
Many analytics platforms have built-in tools to filter bot traffic. Since these tools often must be activated by a site administrator to begin working, it’s helpful to check to make sure the filter is being applied to analytics reports.
While automatic known bot filtering tools are a great start to getting a more accurate look at website data, they might not detect all bots. Publishers should identify traffic patterns of good and bad user behavior to identify unknown robots that are not detected by the analytic partner and create custom filters based on the characteristics of those bots detected. Some of these characteristics may include the location the traffic came from, screen resolution, service provider, time on page and bounce rate.
Identifying traffic patterns and creating custom filters to remove bots from data ensures that publishers are getting the most accurate look possible at their website visitors.
Check site tags
Analytics providers require that publishers install a tag on their website to allow them to collect data. If a tag is inadvertently installed more than once, data analytics will be inflated. Or, if installed incorrectly, it might produce incomplete data. Publishers should check tag containers to ensure there is only one tag for each tracking suite so that data isn’t included twice in reports.
Get a third-party evaluation
Sometimes it helps to get input from a third party that specializes in analyzing website traffic. A digital publisher audit is great way to get an expert’s opinion about site traffic, tagging and creating custom filters. Website auditors keep up with industry trends and platform changes, which saves publishers time and the resources needed to identify new bots or create custom filters.
By taking the steps above, publishers can better identify high performing content, discovering promotions that drive real traffic, and making more informed business decisions. They can also take steps to reduce bot traffic and avoid common missteps that occur when it goes undetected.
Seems like everyone is a podcaster these days. There are millionaire teens on TikTok and it seems like every yoga instructor has a million subscribers on their YouTube channel. You see big media companies rejoicing about their fan following on Spotify, YouTube etc.
These platforms share their audience, advertising revenue, and subscriptions revenue with the original content creators. They allow publishers and creators to grow their following and create their fiefdom of anonymous fans. Most of these platforms have started accepting voluntary contributions and passing back a portion of the contribution to the creator. Twitter calls it Tipjar, YouTube calls it Applause, Twitch has Cheer, TikTok has Gifts. However, this fiefdom is limited within the walled gardens of the platform. There is absolutely no way for a publisher or creator to port over their fans to another platform or build an email relationship with the platform’s audience.
The winner-take-all dynamics are just as prevalent on these platforms. Very few pieces of original content will garner outsized views or listens, enough to justify significant monthly payouts. Having spoken to 100s of creators and media companies, we have learned that the platform payouts and terms of revenue are riddled with opaqueness. It’s just like how Heinz (analogous to original content creator) does not have any control over their revenue terms with Walmart (analogous to platform). For most creators their primary source of income is actually through sponsorships; either as influencer marketing campaigns, podcast readouts, or mid-roll video placements.
In all of the above scenarios the original content creator does not own a direct relationship with the platform’s audience but rather with a non-traceable user of the platform. Some creators try to link-out from these platforms in an effort to build a direct relationship with the user and start building a reader revenue stream.
Some of the most common Link-In Bio companies like Linktree (Linktr.ee), Later (Linkin.bio) or Buy Me A Coffee provide a landing area for creators to start building a direct reader revenue relationship. On the flip side, almost all platforms curb the use of external links primarily to restrict monetization inside the walled gardens of the platform. Instagram for example does not allow web-links in posts. Creators can have only one link in their Instagram bio. In late 2017, YouTube tightened rules around videos with external links.
In the context of audio and video content, few publishers and creators have dared to branch out and go direct-to-consumer (D2C). Beyond plugging in standard advertising revenue options through various ad-networks, the D2C decision hinges on sustainable reader revenue potential. This has intensified in light of the ongoing regulatory discussion around solving for “dark patterns” or subscription traps. Globally, regulators (Federal Trade Commission in the US; Competition & Markets Authority in the UK; Reserve Bank of India in India) are revising consumer protection policies around recurring payments and mandating subscription renewal reminders with one-click cancellation options.
The business of engagement
This would bring mayhem for direct-to-consumer publishers and creators whose subscriber base is filled with zombie subscribers. Almost half of U.S. podcast listeners are lighter, casual users who listen to less than 3 episodes (across podcasters) in a month. This raises concern over their propensity to subscribe to a paid podcast subscription. A recent study by Northwestern University’s Spiegel Research Center shows that:
49% of digital subscribers do not access their paid subscriptions even once
54% have accessed their paid subscriptions just once in one month
Given the regulatory headwinds, it is becoming crucial for publishers to diversify reader revenue sources beyond all-you-can-eat subscriptions. One of the top five reasons subscribers cancel their subscriptions is because of the inability to consume all the content their subscription offers. So, while reader revenue is on everyone’s mind, subscription alone will not suffice. Unbundling audio and video for pay-per-content requires sophisticated technology.
Every publisher and creator with quality audio or video content starts off with piggybacking on platforms. They consider sponsorships as their main source of revenue. But the moment of truth comes when the sponsorship gravy train stops and platform revenues do not add up compared to the cost of production for quality audio and video. That’s when a clear direct-to-consumer and reader revenue strategy takes its rightful place in the limelight.
About the author
Abhishek is a Co-founder & CEO of Fewcents, fintech-for-publishers, that brings incremental reader revenue from “Never-Subscribers.” He is a seasoned business leader and technology product manager. He has worked in management consulting with PwC and Altman Solon in Boston, USA before moving to Singapore permanently. In Singapore, he started his own venture, Shoffr, a digital marketing solution that provides online to offline attribution for digital marketers. In 2019, Abhishek sold Shoffr to Affle, a publicly listed ad-tech company in India. After solving the advertiser’s offline attribution problem, Abhishek has now set his eyes on solving the content monetization problem for online publishers.
The subscription economy is booming. From music and movies to meals and clothing, consumers want what they want to be available when and how they want it, and without onerous upfront costs. For publishers facing the uncertainties of digital advertising — dominated by the duopoly — subscriptions offer predictable and powerful revenue streams. They also bring with them an even more intimate understanding of the audiences they serve.
One of the biggest media success stories in capturing reader revenue, The Washington Post has introduced a new mobile-first product that encourages audiences to multitask. The 7, launched in September, distills the top seven headlines into digestible snippets and delivers them daily to time-crunched audiences at the same time (at 7 am Eastern) on the channel of their choice.
Website, app, and email newsletter are just a few of the channels consumers can use to skim through the headlines (roughly 300 words in total). And, if readers don’t have time to scroll or swipe through the stories, they can opt to listen to the news instead.
But the real power of the product isn’t the multi-channel delivery. It’s the way it fits into multiple stages of the funnel, allowing The Post to attract new audiences and convert existing ones with the same content. Even if readers don’t subscribe on the spot, their continued interaction provides valuable data points (email address if readers signed up for the newsletter) that equip The Post to market and move audiences ever deeper into the funnel.
Continuing with our series of DCN video interviews, I talk to Coleen O’Lear, Head of Mobile Strategy at The Washington Post. Drawing from experience growing The Post’s digital audience and cultivating stronger reader habits, O’Lear shares how The 7 has evolved from being “an accessible, digestible on-ramp for the news” to a product that “drives exceptionally high engagement.” She also discusses the “experimental mindset” publishers must adopt to make content readily accessible and digestible, not to mention enable their success to be scalable.
Peggy Anne Salz: It’s a morning routine for many – wake up, reach for the phone, check the headlines. Now more than ever, we rely on trusted sources to inform our perspective on what’s happening globally, as well as close to home and the stakes have never been higher. What a responsibility then to be the steward of one of the most trusted names in news charged with making sure those headlines are what we want when we wake up and that they are there, they are there for us. And in the middle of all this, how do you infuse a nearly 150-year-old legacy brand with a sense of ‘always on’ experimentation to produce this? How can you then scale both, maybe the cool new products that I’m talking about here and the number of subscribers who pay to access them? A lot of tough questions, and we get the inside track here today on Digital Content Next, the series from DCN, which is a trade association serving the diverse needs of high-quality digital content companies globally.
I’m your host Peggy Anne Salz and my guest today is Coleen O’Lear, she is Head of Mobile Strategy at the Washington Post, which I’ve been talking about. Coleen focuses on editorial and product development aimed at growing the Post’s digital audience and cultivating stronger reader habits. She was a founding member of the emerging news products team where she shepherded complex projects and initiatives from inception to implementation, including the Washington Post’s select app By The Way, its channels on Snapchat, Apple News, and Facebook news. And most recently, The 7, which is the big part of our focus on the show today. Welcome Coleen, great to have you here.
Coleen O’Lear: Thanks so much for having me, Peggy.
Salz: So you’ve said it yourself, and I quote you it’s all about creating new and exciting ways to surface news for time-crunched readers to consume. I’m just wondering, how many ways can readers currently access the news we’re talking about on how many platforms speaking here, of course, about The 7.
O’Lear: The 7 is something that we offer in a lot of different ways for you to be able to consume it, how you want it, when you want it and where you want it. So, we offer it on the app, we offer it on the website, we offer it on social off of our owned and operated platforms, we distribute it on Apple news, we have a newsletter and an SMS experiment. People are really busy, and they have a lot of options and preferences.
So, we created The 7 to really be an accessible, digestible on-ramp for the news for busy readers who really just want a rundown of the morning’s news quickly. So, it’s something that they can really fit into their morning routine as it exists. And it’s something that they can consume, how they want it, where they want it. So maybe some days you don’t have time to read it, and some days, you would rather listen, we offer people that opportunity with The 7.
Salz: So, you launched in September, not a lot of time to make a lot of observations. But you have seen how audiences are interacting with The 7, maybe you can tell me a little bit more about what you’ve seen, you know, it’s on the app, on the email, maybe just have the headlines read to you while you’re brushing your teeth getting ready for work, what is working?
O’Lear: Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot working so far, which we’re really excited about. So, we created The 7 to really be a mobile-first platform, or mobile-first product, we really wanted you to be able to multitask with it. Like I said before, we wanted it to fit into your routine. And as we hoped, we’ve seen really high engagement across platforms, including the site and newsletter, but the majority of our users have been on the apps. And that’s a place where we can drive deeper engagement. And that’s a place where we have seen really high engagement with The 7, with the briefing itself but also, with the audio component specifically, readers have really been listening to it there and they have been completing it. So they’ve been listening to the whole thing. They’ve been reading the whole thing, and they’ve been coming back to it again.
That’s something that was really built into how we wanted to think about The 7, we wanted it to be something that added value to your day, something that told you the seven things that you needed to know and the things that you wanted to know. So we really think that that’s come across and what we’re seeing from readers so far, and we’ve even extended our experiment with The 7 by launching an SMS project. So that’s been interesting, too. And we’ve had exceptionally high engagement with that early on, that’s even newer than The 7 itself, it’s only been out for less than two weeks now. But we’ll text you every morning and send you that link. And people have really been engaged which has been exciting.
Salz: A little bit of a comeback, a little bit of a Renaissance. I haven’t been hearing much about SMS, it’s all been about messaging. And of course, you have products on messaging, as well. SMS is intriguing. Where did that come from? Just experiment, try another platform?
O’Lear: Yeah, we like to experiment with platforms like we’ve talked about before. The Washington Post is about experimenting at scale. And SMS was something that we saw an opportunity to do that with. We thought that this was a real value-added proposition with The 7, right? That it is going to cover the things that are breaking, the hardest news, the most important news of the day. But it’s also the stories that you want to know, because you want to talk about them with your friends, right? It’s that balanced diet and we thought that SMS really lends itself well to that. We started experimenting with SMS primarily around the Olympics. But we saw a lot of success with that experiment and thought that The 7 was a good vehicle to have another opportunity with SMS.
Salz: I’m going to stay with The 7 as content for a moment, because it’s fascinating. First of all, it averages around 400 words.
It’s also probably a huge responsibility to pick the seven, then to write it and wow, it’s written by human Tess Homan who has an actual byline. You know, there’s someone responsible for this, how important is that? You know, why not AI because AI is certainly up to – we’ve seen those experiments, but you chose a human and this format, what’s behind that?
O’Lear: For us, there’s really no replacement for human touch when it comes to something like The 7. It’s a very focused briefing, it’s really critical that an editor’s honed news judgement and sharp editing skills can be taken to the day of the news, right? The Washington Post publishes hundreds of stories every single day and readers rely on us to tell them what of those stories they really need to know. And with The 7, just the seven that they need to know, at any given moment, too.
So, while it does publish at 7 am Eastern, that doesn’t mean that news is going to stop just because The 7 has published right? There may be something that breaks after it has published, that is going to be the news of the day, that’s going to be one of the seven most important things. And so that’s something that we really feel a human touch an editor’s judgement needs to be on. Our readers rely on The 7 being something that they can turn to when they want to turn to it in the morning. And so Tess is able to give that a real human touch by making appropriate updates, by really keeping it tight, by making sure that the essence and the heart of what you really need to know, the background and context to why a story matters for you, is truly in The 7 every day. And I think that that’s something that, you know, AI is great, but a human is better.
Salz: So human judgement, definitely a plus here. And as you said also the appropriateness of the content and the update, the purpose of your overall strategy is to build a habit, to turn readers into subscribers. Tell me a little bit about where and how The 7 fits in, it feels like a top of the funnel play. But I’m sure there’s an impact on deeper funnel engagement. And also, I’ve read that people who engage with your app stay longer. I don’t know if the case is with The 7 and how that impacts it. But tell me a little bit about where it fits into the scheme of things?
O’Lear: So we offer different opportunities for different kinds of readers to come into the funnel at different points. So for subscribers, there’s a value-add to The 7, it makes your subscription even more worthwhile for you. And we hope that over time that leads to retention. The 7 is also something that could potentially attract or bring a new audience to The Washington Post, potentially more accessible. Maybe somebody is very driven by audio experiences or doesn’t have a lot of time, right? It’s for time-crunched readers. Well, any story from the Washington Post is typically going to take you at least five minutes to read, right? We’re covering seven stories, you’re going to be able to consume it in less than three minutes and I think that that’s important.
We really hope that that can sort of create a pathway to the post that might not have existed before. And so there are different opportunities there, you could get a newsletter, if that works best for you, you could consume it on our site or on our apps that might lead to an app download where somebody hadn’t downloaded the app before, or a subscription sign up, or a newsletter signup, or even giving us your phone number for SMS.
Salz: That’s really interesting that it can be a little bit of everything. Because at one level, it’s bundling it in as a value add for the whole package, in a sense, and the other, it’s maybe acquiring a different type of audience, maybe one that you haven’t necessarily been able to win over. But now hey, time-crunched is maybe a sort of persona with you. And this allows you to approach that segment as well. So it’s top of funnel, and it’s deeper in the funnel. What can you tell me about the audience overall?
O’Lear: Well we don’t really get into metrics specifically. So I can’t tell you in specifics about the audience, but I can say that we have heard from a lot of readers, a lot of consumers all say because they’re not all reading it they’re listening to it too and some are getting the newsletter and some are coming to us on our ONO, and they’re reading the briefing live on their site.
A common theme that is coming back is that they appreciate the thoughtfulness of The 7, they appreciate that they have an expectation, and that it’s meeting that need, that it isn’t just the seven hardest news stories of the day, it’s also the things that you want to talk to your friends about. It’s the things you want to turn to your colleague and discuss. It’s the things that you drop into the group chat and say, can you believe this happened? Or did you know the ways that Google is trapping you or the defaults on Venmo.
We’re giving you utility content that can help make your life better, and also the news of the day that’s going to affect your life. And so I think that that has truly been something that’s distinct and unique about The 7 is really showcasing the breadth of the journalism that the Washington Post has to offer.
Salz: So I’m going to look at what drives The 7 and I would call it an always-on experimental mindset at the Washington Post. I’ve been following you for quite a while looking at all the different experiments, you’re one of the very first to really take audio very seriously, right? And now we’re talking about super short-form content – three minutes. And it’s great to experiment in a sandbox, you have a great job, because that’s what you’re doing. But then there’s the question of like, okay, now we’ve nailed it, this is really exciting. Now we need to experiment at scale. So what allows you to experiment at scale?
O’Lear: Experimentation is just built into the ethos of The Washington Post, we always try to approach things in an iterative way too, what launches may not be the thing that it is, eventually, if that wasn’t working for an audience. We are constantly doing health checks on our products, and on our audience and making sure that we are really meeting them where they need us to be, that we are delivering on the value and what they need from the Washington Post.
I think that when we see that something works, we don’t hesitate to double down on it, and to apply those learnings to the other places where they may be applicable. And so if something doesn’t work, we also identify what’s causing it not to work, and we try to make modifications to be able to, like I said, just be more responsive and to be more agile. And I think that that’s part of what has helped us experiment at scale, sometimes it’s about starting something in a small way and seeing where it may apply. I mean, AR is something we’ve been doing for many years now. And really started in small but meaningful ways. And now you can find AR in our app, it is built into our native core products, because it is something that we invest in.
The takeaway, essentially, from being able to experiment at scale is to really identify the opportunities, be realistic about your resources, be realistic about the impact that you have the potential to make, and what is most valuable, both for your audience and for your company. And then look for those opportunities and pursue those.
We never launch a product without goals associated, right? Both company goals, strategic goals, but also goals for the reader, what value is it supposed to bring. And so I think that what we really try to do is be strategic and deliberate about what we choose to invest in. And if something isn’t working, we’re not afraid, like I said, to sort of react to that and to try to change things. And so I think that essentially gives us the flexibility of nothing being too precious.
Everything is always being an evolution, just because something has launched doesn’t mean that it’s final and it’s done. I think that you always have to maintain a mindset of experimenting, improving, reacting and making things better. And iteration isn’t just something that you do in the experimental phase, it is something that you continue to do after a product is fully baked for lack of a better way of putting it.
Salz: At the end of the day you are Head of Mobile Strategy. What are you bringing here? What is it that you see as your role or someone in your position? Is this about orchestration? Is this about innovation? Inspiration? What is it that keeps this going?
O’Lear: It’s all of the above? I mean, I really…
Salz: Then I love your job, Coleen.
O’Lear: I mean, it’s all of the above, it’s hard to say that you always have to be of different minds. But you do. Anybody who is a strategic thinker, also has to work in practicalities, and realities, right? And so I think that we really tried to be measured in our approach.
So, I think that you really have to take a strategic lens toward everything but then you have to think about people and the people building the products, the people consuming the products. And that’s everything from how we curate something to the UX of something. And I think that that often comes across in very clear goals, but also even in simplest terms in documentation, if you don’t lay out to your team, the workflow that they should follow and why, I think it’s much harder to get people to understand what you’re trying to do, especially when you’re trying to do things that are big or different, or potentially challenging.
Salz: I’d like to go from The 7 that we’ve been talking about to the future, right? You’re evolving your product, you’re iterating your product, you’re always doing something there. But you’re also uniting your product. What’s next at the Washington Post? What’s your next focus?
O’Lear: Yeah, one of the big things that I’m working on right now is the unification. So we have two core apps that are news apps. They were originally for different audiences but journalism has changed, audiences have changed, technology has changed. And essentially what we’re doing is we’re taking what works well and we’re using the unification process to really build what is the classic app into a core flagship product that is truly representative of the Washington Post of today. And it is a first in class experience for users. And so that user-first mentality, really making decisions with the reader front of mind, thinking about what an app of today and tomorrow should be, is really exciting.
I think that we’ve learned a lot of lessons from having two different apps with sort of a different reading experience. And from those we’ll be able to make something that really feels like it meets the needs of different kinds of consumers.
Salz: I’d like to just go into a little bit of depth there, because not everyone, for example, will know about the two apps, the two experiences, the two audiences. Give me an idea about why you’re approaching app unification the way you are and how you’re going to keep those two audiences because combining them can be very tricky. And if you have any tips to offer, I’m sure we’re all ears.
O’Lear: Ask me about tips after we’ve done the unification and I may have some more tips I can offer at that time. Right now, like I said, we’re approaching it very deliberately, and we’re listening to our readers.
One thing in that was that we were listening to our readers and we were finding out that the audiences aren’t that different, potentially you stumbled upon one app for one reason and not the other, or you liked the design effect of what was essentially started to be a more national app, the Select app. That was its original purpose, its original intention, we think that there’s a way to marry all of those things together, that we’ve evolved our thinking as the Washington Post, our journalism has evolved, readers habits have evolved. We want to take the lessons and the things that work really well in both of the apps to build one core product that is truly first in class.
So I think that we’ll be able to take a lot of the sort of curation philosophy and the design philosophy and showing you both the breadth and the depth of the Washington Post into our core app. And you can see that in the classic app, which is the longest-running of the apps, that we’ve already started to make those changes. So what you’re experiencing today and what will be our flagship app is actually closer to what you had experienced in Rainbow or the Select app, as it’s formerly known.
At the end of the day, our audience doesn’t need two apps. They need one app that is best in class, there isn’t really a reason to split audiences. I’m not saying that there isn’t a reason to have multiple apps for some publishers. But for us, we really want to invest in making our flagship app the destination for you to come on your mobile phone, on your mobile product, on your mobile device. And we think that we can take lessons from experimenting at scale on both of the apps for many years now. And do that better in one place?
Salz: Coleen, I’ve lost track, how many products does the Washington Post have?
O’Lear: So many I’ve lost track. We have dozens of newsletters, we have two apps, within the classic app, you can also consume the print product. So if you really love the print paper, you can read it as print inside the classic app, that’s a good example. The print app was something that was a distinct app that you could also download. And maybe you had the print app, and you had the classic app. Well, from the classic app, you can also get to the print app, so we’re just really making that connective tissue between our products stronger, I think.
Salz: Excellent. And I will, of course, take you up on your offer, maybe as you’re further on into the unification process, what stays, what goes, what flies, what fails, to share some of that decision-making process. Let us walk inside your mind, your thinking. In the meantime, Coleen, thanks so much for sharing and for being on Digital Content Next today.
O’Lear: Thanks so much for having me.
Salz: And of course, thank you for tuning in, taking the time, more in this series about how media companies are taking charge of change in their business. In the meantime, be sure to check out DigitalContentNext.org for great content, including a companion post to this interview with Coleen or join the conversation on Twitter @DCNorg. Until next time, I’m Peggy Anne Salz for Digital Content Next.