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Generative AI tools have a lot of power to change the media business—from the way we work, to the data we collect, to audience needs and expectations. The area is complex, and changing so rapidly, that navigating the landscape requires a roadmap—policies that outline how media companies will use AI.
AI has been hard at work in media organizations for decades. However, as we have explored, generative AI has broader capabilities, can generate more nuanced language, and open-source models make it widely accessible. It is capable of creating content, images, audio, music, code, and could be a valuable tool for collaboration.
Given that the generative AI space is changing underfoot, DCN checked in with six media organizations—Harvard Business Review, The Weather Company, Consumer Reports, The Washington Post, Skift, and The Boston Globe—to explore how they are developing AI policies and internal guidelines for AI usage and what these look like.
Media companies can’t afford to wait and be reactive somewhere down the road, when AI has already dramatically altered the media business, pointed out Maureen Hoch, editor of HBR.org and managing director of digital content at Harvard Business Review.
“This is not a wait and see moment,” Hoch said. “You really need to be thinking about how to help both editors and product managers understand the role that these tools play, where the guardrails are. And, in a bigger sense, understand how they could affect your audience and your product.”
If your organization has not already begun this process, the time to start is now. Media companies must develop guidelines, rules, regulations, principles, values, and intent around the use of generative AI. Yet, like the technology itself, these policies and guidelines will continue to evolve. Think of the process as creating a living document that can be updated as necessary.
Building an AI task force
Certainly, editorial leaders don’t have to create these policies alone. Developing an AI policy is best done with the inclusion of a range of stakeholders with different areas of expertise, from editorial, technical, business, and legal backgrounds. This team, task force, or working group should bring diverse perspectives, which are needed to create a robust and comprehensive set of guidelines or policies.
At the FIPP Congress earlier this month, Trusted Media Brands CEO Bonnie Kintzer said that they have set up a task force to learn about AI and identify how to use AI tools. While they understand the risks, she said, they are embracing AI to grow their business.
The Harvard Business Review also established a cross-functional team to create an AI policy.
Hoch describes the challenges, and importance, of including a wide range of roles in the process.
“There’s always the risk of trying to come up with a policy with so many different stakeholders; that can make it hard,” Hoch said. “But I think everyone understands the urgency and the importance of having a policy around these tools.”
She offered advice about the makeup of an AI working group. “You want whoever your stakeholders are from IT security, legal, and from the business side. Make sure everybody has a chance to weigh in because this will serve you best for the long run.”
Robert Redmond, IBM design principal, AI ethics focal and VP of AI ad product at IBM agrees that it’s important to include as many perspectives as possible.
“The creation of a working group is essential to the development of fair and balanced AI policies,” he said. “A group should not only consist of executive stakeholders but should consider roles and positions from across the company as well as sourcing a varied and diverse group of people. An approach grounded in diversity will help to contribute to the formulation of policies with fairness and healthy debate from multiple points of view.”
The Washington Post’s approach to AI is measured and strategic. They have been working on AI for years behind the scenes, but just announced two AI teams in May. They are leveraging their resources to study AI and created an AI Taskforce and AI Hub to chart a path forward.
“As we navigate this space, we have the active involvement of our entire masthead every step of the way. Our executive editor Sally Buzbee has said that we are going to be bold in embracing innovation but that we’ll do so with the highest adherence to our standards,” explained Justin Bank, managing editor at The Washington Post.
The AI Taskforce is comprised of senior leadership from key departments including news, product, engineering, legal, finance and others, to provide high-level oversight of The Post’s direction. “This group is tasked with establishing company priorities and leading strategic guidance around the governance of this tech and adoption possibilities,” Bank said.
The second group, The AI Hub, is a cross-departmental operational team that will spearhead experimentation, collaboration, and proof-of-concept AI initiatives, Bank said. “The AI Hub is dedicated to active exploration and experimentation with adoptions. This group is also establishing the space for those across with an interest in AI to contribute ideas.”
A living document
Given the complexity and rapidly expanding generative AI landscape, an AI policy should be flexible and continue to evolve and change over time.
HBR describes its policy as a living document, which they continue to update, collect comments on, and communicate with the whole organization. Every member of staff has access to the AI policy information.
The Boston Globe is in the process of putting together what it believes is a fully holistic AI policy. However, it needs to be flexible enough to grow with the company, explained Matthew Karolian, general manager of Boston.com and platform partnerships, who is co-leading AI strategy with Michelle Miccone, vice president of innovation and strategic initiatives.
“The ultimate aim is to have a policy that is comprehensive enough to be all-encompassing but also legitimately useful in day-to-day work. It needs to be understandable and actionable, clear to the folks internally, and then maybe offer externally focused policies so that our readers and users can understand how these technologies are used,” he said.
The Boston Globe has been testing the use of AI internally, which is informing their policy creation. The testing program allows staff to opt in to be part of the testing, and provide feedback on a daily basis.
“We’re not launching these products into the wild and to our users until we’ve really gotten a really clear understanding of all of the different elements to these projects based on an internal audience,” Karolian said. “We don’t want to take any shortcuts. In this way, it’s impacting how products are built, it’s impacting how products are positioned, it’s impacting policy.”
As longtime users of AI, The Weather Company (and parent company IBM) has had AI policies, guidelines and guardrails in place, with ongoing development, for the better part of four decades, explained Rachel Chukura, head of consumer business and subscriptions at The Weather Company.
“A policy in a rapidly evolving area like AI, which has been evolving at speed for a long time, will need to be under constant review as it needs to keep up with both the advancement of the technology and the future potential of the technology,” said Chukura.
Policy structure and statement
Media companies’ AI policies generally have similar components: they include introductions, policy statements, sections on scope and applicability and accountability. While the specific structure varies depending on the organization, AI policies generally incorporate core principles that include what companies believe at a principle level about AI, and other sections covering rules or beliefs around transparency, accuracy, accountability, and safety or security.
Below, we’ve outlined some of the most common elements or components we’ve seen included in AI policies thus far.
One of the common elements in AI policies thus far is a principle or section on transparency. Transparency is key for media companies using AI, because it builds trust between companies and their audiences.
What this can look like is responsible disclosure–openly and transparently sharing information about the implementation, capabilities, and limitations of AI.
“Exactly what responsible disclosure means, I think there are going to be many different interpretations throughout the industry,” said Glenn Derene, senior director of content development at Consumer Reports. “I hope we’re bending over backwards trying to not only say when we are using generative AI, but literally helping the reader understand exactly how we’re using it. We want readers to always know who and how something was produced.”
Media companies need to be explicit in transparency. And they should put the disclosure in a place where it is recognizable and understandable, rather than leave it vague or as an easily overlooked design element.
“It’s important to explain how you used generative AI to do something and, and put it where the reader can see it so that you’re not hiding anything, but you also don’t want to make it invert the subject that people came there for,” Derene said. “It all boils down to not being sneaky. We don’t want to be sneaky with our readers.”
“One of our rules is that when we use AI-generated content, it should always be disclosed,” said Jason Clampet, chief product officer at Skift.”We should never use AI tools to create something that we pass off as non-AI.”
For example, Skift recently posted an article about Lionel Messi. Then, they used their Ask Skift chatbot to write copy describing past Skift coverage on influencer marketing. Ask Skift is an AI chatbot, which was built on top of OpenAI’s GPT-3.5 and trained on 11 years of Skift content. It answers questions related to the travel industry.
“We presented it so it looks like it is in the chatbot itself,” Clampet said. “We didn’t make it look like a news story. And so it’s clear to users, this is from Ask Skift. The benefit for that is its additional content, but it also is teaching people how to use our AI tools, and so, in a way it’s both good content and good marketing and it doesn’t hide the fact that we’re using it for this.”
As an industry, Karolian from the Boston Globe believes that “it is likely that we’ll eventually settle into a set of fairly universal disclosure language and/or UX signals so that users can very clearly understand at a glance when they encounter generative AI content.”
Being transparent allows audiences to make informed decisions about the content they consume. Some companies’ AI policies have even suggested they would provide audiences with tools to assess trustworthiness of content.
The ethics of AI
The Weather Company has three principles for working with AI: that the purpose of AI is to augment human intelligence, that data and insights belong to their creator, and that technology must be transparent and explainable.
At The Weather Company, both its AI Ethics charter and approaches to privacy, ethics and security by design provide guidelines and principles by which teams center tactics and strategies, explained Chukura.
“We also have internal processes across our product creation lifecycle that provide governance and support from experts within brand/business legal, privacy legal, security and compliance practices,” she said. “It has also become part of our DNA, our culture, that we leverage AI in ways that are ethical, explainable, accurate and verifiable because our consumers and clients depend on the outputs.”
Accuracy and accountability
Media brands’ AI policies also focus on core journalistic principles of accuracy and accountability.
A human is always accountable for the work, Hoch said. “It might be a tool, but I don’t think it’s a replacement for the subject matter expertise that we and our authors bring,” she said.
“From a principles point of view, we still believe that subject matter expertise of our authors is the most important part of our content. That’s not something that we expect is going to be generated by a chatbot or generated by a tool,” Hoch said. “That’s a really important part of what our audience trusts us to do and what we trust our authors to do.”
“We’re not doing anything that doesn’t have a human in the loop, because until we can start guaranteeing a level of accuracy that is consistent with our brand, we don’t want to put out a tool that is going to give people bad information,” Derene said. “That’s damaging to us as an institution.”
AI does make mistakes–this is one of the points in Skift’s AI policy, Clampet said.
“Rafat (Ali) and I call it kind of an unreliable freelancer, where you will just want to double check the work all the time,” Clampet explained.
For The Weather Company, it is imperative that the data that influences the content and data that they deliver is trustworthy, Chukura explained. Of course, this would include the data that generative AI uses to produce any information, as well as what is ultimately presented to the audience.
“This means that the sources for the systems, specifically large language models and generative frameworks, must be trained on permissioned, licensed, and trusted data sets or through means that are auditable at scale,” she said. “As we explore the generative landscape and experiment with ways to bring the latest AI models to bear, we do so with caution, ensuring our key mission to our partners and consumers is upheld.”
For example, The Weather Company uses AI-based technologies to generate text samples, but they are trained on confined frameworks that are auditable and utilize content that has been internally sourced, or that in some cases may be provided through a licensed partner, according to Chukura.
Governmental policy makers can’t move fast enough when it comes to AI-generated imagery. The European Union is leading the way with the upcoming AI Act, which would comprehensively regulate artificial intelligence, though in the U.S., any images produced by AI image generators cannot be copyrighted.
Media companies have concerns about the copyright of outputs of text-to-image AI models, especially when AI image generators – like Stable Diffusion, Dall-E and Midjourney – are trained on images scraped from the web. Getty Images even went so far as to ban AI-generated content last year.
AI image and video tools aren’t to be used for news photography, according to The Globe and Mail’s guidelines on AI. And, if an image is produced by Midjourney or DALL-E, “it should be credited as ‘AI-generated image’ or ‘AI-generated illustration.’
They’re not the only ones to include guidelines about images and video in their AI policies.
“HBR in general feels really strongly that we respect the work of artists and photographers and the human element of what they bring,” Hoch said. “There may be moments where the story calls for an AI-generated image, in which case we would disclose that to the audience. But as a general rule right now, our design teams aren’t using tools to generate AI images.”
Before creating their AI policy, Clampet explained that Skift staff had general rules about not using AI for news images. That rule went into their AI policy. However, he allowed that staff could use AI to illustrate something–like a report on AI sentiment–and label it as such.
Data, safety, and legal
As exciting as they are in terms of potential, AI tools raise many questions: Are there any restrictions on data collection for these companies? If AI-generated works are not covered by copyright, who owns them? How much generative-AI involvement in the creation of materials is too much before it becomes ineligible for copyright protection?
It can be difficult to know where to start with issues like copyright law still in flux, Derene said.
“Some of these things are really, really difficult to sort of find your way through,” he said. “You do get into questions about who’s the author of something, when you had a writer use AI to do things like create a prompt. In some respects, when is AI a tool and when is it the author?”
The U.S. Copyright Office won’t register works produced by a machine. However, if the work contains sufficient human authorship, it will. The courts are sorting out how exactly the law should be applied. And cases brought before them include questions about intellectual property infringement. Getty, for example, filed a lawsuit against Stability AI, accusing it of misusing more than 12 million Getty photos to train its generative AI.
“If a business user is aware that training data might include unlicensed works or that an AI can generate unauthorized derivative works not covered by fair use, a business could be on the hook for willful infringement,” wrote Gil Appel, Juliana Neelbauer, and David A. Schweidel for Harvard Business Review.
IBM’s The Weather Company takes a global approach to trustworthy AI, which cascades down to every aspect of their business, Chukura explained. “We consider these foundational aspects of AI utilization within everything from our consumer products, advertising services, data products and approach to editorial content,” she said.
“Our process includes AI ethics, and transparency and privacy checkpoints across the features we develop. We consider the implications of all AI solutions and ensure that the applications and productization of AI successfully and safely uphold our core mission of informing decisions and helping keep humans safe.”
Another component to include in an AI policy is a section on opportunities. It’s a big task to figure out an AI policy. Simply focusing on rules, regulations or proscriptions may inadvertently set limits and doesn’t allow for a balanced and comprehensive framework that encourages experimentation and innovation.
“It’s good to include both opportunities and risks,” Hoch explained. “I think if you’re just focusing on don’t do this, don’t do that, it builds up a lot of fear and apprehension.”
“I’ve gotten some feedback on this from our internal teams. The fact that we both highlighted risks and opportunities was helpful to them in having a point of view of this is something that’s going to continue to change. It’s going to continue to change our business, and we need to figure out how it’s going to work best for us,” she said.
AI can be a helpful tool, Clampet stressed. For example, it can synthesize blocks of data, suggest headlines, enhance brainstorming exercises, and speed up production.
“Basically, we kind of think of it as a bit of a steroid,” he said. “There are really helpful things that AI can do, and for organizations to really take advantage of them as opposed to kind of being scared of them. But also at the same time, we need to recognize the things that it can’t do, like replace decent reporting, which is hard.”
While creating rules and guidelines for staff are critical, it is also important to consider updating contributor guidelines with regards to AI use.
Harvard Business Review, for example, updated its external contributor guidelines. It was important to clearly state that, though HBR understands their contributors may want to use generative AI tools, they would like to be informed whether and how the authors are using them. They stressed that the human authors are responsible for the accuracy and integrity of the work, Hoch explained.
The big picture
The industry is at the starting line of another marathon. Like the advent of the internet or social media, generative AI is a powerful tool that needs to be understood and used effectively and responsibly by media companies.
“I think you want to make sure that wherever you use it, it adds value for the reader,” Derene said. “You should always be thinking of how to add value for your readers, for your customers and not take away from the value of your brand and also use AI in a way that leverages your brand value,” he said.
Big questions loom large: What happens if those with questionable – or even the best – intentions distribute AI-generated content and don’t disclose? What sort of ripple effect does that have on the rest of the industry? What happens to audience trust? At the same time, if low-quality or false content is even easier to produce and proliferate, how will this impact publishers’ engagement and revenue?
Clearly, the media industry needs to think and act responsibly about generative AI and its applications. We need to ensure that generative AI is a tool that is used to support the mission of media organizations, to augment and enhance. At the same time, the industry must strive not to be distracted or overwhelmed by the rapidity at which the tool changes. This is where policy and guidelines help.
“It’s incredibly important that as an industry, we are able to come to some level of standardization around AI policy and disclosure, so that it’s not something that a user has to think about every time they visit a new site,” Karolian said.
And, as ever with major technological shifts, there is an opportunity at the starting gate for those who get out in front.
And, as generative AI tools are going to continue to change and evolve, having a policy or rules governing the use of AI gives media teams guidelines and guardrails. Ideally, this will be a policy that is both clear and flexible, which fosters transparency, accountability and accuracy. Setting guidelines for your staff also safeguards against risks, potential bias and misuse of generative AI while demonstrating a commitment to embrace emerging technology in a way that is responsible and accountable to audiences.
Editor's note: The opener image was created using Tome, an AI art generation tool.
MEDIA AI GUIDELINES: A STARTER TEMPLATE
Based upon conversations with the media leaders interviewed for this article, here’s a rough template to get you started as you develop your own AI policy document.
In the ever-evolving world of programmatic advertising, marketers’ quest for transparency and efficiency is paramount. The 2023 ANA Programmatic Media Supply Chain Transparency Study found that marketers have major concerns about the quality of programmatic buying. The report identifies that approximately 15% of programmatic spending and 21% of impressions appear on low-quality made-for-advertising (MFA) websites. And while marketers include 4,500 MFA sites on exclusion lists, few provide inclusion lists of quality sites for their advertising campaigns.
The study also reveals that the main problem centers on accessing and analyzing data log files. In fact, only half of the 67 initial participating advertisers (52%) owned direct DSP data access through their contracts. For the remaining advertisers (48%), their access to DSP data was mediated through their agency’s DSP contracts.
As background, 67 ANA member companies agreed to participate, but 46 encountered legal issues or could not access their log data from DSPs, SSPs, and Ad Verification providers, effectively barring their participation.
The research identifies additional issues and recommends a more transparent and efﬁcient open web programmatic marketplace. It is based on log-level analyses across $123 million in spending with 21 advertisers and 35 billion impressions and supplemented with 35 qualitative interviews with supply chain intermediaries.
The report observes several operational challenges in programmatic practices. It also offers corrective steps to get more value from the programmatic ecosystem.
Information asymmetry and waste
The study identifies information asymmetry as a significant roadblock to achieving transparency in the programmatic supply chain. Advertisers often lack crucial information about the quality of media inventory sold in auctions, leading to overpayment, inefficient decision-making, and wasteful media investments.
To address this issue, advertisers must demand access to comprehensive and reliable information about the media inventory they purchase.
Data access challenges
Despite the growing interest in data-driven marketing, many companies struggle to access log data from demand-side platforms (DSPs), supply-side platforms (SSPs), and ad verification providers. This lack of data access creates transparency issues, inefficiency, and wastage.
Advertisers should establish direct data access contracts with primary supply chain partners to maximize transparency and gain control over their media campaigns.
The study reveals that advertisers often prioritize cost over value in purchasing programmatic media. Chasing cheap cost-per-thousand-impressions (CPMs) may seem attractive initially, but it often leads to downstream issues in ad quality.
Advertisers must balance cost and quality to avoid wasteful investments and focus on the value their media buys deliver.
The study shows that campaigns utilized an average of 44,000 top-level domains, raising concerns about fraud, viewability, and brand safety.
Advertisers should streamline the number of websites used while ensuring fairness for small or minority-owned service providers. By reducing the number of websites, advertisers can concentrate on high-quality inventory and mitigate the risks associated with excessive website usage.
Low-quality made-for-advertising websites
The study highlights that low-quality made-for-advertising (MFA) websites, which are created simply to generate ad revenue through sensational headlines and subpar content, accounted for 21% of impressions.
Advertisers must evaluate the suitability of MFA inventory for their brands and consider their tolerance for including such sites in their campaigns. Striking a balance between reach and brand safety is crucial.
Programmatic advertising has a notable environmental impact due to its energy-intensive nature.
Advertisers can contribute to sustainability efforts by making more productive and non-wasteful media buys. Certain website types, especially MFA sites, generate higher carbon emissions. Advertisers should prioritize sustainability in their media buying strategies and opt for environmentally conscious platforms and vendors.
Importance of log-level data (LLD) analysis
The study emphasizes that improved data matching and analysis can significantly reduce the “unknown delta,” which refers to unattributable ad spend.
Leveraging log-level data allows advertisers to achieve a zero-percent delta, gaining valuable insights into their ad spend and performance. Analyzing log-level data empowers advertisers to make data-driven decisions and optimize their media investments effectively.
Manage the supply chain
The ANA report emphasizes the importance of properly managing the programmatic supply chain. This enables advertisers to make informed decisions based on transparency and data-driven insights. Further, it allows advertisers to analyze ad impressions’ impact on consumers and evaluate the financial transaction between the publisher and the overall value delivered to the target audience. This way, advertisers can optimize their campaigns and publishers can improve the ad placements and enhance the overall effectiveness of the advertising.
Effective advertising is not simply a question of reach. While programmatic advertising allows for efficiency and scale, marketers must manage the supply chain in order to make the most of their investment.
Today’s fast-paced digital landscape requires publishers to make critical business decisions faster than ever. Over the past several years, as media executives have sought to streamline their operations and optimize advertising revenue, tech-forward media teams have started leaning into data automation to replace cumbersome manual ad ops processes and resolve common data integration pain points.
However, while leveraging automation to address pain points can improve operational efficiency, automation alone is not enough to stay ahead of the competition and drive revenue. To thrive in today’s increasingly competitive market and sail through the macro headwinds putting pressure on revenue from shrinking ad budgets, inflation, and diversification, publishers need the ability to recognize revenue opportunities and act on them in real time.
Why real-time data matters
Despite the economic challenges publishers are facing, the global digital advertising market is still expected to grow from $178.29 billion in 2022 to $185.17 billion in 2023 and is predicted to reach $209.43 billion by 2027.
Yes, big data can be used for predictive analytics that allow businesses to anticipate future trends and events. However, Real-time data allows businesses to anticipate, act on, and monetize what is trending right now.
Automation is a great starting point. But it is just the beginning of a publisher’s journey towards efficient and profitable operations. With billions of rows of data being gathered from hundreds of disparate sources, data science teams are becoming increasingly overwhelmed trying to report effectively and reliably on this data. And this leaves business teams unable to capitalize on critical revenue opportunities.
Real-time data analytics driving revenue operations strategies
By leveraging real-time insights, publishers can drive several strategies that generate more advertising revenue faster.
1. Real-time advertising inventory management
Identifying fluctuations in demand, audience engagement, and ad performance is critical to optimizing ad inventory effectively. Without real-time insights, publishers may fail to capitalize on peak demand periods or trends, resulting in missed opportunities to generate higher ad revenue, and placements that could have been highly relevant and valuable may go unnoticed or be underutilized.
2. Targeted ad campaigns
Understanding audience’s preferences, behaviors, and interests in the moment enables publishers to deliver highly targeted and relevant ads to their audience. Without this capability, you may be forced to resort to generic or static ad placements, missing out on the chance to engage users with personalized content at premium pricing and lower overall revenue.
3. Competitive pricing strategies
By monitoring market dynamics and competitor activities in real time, publishers can adjust pricing strategies to optimize rates and ad packages while remaining competitive. Without this real-time visibility, you may struggle to stay on top of pricing trends, changing market conditions, or competitor offers and miss opportunities to attract advertisers who are looking for more favorable pricing or packages.
4. Ad performance optimization
Monitoring ad performance metrics allows publishers to make timely adjustments to improve results. By quickly identifying underperforming ads, publishers can optimize placements, targeting, or creatives to enhance engagement and conversions. Without access to real-time data, it may take longer to identify and address underperforming ads. This can result in wasted impressions, lower click-through rates, and decreased revenue potential.
5. Responsive campaign management
Publishers need to be able to respond quickly to shifts in consumer behavior, market trends, or breaking news. By leveraging real-time insights ad campaigns can be adapted and aligned with the evolving needs and interests of your audience. Media execs who struggle to identify emerging opportunities or react swiftly to changing circumstances may miss out on potential revenue gains that could arise from timely and relevant ad placements.
Best practices for optimizing real-time data analytics
Invest in a flexible, scalable, SOC-compliant platform that can support terabyte scale, with hundreds of native connections and the ability to connect to data warehouses, SQL databases, cloud bucket storage & email reports.
In addition, a platform with an automated data ingestion process (encompassing both 1st party data and 3rd party data) that also automatically monitors for data quality will eliminate the need for less experienced data analysts to do commoditized manual labor and allow your data team to focus on more strategic value-add initiatives.
Build a suite of reports that focus specifically on your KBIs – from information on billable revenue generated and revenue at risk to specific metrics on campaign pacing and impression/click delivery and discrepancies.
Leveraging automation and channeling real-time data into a single source of truth will allow you to improve targeting and forecasting accuracy, make rapid data-driven decisions, and continually optimize campaign performance in a dynamic environment.
Foster a culture that prioritizes the use of data and encourages employees across divisions to utilize data insights to make critical business decisions. Building a data-driven culture requires buy-in from leadership and organizational communication that reinforces the significance of analytics and empowers their team.
Get real time
Real-time analytics enable effective decision-making and are a crucial element of publishers’ success across content, advertising, and data-driven initiatives. Publishers who can quickly respond to market trends and ever-changing consumer behavior will have a significant advantage in an increasingly crowded media landscape.
But this is only the beginning of a constantly evolving journey. To maintain a competitive position, publishers must stay up-to-date with emerging data management and analytics trends and invest in the right technology and team to help guide their strategy into the next era of digital transformation.
Subscriptions are far and away the most consistent source of revenue for newspapers. However, to grow their subscriber numbers, sometimes they need to throw away consistency in favor of a more experimental approach.
The Independent has been a digital-only title for six years, having sloughed off its loss-inducing paper edition in 2016. While it has been solidly profitable for those years, its revenue has largely been generated through digital advertising; the same sort of business model that led to mass layoffs and bankruptcy at BuzzFeed and Vice respectively.
To head off problems with digital advertising, the Independent has made it a priority to diversify its revenue. While ecommerce and video advertising are core, its chair John Paton told me it sees a way clear to multiplying its direct reader revenue by five within three years.
To do that, he states the Independent is pursuing an “unknown to known” approach to its audience. Like many digital publications, it asks audiences to register to read. This provides the publication with data that can be used to track their propensity to ultimately pay for editorial content, among other things.
He said direct revenue is “now going to be a fast-growing. Part of that based on the back of the fact we’ve got these registered users who want to talk to us, and our marketing towards that as well. This improved our pitch and led to revenue of about 2 million. That’s going to be a big number like 10 million in two [or] three years.”
The process of turning a user from an anonymous, fly-by-night stranger to a potential customer is vital because every user’s likelihood of signing up for a subscription is wholly unique. The more data a newspaper has on its users the better its chances of converting them.
At the same time, many general-interest newspapers eschew that approach in favor of a one-size-fits-all hard paywall, sacrificing flexibility for clarity. So which approach, then, works best for different types of media brands?
Flexi and freemium
For many titles, flexible paywalls grew out of a freemium model. Austria’s Kleine Zeitung, for example, offers the traditional freemium model with a number of articles available to read before the paywall prompt appears. Other titles can also manually drop the paywall for certain premium articles, the better to entice people to pay.
In this model, eventually, inevitably, the paywall slams down. This is often paired with messages asking for support for independent journalism, or for registration to continue reading. This multi-pronged approach is vital, as research has demonstrated that the single-approach strategy of demanding payments rarely works.
Ultimately, however, these are largely blanket strategies, decisions made manually by human editors based on analytics and gut instinct. It is a beneficial approach both in terms of cost and messaging, as it reinforces the idea that the journalism behind the paywall is universally valuable.
Over the past few years, though, things have shifted. More personalized approaches have come to the fore, powered by AI and machine learning.
Tech and touchpoints
Analyst and founder of A Media Operator Jacob Donnelly explains that audience ID tech is making personalization of paywalls appealing to newspapers after years of scale-based priorities: “You have to start every conversation with the who, and really be clear about who the audience is, so that you can get everything else right.”
It’s a view echoed by Tim Rowell, general manager APAC for Piano, a paywall tech provider. He says that tools to model propensity to pay have been high up publishers’ agenda for years: “The reality is that, for most newspapers, these data are in disparate systems and the challenge is how to to turn all these data points into insight that can be acted upon. Those that can have built models to identify propensity to pay”.
One of the tech advances has been early deployment of proprietary AI tools. Swiss newspaper NZZ, for example, uses AI to personalize its paywall based around individual users’ propensity to pay.
Its managing director Stephen Neubauer explains: “We’re using machine learning today to derive dynamic segments, and to identify these patterns of preference” as a result of which the paywall can be rigidly enforced or relaxed on a per-person basis, the better to entice that reader to pay.
NZZ, however, is one of the most successful digital newspapers out there. As such it is well-positioned in terms of resources to develop and experiment with that AI tool. For many regional and local news groups that time and spend is beyond them, even as the cost of the tech falls. It is far from a foolproof system, as explained by the New York Times’ own applied/data scientist Rohit Supekar – but it is powerful provided you have the resources to do it.
Experimentation and confusion
But to what extent can newspapers try new things with paywalls without confusing their readership – or more likely causing them to wait for a better deal or free access during trial periods?
The same technology and techniques that allow for personalized paywalls is ameliorating that issue. For one thing a vanishingly small number of readers are likely to compare their own paywall offering with others, preventing confusion at a macro level. At the individual level, the ability to tailor messaging also helps users to understand that they are being served deals based on their usage habits rather than some arbitrary decision.
Rowell says: “It’s theoretically possible that audiences get confused by experiments. But the experiments would have to be pretty extreme to do that. We’d argue that it is a fallacy. Sound experiments based on insight and data and designed to improve conversion rates are likely to involve offers that are attractive to the audience”.
Despite all the advances in tech and strategy that allows papers to entice readers down an ever-shifting, personalized funnel, there is still one fundamental issue: a sizeable proportion of people say they will never pay.
According to the latest Digital News Report, 65% of UK news consumers said nothing could encourage them to pay – compared to 49% in the US, both higher than the 42% average across the 20 surveyed markets where paywalls are in effect. That is primarily ascribed to a lack of perceived value in the news products. And if audiences never seek out your site, the opportunity of going from unknown to known to paying subscriber vanishes.
Here are some of the best media stories our team has read so far this week:
- Financial Times | AI and media companies negotiate landmark deals over news content (7 min read)
- NBC News | ‘A moment of revolution’: Schumer unveils strategy to regulate AI amid dire warnings (5 min read)
- Wall Street Journal | Marketer Trade Group Report Shows Ad Spending ‘Rife With Waste’ (4 min read)
- Gizmodo | Website Owners Say Traffic Is Plummeting After a Facebook Algorithm Change (6 min read)
- New York Times | G.O.P. Targets Researchers Who Study Disinformation Ahead of 2024 Election (9 min read)
- NiemanLab | Why news subscriptions feel like a burden to young people (16 min read)
- Politco | Google forced to postpone Bard chatbot’s EU launch over privacy concerns (2 min read)
- The Entertainment Guy | 15 Thoughts On Disney’s Big Content Purge (9 min read)
- Intelligencer | AI Is a Lot of Work (35 min read)
As publishers and advertisers look for privacy-compliant metrics to help evaluate performance and engagement, everyone’s talking about attention – and for good reason. While it may seem easy to view the topic as just another passing fad, attention is likely here to stay.
A 2021 Microsoft study revealed the average attention span is just eight seconds. It has also been estimated that the average American is exposed to anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 ads per day. Ads that hold attention for at least 2.5 seconds have been proven responsible for a 50% increase in sales.
If stats like that aren’t enough to convince you, note that attention metrics can also serve as part of a solution to many of the industry’s ongoing shifts. For example, attention measurement solutions are generally cookieless, which provides an option given inevitable cookie deprecation. Attention metrics can be used to serve more relevant ads, thereby reducing the environmental impact of campaigns. They can also be used to help prove the impact of marketing spend in times of economic uncertainty.
With attention looking likely to become industry-standard, publishers need to truly understand attention metrics and how best to leverage them. Those who are able to prove the quality of their inventory stand to gain in the short and long term.
A quick refresher on attention
Traditional metrics like Video Completion Rate (VCR) and Click Through Rate (CTR) no longer provide a comprehensive way to track engagement. Viewability, as defined by the Media Rating Council, only ensures an ad is in the viewable area of a user’s screen for a set duration – typically one second. Attention metrics offer a more detailed understanding of how users interact with ads and provide valuable insights into engagement.
By analyzing attention metrics, advertisers can evaluate the effectiveness of different elements within an ad, such as specific visuals, headlines, or calls to action, as well as the probability of a specific placement to capture user attention. This data can inform iterative improvements in creative design, supply targeting, and placement strategies to optimize audience attention and engagement.
Lab-based methodologies and panel-based eye-tracking technology are two of many approaches used to capture attention metrics. Ultimately, these attention metrics and measurement approaches give publishers and advertisers a more nuanced understanding of audience engagement, ad effectiveness, and brand impact.
What you need to know now
Attention measurement allows advertisers to target inventory that generates attention and campaign outcomes. Publishers can use it to guarantee advertisers increased visibility and brand recall, which isn’t possible with traditional clickthrough and impression metrics.
Some say attention refers to an ad’s ability to: successfully engage a user, measure the quality and quantity of attention, and measure media and creative effectiveness. However, at present, there’s no uniformly agreed-upon definition of attention.
As a result, no standard measurement methodology exists yet either. Many big industry providers like MOAT, IAS, and DoubleVerify (as well as new grassroots attention measurement providers) have developed multiple KPIs and technologies for measuring attention. While there are many applications and use cases, attention vendors often focus on measuring media quality and predicting which placements (a combination of domain, device, and format) are likely to generate more attention.
However, the IAB recently gathered a group of key stakeholders to focus on the measurement landscape, increasing the chances that attention will soon become the new standard industry metric.
How publishers can benefit
It’s true that the attention trend is driven by demand, and mostly delivers buyer-driven benefits. However, media companies can also use attention metrics to benchmark their inventory to understand what’s driving quality engagement to inform pricing to increase revenue and improve the audience experience.
Attention metrics can be used to track the site user’s journey. Time-in-view, scrolling behavior, and mouse-over-data can all be used to determine time spent interacting with page elements – including ads. This allows you to analyze placement on your pages through eye-tracking panels and follow-up questionnaires to determine which ad formats generate more attention and the correlation to brand awareness/purchase consideration.
The findings allow you to adjust your monetization strategies accordingly to charge more for placement generating attention. Being able to prove your media has a direct effect on ad impact and performance will allow you to attract high-quality advertisers. They will be willing to pay a premium for ad placements in environments where users are highly engaged.
Finally, attention metrics contribute to a better ad experience for your audience. Consumers want to avoid sites featuring intrusive or irrelevant content. Understanding the formats and placements consumers prefer to engage with creates a seamless user experience and ultimately builds trust. Performance metrics around contextual advertising have illustrated this, proving consumers will accept additional privacy-compliant intelligence when it is used to serve the most relevant content.
While it will take time for attention metrics and measurement to become standard, there is potential for an ad attention measurement currency in the future. Publishers who pay attention and start experimenting now will be ready to lead the way when that time comes.
Founded in 1977, the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education fosters diversity in newsrooms through improved coverage, hiring, and business practices. The organization offers newsroom training and professional development programs that promote diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in journalism. In 2018, the organization launched the Maynard 200 Fellowship as a call to action for the industry. The program provides training and mentorship to mid-career journalists of diverse backgrounds in order to advance their career growth and ability to take on expanded leadership roles.
To date, 146 fellows have completed the program. These diverse media leaders, storytellers, and entrepreneurs are not just equipped to lead within media organizations, or their own endeavors. They also form a community of support that grows every year, which is especially critical amid turbulence in the industry. Maynard 200 Fellows are part of what its director Odette Alcazaren-Keeley describes as “a mini-movement aligned with our mission of dismantling structural racism in America’s newsrooms and media spaces.”
Alcazaren-Keeley recently received the SPJ NorCal Excellence in Journalism “Unsung Hero” award, primarily for her work directing the program, which they cited as “as one of the most powerful incubators for journalists of color in the country.” Here, she discusses the state of newsroom equity, what’s changed – and what has not – and offers insight and advice for media leaders who want to support diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) in tangible ways.
Describe the current state of diversity in newsrooms as you see it:
There has been progress but there is still so much work to be done to grow diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging [DEIB] in newsrooms. Three years after the Summer of George Floyd, many newsrooms still continue to struggle with racial equity.
Given economic uncertainties, many newsrooms find themselves at crossroads. News organizations can choose to continue to build on the momentum of the racial awakening of 2020. But the work is not easy. And as some newsrooms struggle with financial sustainability, they may be tempted to abandon efforts before reaping the benefits of this work. We’ve seen this reported in other industries. For example in tech, where DEIB roles saw high attrition rates – and even layoffs – earlier this year.
Of course there is reason to hope and we can point to metrics of progress. For example, the American Journalist Study of 2022 found that the number of full-time journalists of color increased from 10.8% in 2012 to 18% in 2022.
But again, this progress has been mixed as found by the Pew Research Center survey of almost 12,000 journalists last year. For example, journalists surveyed gave their news organizations highest marks for gender and age diversity – but the lowest for racial and ethnic diversity.
Our organization has been doing this work to help diversify the profession so that demographics of newsrooms better reflect the demographics of the U.S. for decades and the marathon continues. This is why we are so passionate about the successes of the Maynard 200 Fellowship program. We designed the program to train journalists of color and their allies. The program’s curriculum is both skills-based and centered on DEIB principles. The investigative reporters, editors, managers, executives, and media entrepreneurs who participate in the Maynard 200 Fellowship go on to become change agents in their organizations. And we can see that this is something the media industry clearly needs more of.
Are you and your fellows seeing change on the inclusion front?
Marla Jones-Newman, VP of People and Culture at Mother Jones, and a 2022 alum of the executive leaders track of the Maynard 200 Fellowship, recently wrote an insightful piece about the industry’s fluctuating commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.
Media advocates and journalism funders relay reports of DEIB leaders across newsrooms who share that they do not receive an authentic infrastructure of support and are not able to sustain their work. This has led them to fail their mission in shifting cultures of toxicity and racial inequity inside media organizations – the very reason for their roles.
It can often feel like two steps forward and one step back – or one step forward, two steps back depending on the backlash. When newsrooms are inconsistent with their commitment to DEIB, it can feel performative and actually hurt their reputations among audiences and employees.
[Disclosure: Mother Jones is one of the news organizations participating in the 2023 Maynard 200 Fellowship business case study challenge, where fellows are tasked with designing solutions to challenges faced by today’s media organizations.]
Many media organizations have pledged to improve their racial equity. Have they?
This work can be difficult to track – especially when previous efforts to survey the industry have faded out due to “crushing resistance” like the American Society of News Editors annual diversity survey which had been conducted since 1978. So few news organizations contribute data about their racial equity, that some industry leaders want to make diversity reporting a requirement to receive prestigious journalism awards, like the Open Letter to the Pulitzer Prizes published last year.
Again, we can point to some progress. But if news organizations want to thrive they must quicken their pace. The younger generation coming out of journalism schools today has higher expectations. To refer back to the Pew Research Center report again, the numbers that jump out the most come from younger respondents. For example, 68% of journalists ages 18 to 29 say there is not enough racial and ethnic diversity at their organization, compared with 37% of journalists 65 and older.
In some ways, the culture of society is changing faster than media organizational culture is changing. Younger generations in the U.S. are more diverse than previous generations, if media organizations want to recruit the next generation of journalists, they need to catch up.
What are the barriers that need to be addressed to improve equity in media organizations?
There are many, but the primary barrier to address is systemic racism. More than 50 years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed a committee to investigate the rise in U.S. racial conflicts in the late 1960s. The outcome of that investigation, known as the Kerner Commission report, warned that: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” The report also stated the news media was “shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring and promoting” people of color.
In response, the news media claimed it was a “pipeline problem” in that they could not find qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds. In 1978 at a pivotal meeting of top brass in print, Bob Maynard declared it was time to remove this excuse from the equation. “We will not let you off the hook,” he said. “We must desegregate this business.”
This climate propelled our Institute’s namesake Robert C. Maynard to gather a diverse group of journalists and found the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education with the mission of promoting diversity and antiracism in the news media through improved coverage, hiring and business practices.
At an organizational level, media organizations must strive to create a culture of belonging for journalists and audiences of all backgrounds, rather than othering these groups in their workplaces and their coverage. To push DEIB principles forward – in addition to professional development training programs like the Maynard 200 Fellowship – the Maynard Institute also provides consultation and training to media organizations that address the structural inequities that persist in newsrooms. Using the Fault Lines® training methodology designed by Bob Maynard, the Maynard Institute helps newsrooms come to terms with bias along race, gender, sexual orientation, generation, geography and class lines as they apply to journalists, newsroom collaboration and coverage.
As you mentioned, we often hear about a “pipeline problem” and we’ve seen media organizations work with universities and other organizations to better recruit diverse candidates. Is this working? Is it enough?
Similar to other professions and industries – such as those in the Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) fields – the myth of the “pipeline problem” has been busted. There is no shortage of qualified candidates of diverse backgrounds. But until media organizations can adopt diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging principles as foundational to newsroom culture, progress will continue to be slower than we would like to see.
Looking at our metrics, we are proud that while there are many newsworthy journalism fellowships, the Maynard 200 Fellowship has consistently served the most diverse group of journalists in the industry. Year after year, the majority of fellows are Black, followed by AAPI, Latine, and mixed race. In addition, since the program began, the vast majority of fellows have identified as women.
Back in 2018, the Maynard Institute created its fellowship with the goal to provide training and professional support to advance the careers of 200 journalists. The Institute will soon exceed that goal in 2024. But the positive impact of the program is already visible, particularly for Black women who have advanced to executive positions in the industry since participating in Maynard 200. One of the things we think sets our program apart is this success at supporting Black leaders in the media. And as news organizations continue to diversify their leadership and c-suite, further success will be measured in the retention and advancement of diverse employees, who feel supported.
What do you see that is working or that has been effective in your program?
Some of the key components of the Maynard 200 Fellowship we find especially effective are the peer learning community model and the year-long, one-on-one mentorship. Because getting journalists of color hired isn’t the end of the journey. The industry must also establish communities of support and pathways to career advancement in order to ensure journalists of color don’t burnout or leave the industry altogether. For example, after Maynard 200 Fellows complete the training curriculum, they are paired with an industry professional who works in their subject area for a full year of mentorship.
What advice would you give to media leaders committed to change?
Remember that this work requires more than just issuing a press release or vision statement about the value of diversity. Organizations need to avoid performative lip-service that doesn’t have a real, tangible impact. DEIB principles must be embedded into organizational culture and business practices.
In order to achieve this, leaders have to acknowledge and leave behind old hallmarks of the profession that reinforced systemic inequity. For example, the myth that journalists must strive for strictly objective reporting is not only outdated, it is harmful. Since 2020, we’ve seen a call from industry thought leaders, educators and award-winning journalists like Wesley Lowery to abandon the myth of objectivity.
What would you like to say to today’s media leaders who are committed to dismantling structural racism?
Media leaders today must embrace the concept of belonging. In the 1980s, the most commonly used term for this work was “diversity.” Over the years additional concepts such as equity and inclusion have been integrated into professional settings. Most recently, the concept of belonging has emerged as vitally important. Belonging describes more than a feeling of inclusion or welcome.
Belonging means having a meaningful voice and the opportunity to participate in the design of political, social, and cultural structures that shape one’s life — the right to both contribute and make demands upon society and political institutions.
At its core, structural belonging holds a radically inclusive vision because it requires mutual power, access, and opportunity among all groups and individuals within an organization.
Leaders must accept that culture change is hard and an ongoing process. Leaders must prepare and build in space for the emotional work associated with these issues to be truly successful. The news organizations with leadership who prioritize diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging make substantial progress. You can look at the success stories of newsrooms for payoffs.
For example Southern California Public Radio used the performance-driven change management tools to assess and track organizational progress on DEIB issues. An independently formed task force made 44 recommendations to leadership that were all accepted and implemented.
Also look to GBH – the largest producer of content for PBS and one of the public media organizations participating in the Maynard Institute’s Newsroom Transformation Program. They’ve invested heavily in weaving belonging into their organizational culture and business practices. For example, GBH has diversified their network of suppliers and transitioned unpaid internships to paid internships in order to create more equitable opportunities. Business practice changes like this can have a big impact. The first year they implemented paid internships, GBH saw a 12% increase in the diversity of their interns.
Our co-executive director of the Maynard Institute, Martin G. Reynolds often says, “News organizations need to learn to operationalize the concept of belonging.” This is very challenging work because it requires an individual and collective unwinding of internalized biases, perceptions, and business practices that have made some news organizations toxic places for so many, particularly people of color. This work must be aligned with a news organization’s business strategy.
What’s the payoff for media organizations that effectively improve the diversity of their teams?
We know that diversity in newsrooms has multiple positive outcomes. In addition to the ethical imperative, there is a strong business case. Having journalists from diverse backgrounds helps improve the quality, breadth and depth of coverage which then in turn, attracts and expands the audience. The term “payoff” says it all. The payoff of this work is long term growth and financial sustainability. A media organization cannot grow its audience and bottom line without doing this work.
For example, if a news organization is eager to reach younger consumers to ensure financial survival then it must implement an approach to diversifying story sources and coverage. Research commissioned by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University found that younger people have a strong interest in coverage that is clearly more diverse and inclusive. Plus, the Washington Post editor, Neema Roshania Patel has found that “Diversity in sourcing is key to reaching and retaining a younger, more diverse set of readers.”
Our Maynard 200 fellows embody a superpower that makes our mission of creating more institutions of belonging possible – courage. In their collective voice and impact, I see the collective power of journalism. And I know other media leaders out there can see it, feel it, and want to be part of it too.
DCN is proud to support our members and the health of the digital media industry overall. Thus, we are pleased to share some of the incredible work our members and other media companies are doing to recognize Juneteenth and its cultural significance in the American experience.
bon appétit | 15 Vibrant Recipes to Celebrate Juneteenth
BostonGlobe.com | The gentrification of Juneteenth
CBSNews Pittsburgh | Juneteenth youth fest takes place at Mellon Park
Louiville Courier Journal | What is Juneteenth? 6 things to know about America’s newest federal holiday
Pew Research Center | More than half of states will recognize Juneteenth as an official public holiday in 2023
The New York Times | From Martha’s Vineyard to Cleveland: Celebrating the Day Slavery Ended
The New York Times | Juneteenth: The History of a Holiday
The New York Times | 4 Recipes for a Memorable Juneteenth Celebration
The Root | Cheat Sheet: What is Juneteenth?
USA Today | ‘Grandmother of Juneteenth’ gets Texas portrait
Washington Post | Mural artist Reginald C. Adams on commemorating Juneteenth
Washington Post | The 15 best ways to celebrate Juneteenth in the D.C. area
Here are some of the best media stories our team has read so far this week:
- The Verge | EU suggests breaking up Google’s ad business in preliminary antitrust ruling (4 min read)
- Defector | Gimlet Media’s Story Was Always Going To End Like This (6 min read)
- Medium | Defining Engagement (6 min read)
- WSJ | Can Twitter’s Odd Couple Make It Work? Elon Musk and His New CEO Are About to Find Out (13 min read)
- Reuters | U.S. House united on call for Russia to release Wall Street Journal reporter (2 min read)
- The Hollywood Reporter | How Sesame Workshop and Fred Rogers Productions Keep True to Their Mission 55 Years Later (8 min read)
- New York Times | It’s Not a Good Sign When People Who Don’t Pay for News Have So Little to Choose From (10 min read)
- Reuters Institute | Digital News Report 2023 (20 min read)
Last week, over 400 attendees from 43 countries descended upon the Portuguese seaside town of Cascais for the 45th FIPP World Media Congress. They heard from more than 70 international speakers on a range of topics.
Here are three key themes that caught my eye from among the many insightful talks, demos, and individual conversations that I enjoyed over the course of the event.
1. It’s all about AI
Not surprisingly, it was impossible to ignore artificial intelligence. AI was mentioned in every session, reflecting AI’s dominance in shaping media strategies and operations, as well as the speed with which it is developing.
Despite universal interest, media companies and publishers are at different stages of their journey with this technology.
Bonnie Kintzer, president and CEO of TMB (Trusted Media Brands) explained how the company is “leaning into AI and Machine Learning.” They have set up an internal task force to help understand the risks of AI, as well as identify the best ways to use AI tools to grow their business.
For others, AI is already at the heart of what they do. Jan Thoresen, at Labrador CMS shared how AI was baked into their platform. With an emphasis on productivity and improving workflow, their content management system uses AI to create headlines, metadata, and tags, as well as produce story summaries.
“We try to make the tech disappear for the journalist,” he said. “Breaking news can´t wait,” he told us, “and you can´t wait for a developer or designer to deliver special effects. The tools have to be at the fingers of your reporters and editors.”
Juan Señor, President of Innovation Media Consulting, outlined what he sees as the transformative power of Generative AI. He predicts this technology will transform digital and create “AI-first” media companies. That may mean that “AI-first” becomes the new “digital-first,” essentially meaning companies prioritize–and seek to tackle challenges, opportunities and processes–with an AI solution at its heart. (FWIW: It’s an approach that Richard Heimann’s book Doing AI cautions against given concerns that companies may have with the solution, rather than the problem they are trying to solve.)
Aside from AI-generated content (images, text and videos), he anticipates other opportunities for publishers. “AI will never find the news, AI will never find the stories,” he told delegates. In fact, with this technology potentially ushering in a new era of fake news, Señor stressed the value of verification, trust and objectivity; areas he believes that publishers should lean into.
He also cautioned about some of the potential pitfalls.
“AI will supplant social and search,” he predicts. On that front, he emphasizes the importance of ensuring that publishers protect their IP, especially from scraping by AI tools. Others—such as the music industry—are already further advanced in tackling this issue.
Señor also recommended content creators learn from past mistakes. That means not getting into bed with tech companies on the promise that a revenue model will be worked out down the line. “We cannot rely on someone else’s platform to build our business,“ he cautioned.
2. Understanding your audience is paramount
Connecting with your audiences was another thread that ran throughout the event. This is essential not just for acquisition and retention, but also for revenue diversification.
Dr. Jens Mueffelmann, Executive Chairman of Bonnier, talked about how the company had developed its Marlin property to “move beyond a $10 magazine.” As part of this, he outlined the importance of their multichannel offering and the creation of new income streams under the “umbrella brand” of Marlin Expeditions.
This includes large-scale fishing tournaments, several of which featured participants with an average net worth of $10 million, as well as smaller expeditions. The success of these ventures is such that between 2020-2022, media accounted for just over a third (34%) of Marlin’s revenues. Tournaments, in contrast, generated 55% of their revenue.
As a result, earlier this year, the company created a new structure “built around brands and communities instead of products.” This includes the creation of a new “Marine Division” which oversees all print, digital and broadcast assets in this space, as well as relevant tournaments and expeditions. As Mueffelmann wrote on LinkedIn, when sharing these developments, “First the vision, then the strategy and now the structure…..as taught in business school.”
At TMB, revenue diversification comes in many forms including advertising, commerce, production and licensing. But the relationship with the audience is integral to many of these efforts.
The century-old company’s tagline is “Content. Inspired by You.” Many of its properties rely on audience-generated content. Therefore, it is integral to nurture and nourish those relationships.
For example, Taste of Home’s recipes are supplied by home cooks. And across their portfolio of brands, more than 350k people submit content ranging from videos to photographs, tips (e.g., Family Handyman) to jokes (Reader’s Digest), and more.
Relationship management also shapes revenue strategies as well as editorial. TMB’s affiliate revenues are up 72% year-on-year, but all of this content is written by their editors, not PRs or AI. “When you have the trust of your audience you must be careful to preserve that trust,” Kintzer said.
For Kerin O’Conner, Founder and CEO of the consultancy Atlas and a former CEO at Dennis Publishing, a focus on audience means the “customer must sit in the middle of your business model.”
Discussing recurring revenues, O’Conner pointed to the rise of the subscription economy and its implications for media companies. He observed that “subscription income is more consistent than other forms of monetization.”
Subsequently, media companies should focus on building long-term relationships with subscribers. “We need to be really good at relationships and understanding what we mean to our customers,” he advised.
3. Acquisitions can be integral for growth
There are multiple ways to grow your audiences and revenues. However, launching new products and verticals can be fraught with risk—and costs. One idea which emerged in multiple sessions was to reduce these potential pitfalls through partnerships and acquisitions.
This can take multiple forms. You can, for example, acquire an audience for a day, or even an article.
Juan Señor, noted the return of micropayments in the form of day passes. “We gave up on them [micropayments]. Now they’re coming back,” he says, outlining how this model can be a means to establish a relationship with audiences.
At the other end of the spectrum, Bonnie Kintzer shared how TMB had acquired LA-based JukIn Media. This enabled them to build their base of user-generated content, manifest in brands like Fail Army and The Pet Collective.
In turn, this has led to the creation of new FAST (Free Ad-Supported TV) offerings and expanded TMB’s footprint on different social media channels. And with much of this content also user-generated, it’s also created further revenue opportunities in the form of licensing, as well as ads on their new digital TV channels.
TMB’s programming delivered over 12 billion minutes of watch time last year on FAST platforms. The company won the “Best Publisher Pivot to TV” category in the 2021 Digiday Awards.
Acquisition goes beyond acquiring other companies and its online properties. It lies at the heart of growing this part of the business too. To help TMB continue to build their clips library, they have teams around the world (in LA, India and Romania) looking at—and then acquiring—social content.
Kintzer revealed that the company has paid out over $30 million over the last decade to clip owners. In turn, clips are being licensed by TMB for use in commercials for Cheerios, Huggies, Coca Cola, and others. Deepening this archive also creates more possibilities for streaming, video production and social video, too.
Looking Ahead: interrelated trends to watch
AI will likely continue to dominate the conversation for the next 12 months and beyond. Earlier this year, IAC chairman Barry Diller said that media publishers should sue AI companies to protect their assets.
At FIPP, Lexie Kirkconnell-Kawana, the new chief executive of Impress UK, an independent press regulator, also emphasized the accuracy of generative AI (and the opportunity this may present for publishers). Alongside this, she also spoke to the challenges of determining copyright and “fair use” that we can expect to see play out in the near future. “We may see a wellspring of copyright regulators emerge in response to this,” she predicted.
Meanwhile, Madeleine White, co-editor-in-chief at B2b site The Audiencers and Head of International at the membership and subscription platform Poool, stressed the continued importance of registration strategies. This can help you get to know your audience and also increases the likelihood of converting visitors into subscribers. Using AI, in the form of a dynamic paywall, with the fashion magazine ELLE, White revealed that free registered members are up to 40x more likely to subscribe.
Lastly, Reid Deramus, Growth PM at Substack, noted how the leveling of the tech-stack had made it easier for small companies to do everything from collect payments (e.g. through Stripe), create good-looking content (with a good CMS) as well as reach audiences through channels like newsletters.
“It’s never been easier to pick up your iPhone and start your own media business,” he said. Because of this, it’s not just AI that’s a potential threat to publishers. You need to work hard to acquire, keep and develop talented staff.
“A lot of people who come to Substack felt like they couldn’t be themselves,” he said. To avoid hemorrhaging good people he encouraged companies “to find ways to motivate” some of their top performers. “Give them creative freedom,” he said, “keep them motivated financially… and let them have a seat at the table.”
The big picture
As we delve into the trends shaping the media landscape of Summer 2023, it becomes clearer than ever that media executives need solid strategies in three key areas: AI, audience, and acquisitions.
Artificial intelligence is revolutionizing workflows. However, it is also offering a number of IP challenges that we must address. Simultaneously, enhancing your knowledge—and relationship—with audiences is integral for growing subscriptions and reader revenues, including maximizing the relationships you already have. And the art of acquisition can encompass everything from other companies to UGC, as well as creative talent and new audiences.
Having strategies for these areas in place can help media organizations unlock areas of innovation and growth during a period that promises to be as transformative, and tumultuous, as any in recent memory.
In today’s fast-paced digital world, media companies face intense competition across many different platforms. Echobox, a provider of social media management tools, offers new research, “Publishing Trends 2023,” highlighting media businesses’ priorities, challenges, and opportunities. The top three priorities for content companies include finding new audiences (53%), automation and AI (50%), and video content (47%). Staying ahead of the Facebook algorithm (53%), declining traffic (47%), growing digital subscriptions and diversifying revenue streams (both 34%) were commonly cited challenges.
Echobox surveyed a targeted sample of 32 leading media companies across the world. This global perspective includes respondents from 20 countries in Europe (67%), the Americas (20%), and Asia (13%).
Instagram emerges as a vital channel for publishers in 2023. In fact, the study shows that 66% of respondents believe Instagram will play a more significant role in their business this year. Publishers recognize the value of leveraging Instagram’s visual nature for content promotion and audience interaction.
TikTok is also gaining prominence, with 59% of publishers turning to this platform for video content distribution and audience engagement.
Media brands recognize the importance of capitalizing on the visual nature of TikTok and YouTube. By investing in video production and distribution, the report suggests that media companies can enhance their content offerings and attract a wider audience.
However, challenges persist on platforms like Facebook, primarily due to its lack of algorithmic transparency. Approximately one-third of media companies view Facebook as vital, and they want to maintain visibility and reach on this platform. Unfortunately, the opaque evolving nature of the platform requires publishers to constantly adapt their strategies, remain vigilant of algorithm changes, and seek alternative avenues to engage their target audience.
Newsletters remain an area of growth for many media businesses. The report highlights that 56% of respondents plan to expand their newsletter offerings or start producing newsletters in the coming year. Publishers understand the value of direct communication and engaging subscribers in off-platform vehicles. By crafting compelling and personalized content in newsletters, media businesses can establish stronger connections with their audience and help drive traffic to their websites.
The report indicates that 63% of media companies acknowledge the growing importance of AI for their businesses. AI-powered tools and technologies offer immense potential to streamline operations, optimize content distribution, and enhance audience targeting.
Publishers can leverage AI to automate repetitive tasks, personalize content recommendations, and gain valuable insights into audience preferences. Media companies using AI can unlock new efficiencies, improve engagement, and achieve better business outcomes.
Ending third-party cookies
When thinking of the impending demise of third-party cookies in 2024, less than half of the respondents foresee a significant impact on their business. Specifically, 31% do not anticipate any effect and 13% state that they don’t rely on third-party cookies. Of the 50% of publishers anticipating significant impacts, half report they are prepared while the other half are not.
The Echobox report does highlight that, though the growth of newsletters has slowed, the first party data insights they provide does provide a means to offset the loss of third-party cookies.
The results of Echobox’s 2023 publisher survey does show a certain amount of continuity from last year, as traffic remains a concern along with Facebook, while newsletters continue to demonstrate value. This year did see significant economic impacts as well as uncertainty around the role Twitter will play for media companies and advertisers. The report finds that publishers are investing resources in a wider array of social platforms in an effort to diversify their own audience demographics and to position themselves for increased adaptability to weather the evolving social landscape and consumer consumption trends.