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7 Key Takeaways from beBETA Berlin

13 June 2024
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GenAI, paid content, and digital transformation: these were the three recurring topics throughout the two days of the #beBETA24 Conference in Berlin. Danny Lein, Twipe CEO, and Mauro Cavallo, our DACH business developer, share their seven key takeaways from the event.

In essence

  • Gen AI is both an opportunity and a threat. Publishers better embrace and understand this technology than stand on the sideline. German publishers like Bild and Süddeutsche Zeitung are taking the lead.
  • Successful digital transformation needs a new type of newsroom leadership and a growth mindset. Turnaround cases like MOPO are inspiring to the industry.
  • Bundling is the trend to retain and grow subscriptions at high ARPU. Quality journalism comes with a cost, and the industry needs to find more ways to generate enough revenue.

1) “You are not your father’s newspaper

Print editions have been flagship products for decades, but the latest trends show a shift. The purpose of the industry has gone from making newspapers and magazines work as printed products to making journalism work. In a media landscape full of pitfalls – such as fake news, bots, trolls, and hate speech – journalism must lead the way by reinventing itself through strong branding and a varied product portfolio.

Dr Rainer Esser, CEO of Die Zeit, explained how the product portfolio has been expanded from one weekly magazine to 16 magazines covering multiple themes. Earl Wilkinson, executive director and CEO of INMA highlighted how leading publishers like Bonnier and the New York Times are bundling their content to further grow their subscription revenues at high ARPU.

He stressed the need for newspapers to reinvent themselves through this disruption. He ended his talk by saying, “You are not your fathers’ newspaper”. The room, filled with family-owned newspaper publishers, was awkwardly laughing, seeing the transformation challenge ahead of them.

2) “32x growth from a vintage product”

Andreas Schmutterer (Chairman of Business Performance, Augsburger Allgemeine) highlighted in his opening panel talk that the question is not if and when regional publishers will become digital media houses but what this transformation will look like.

He shared an amazing stat: Since 2009, e-papers have grown 32x and are currently generating 499 million euros in revenue annually. The ePaper, which used to be an ancillary product, has become a strategic asset in bridging the print world to the new digital era. “The product is largely underestimated in its importance to the industry,” Andreas concluded.

The business projections for 2024 foresee a 7% drop in print subscriptions, while e-paper subscriptions will grow by 16% and generate a 19% revenue increase. The future is digital. And that future is bright, stressed Dr Rainer Esser, CEO of Die Zeit. The new technologies offer multiple opportunities for publishers. You must be ready to grab them.

3) GenAI: The opportunity

GenAI was the underlying topic throughout the whole event, sparking discussions on its impact on the industry: opportunity, danger, or a tool like so many? So far, curiosity seems to be stronger than concern.

As observed by Thomas Schultz-Homberg (CEO, Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger Medien), GenAI is going through the same process all other major technological changes have gone through before: first demonized, then opposed, and eventually accepted as an opportunity to redefine the status quo.

Various German publishers have engaged in interesting initiatives, such as the hyper-realistic AI-generated voice avatars of the editorial staff of Rheinische Post, presented by Helene Pawlitzki (Projektleiterin Audio & Podcasts, Rheinische Post Mediengruppe), or the internal AI-model developed by Süddeutsche Zeitung and brought on stage by Carmen Heger (Director Data & AI, Süddeutsche Zeitung).

4) GenAI: The threat

On the other side of the AI debate, Prof. Dr. Thomas Höppner (Competition Lawyer and Partner at Hausfeld) delivered a stark warning about the profound impact Gen AI will have on the news industry, highlighting that this technology could lead to even lower trust in news media and increase the risk of disinformation.

The first major challenge is represented by fake news: NewsGuard has already identified 957 AI-generated news and information sites operating with little to no human oversight, such as BNN Breaking, which appeared to be a reliable news site but was actually an AI-driven operation, as reported by the New York Times.

Furthermore, Dr Höppner cautioned that the rise of AI-powered “zero-click reading” on Google Search poses a significant threat to publishers. In 2022, over 50% of readers engaged in “zero-click” behaviour, never visiting the original news site. With the advent of summary bots like perplexity.ai and you.com, along with Google’s AI Overview, this number is expected to rise significantly, representing a further threat not only to the future of journalism but to the future of democracy itself.

5) Bundling is a trend to keep selling products at high ARPU

Puzzles, games, and podcasts are now equally important items in publishers’ offerings, and German industry leaders are a step ahead of the competition. As Earl Wilkinson said, “News is only one of the 28 product categories newspapers offer”. Claudius Senst (CEO, Bild-Gruppe) presented Bild’s product strategy, stretching from Hey_, Germany’s s second-biggest Generative AI model (ahead of global giants like Perplexity and MS Copilot), to AI-translated football podcasts in English, and pay-per-view celebrity fighting events. Rainer Esser (Managing Director, Zeit Verlagsgruppe) shared a similar message: think outside the box, listen to your editorial staff, and create brand awareness, making the most out of new platforms (TikTok, Podcasts, Magazines) to appeal to a younger audience.

As further reinforced by Andreas Gysler (Head of Customer Revenue, Neue Zürcher Zeitung) and Bernhard Bahners (Group Managing Director, MADSACK), “quality journalism costs money”, and if the audience is not prepared to pay this price, journalism ceases to exist – and with it, also an important driver for democracy.

6) Transformation is a never-ending process

Arist Von Harpe (Publisher and managing director of Hamburger Morgenpost) shared an inspiring story on how he revived the fortunes of MOPO, a historical tabloid from Hamburg. The whole process revolved around two central questions shared by the entire industry:

  1. What to do with the print edition?
  2. How do we maximize revenue through digital editions?

By trying to answer these questions, MOPO implemented structural changes. They altered the core setup of the publication, shifting to a digital edition during the weekdays and a printed one only on weekends. They also completely revolutionized the digital advertisement revenue streams by monetizing the great reach of the publication.

However, this is not – and will not be – enough. Arist concluded his talk with:

“Transformation is a mindset publishers should incorporate in their DNA, in order to instil a culture of change to help them navigate through this complex transition phase”

Arist von Harpe, Publisher and managing director of Hamburger Morgenpost

7) Be inspired by other digital leaders to shape the future of news

“Innovation” and “change” are key topics for every player in the media and publishing industry. Many publishers are looking at digital leaders in other sectors to seek inspiration and shape the future of news, such as TikTok and Spotify.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung team won the BZDV’s NOVA Award in the Product Innovation category with its “Year in Review”, a concept similar to the one made famous by Spotify. The analysis of reading habits and the comparison with other subscribers strengthens the bond with the newspaper and promotes a sense of community among readers.

Nico Wilfer (FAZ) presents the NOVA Award to Elisabeth Gamperl and Julia Kandler (SZ).

Dennis Papirowski (Global Head of Publisher Growth & Development, TikTok) shared precious insights into TikTok’s strategy and product portfolio. “TikTok is not singing and dancing videos” he explained. The Chinese platform is rapidly evolving by broadening its content portfolio and starting to offer long-form videos, even moving into live videos. Gone are the times when only shorts were on TikTok?

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