Top Strategies Leading Publishers Use to Overcome Digital Disruptions: Lessons from WAN-IFRA’s World News Media Congress 

30 May 2024
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Disruptions have rocked the media industry. AI has been the latest, but the disruptive waves of the internet and smartphones continue to be felt. The challenges of losing audiences, revenue, and struggling to maintain public trust can be traced back to these major changes. 

But it’s not all doom and gloom.  Many media organizations have shown resilience and adaptability. At the 2024 WAN-IFRA World Congress of News Media, several best practices were shared to help others also break through.  

In this article, I’ll share three key reoccurring principles and practical examples to help publishers not only weather the storm but also find success. They aren’t groundbreaking revelations; they’re the fundamentals. But with the news media crisis, it’s easy to lose sight of these basics, so they’re worth reiterating.  

Journalism is your product so involve your newsroom.  

“Do not be mistaken,” emphasized Emily Withrow, VP of Product and Head of Subscriber Experiences at the New York Times, “the product is the journalism we’re producing each day.”  

This sentiment was repeated throughout every panel, underscoring its importance. Strategic decisions about subscriptions and products must begin with the question: how can this enhance the journalistic content we produce? As Dmitry Shishkin, CEO of Ringier Media International, put it, “Media companies are not tech companies. They need to know how to innovate and use technology, of course; but they are content companies first.” 

Case in point: How NTM doubled its digital subscriptions 

Recognizing that media companies are fundamentally content businesses is one thing, but how can the rest of the organization get behind this idea? 

Practically, it means involving your newsroom in strategic efforts within other parts of the business. For example, Swedish publisher, NTM put their newsroom at the heart of their team’s multi-year effort to double their subscription numbers.  

This initiative had many tracks, but a crucial part was identifying the top seven topics readers were most likely to consume. They analyzed the data and uncovered these topics, however, data alone is useless without the support of reporters and editors. It was essential for the company to ensure their newsroom focused on generating content aligned with the data. To do so, they also created dashboards to present article performance data in a straightforward and accessible way for reporters so they knew if they were hitting the right beats.  

The results? They achieved their goal with only a few months behind schedule. “The most rewarding process is building this strategy together with the newsroom and local management. Make them understand why there is a problem and the numbers or developments behind your growth,” said Jens Pettersson, Head of Editorial Development at NTM.  

Know your audience inside-out. 

“Without our audience, we are nothing,” said Sarah Marshall, VP of Audience Strategy at Condé Nast.  

If journalism is the product, the audience is the consumer. Understanding them deeply is crucial for designing products and creating content that they will engage with. 

She advises going beyond just analyzing hard data about your audience; it’s also about directly engaging with them to understand their needs and interests.  

Both large and small publishers can conduct user needs and audience research. Emily Withrow, VP of Product and Head of Subscriber Experiences at the New York Times, who previously worked at a small company, would visit coffee shops to conduct informal user research, showing people her product and gathering their opinions. Budget-friendly alternatives include consulting industry reports, such as the NextGen Report by FT Strategies and Knight Labs on Gen Z news consumption habits and format preferences. 

Case & point: How Le Monde adapts to audience engagement with their products 

Le Monde’s product team uses both a quantitative dashboard to track audience interactions in their products and a qualitative database that gathers feedback from app stores and social channels.  

Le Monde demonstrated the importance of this dual approach with an example: They released a text-to-speech feature for their live news articles, placing the activation button at the bottom of the clickable area to open the article. Initially, usage of the text-to-speech feature soared, appearing successful. However, qualitative feedback soon revealed that users were frustrated by accidentally hitting the audio button when they intended to open the article for reading. Only by measuring both could they quickly adjust to meet the needs of their audience. 

Share Your Knowledge 

When it comes to AI, opinions are mixed. 

Publishers hold varying views on AI: 

  • Some see AI as a worthwhile, but costly investment, while others focus on its potential to reduce operational costs. 
  • Some believe AI-driven search will drastically reduce web traffic, whereas others think its impact will be minimal. 
  • There are debates on whether publishers should make deals with AI companies for content use, bring them to court, or adopt a wait-and-see approach. 

These perspectives are influenced by the organization’s size, revenue model, and market. 

Despite these differences, some common views emerged at the WAN-IFRA Congress: 

  • While AI might be overhyped, its significance in the media industry will continue to grow. 
  • Editorial oversight is crucial to mitigate its risks. 
  • News organizations must clearly disclose AI involvement in content creation to maintain audience trust. 

Case in point: How AI is being adopted across publications.  

As AI is a relatively new tool, its adoption across different newsrooms varies significantly. Aftonbladet is certainly one of the publishers which experiments the most with AI, having formed a seven-person, cross-functional team of journalists and technical profiles to experiment with the technology. Even with dozens of experiments under its belt – from AI summaries to chat bots – Martin Schori, Deputy Managing Editor and Associate Publisher at Aftonbladet, stated that the next step is getting the newsroom and management on board.  

When adopting AI, Mathias Douchet, Director of Product at the Telegraph Media Group, remarked, “We should question what we want to achieve with AI. We can talk about making visual articles or summaries, but is that useful for the readers?”. This sentiment was supported by Olaf Gersemann, Head of Economics and Finance Department in Newsroom at WELT, and Thomas Schultz-Homberg, CEO of Kolner Staft-Anzeiger Medien, who echoed the need to innovate with AI only if it helps solve problems journalists are facing and to give AI-innovators the mandate to see their innovations through.  

Takeaways for publishers

  1. Make the newsroom understand your business goals and make your other teams – from IT to marketing to data analytics – work collaboratively with them to achieve them. 
  2. Understanding your audience through both quantitative and qualitative means is key to creating content and products that resonate with them. 
  3. Start with a general problem you want to solve, and then determine whether AI is the right tool for it.  

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