SIMON MAUDE/FAIRFAX NZ
The good old days of writing a blank cheque for journalism are gone after the industry started giving away its product for free on the internet, International News Media Association chief executive Earl Wilkinson says.
But the industry doom and gloom was hard to understand, he said, because while news on paper might be getting thinner, news organisations were still robust.
“We’re just trying to figure it out,” he said.
What this looks like, however, would be different for every newsroom, and different for every part of the world.
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And being different to other news organisations, rather than being focused on being better, was what was needed.
“Better doesn’t get you one more advertiser one more subscriber, being different, I think, does that.
“We’ve got to be different, we’ve got to be creative, but man that requires a culture change.”
Wilkinson was this month in New Zealand as part of a whirlwind trip visiting news companies in 12 different countries over 37 days.
His association, INMA, provided news media companies with advice on global best practices for growing revenue, audience and brand during a time of profound market change.
Wilkinson said every company he visited was going through some form of transformation.
But where a few years ago most companies were asking how they could get back to the “good old days” where the money was big and easy, they now understood those days were gone.
As such, the focus had shifted to optimising the formula of journalism, audiences, subscriptions and advertising, as well as creating new value for all of that.
“Today the business is transforming, it’s more complicated, it may be more interesting.
“I think we’re all used to the constant disruption.
“It’s baked into the formula of what we’ve got to do over the next 10 years and we don’t stress out about it anymore.”
Wilkinson said one of the most fascinating things about the development of journalism was that after 500 years print and journalism had been “meshed together”.
This was rooted in organisations giving away journalism, which it was charging a premium to subscribe to in print, while giving the same product away for free on a website.
“Doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?” he said.
As organisations had attempted to develop online paywalls or paid content online, however, many had struggled because once the journalism was separated from the physical print product, consumers seemed to put zero value on it.
“They, I guess, in their minds were paying for the printing and the packaging and the delivery, and oh the journalism is just something else.
“So we’ve had to walk that back and re-emphasise to them the value of that content, but it’s been a tough battle.”
Paywalls could work for certain content, such as business journalism, or with premium brands such as the New York Times, but it became harder for general interest news organisations.
A big story in a local community interest paper could be interesting but a small brief in a business publication could make someone $1 million, he said.
The question, therefore, was: what’s the value of content?
“It’s 2017 and we’re still discovering these lessons.
“It’s not like we’ve got 150 years of optimising a model already proven, we’re still trying to prove the model.
“All we’ve proven so far is that high journalism brands and financial journalism brands can demand a premium, that is literally the only thing we’ve proven so far.”
Wilkinson said he was a believer in brands over content.
Consumers wanted to have a full relationship with news brands, whatever way that looked: print, mobile, news alerts, newsletters.
A full relationship could be monetised, and meant news organisations needed to be in the business of attracting them to their brand at all costs.
This meant the old rules of journalism, while a good starting point, needed to change to one where it was all about telling stories with an authentic voice.
Attracting audiences on mass with light stories could do damage, he said, but mediocrity was worse.
“The bigger damage to brands is just intense mediocrity, intense colouring inside the lines of the rules of journalism, in an age where the average consumer has no clue.
“To a consuming public today with many choices, [they are] not buying mediocre and they’re not buying middle of the road, they’re not buying vanilla ice cream.
“I really honestly do not understand the doom and gloom, the only people who are doom and gloom are the people who are wedded to print.”