Forget that it’s virtual. Get two of the best newsmedia minds in the world together and there’s a sense something special is about to happen.
As it did today when Reuters’ Alexandra Borchardt presided over a session on ‘navigating 2022 and beyond’ at this week’s World News Media Congress.
There’d been some valuable background from McKinsey partner Adam Bird – espousing a “Moore’s law applied to ecommerce” leading to “the most spoiled and advantaged consumers in history” – until the conversation came around to competition. With everyone, and especially state governments that make it harder for media companies to do their job.
JP/Politikens Hus chief executive Stig Kirk Orskov (above) asserts that they compete with everyone, “because we compete for attention” and Borchardt, a senior research associate at Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, admitting her role puts her “on both sides”.
And then they’re talking about the accelerating effect of the COVID pandemic, which Schibsted Media chief Kristen Skogen Lund says is “the biggest news story of our lifetime”… and we’re away.
“People came flocking to our media, giving journalists an even more important mission than ever, business and finances was horrifying to start with – we looked at economic scenarios that were horrible – and then it turned around much quicker than anyone could have seen,” she said.
“We have saved costs, grown digital subsscriptions, and had a rebound in advertising – it’s like the coins are falling in place.
“Now we can sustain all our costs through digital revenue alone. After years and years of transformation, we’re out of the tunnel.
“The growth in news, it’s so energizing! We love it.”
She says Schibsted made a “very important choice” in deciding that there would be no lay-offs, “even temporary ones”, and with everyone on deck, unifying everyone in a common fight.
“Remote work has worked really well for many; we have become more productive, more focused and saved costs; we’ve made acquisitions and bold decisions, and only thing I regret is the hold on hiring for which we are now suffering.”
Even the increased collaboration in home offices, which she can’t explain. “Somehow it just works.”
Stig Orskov has the same view. “Talking about purpose and impact has never been easier than now,” he says. “Even sitting at home, people felt what they were doing was really important.
“Because it starts with journalism.”
While the bar for distinctiveness which Bird had been talking about earlier is getting higher, “so is the reward,” he says.
JP is investing in niche media verticals, “not scale but value”, with “the next level” of digital subscriptions, and expansionary growth on the agenda.
They’d bought Dezeen, an “interesting” company in the UK and its first outside Scandinavia, a book publisher in Norway, launched a new business in Sweden, and are looking for more niche verticals.
“And we learn a lot from Schibsted,” he says. “I hope we can keep that.
“We grow the pie by learning together.”
And Lund agrees. Subscriptions have been growing – “you’d think it’s saturated, but it’s growing” – and Schibsted has moved from the “quite basic ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and become so much better at data.” One thing has been to make Schibsted (group-wide) the data owner, so it can be now used across all entities.
“A one-customer view, and we can take Stig (Orskov) across and enrich him,” she says. “Then our brands can tap into much better raw data, meaning we can build more sophisticated packages.”
COVID coverage is “very data driven”, and to make interesting bundles you need different kinds of content to tailor an offering for a broad audience.
Asked by Borchardt for advice smaller publishers, she points to opportunities with data on a smaller subset. “You have to leave your old ways of working behind and forget about big,” she says. “It’s all about tweaking and learning, try and try again, all about iterations, quite different to the big bangs we used to have when we launched a title.”
For Orskov, the first phase of the digital journey has been quite simple. “What we see now is potential from gaining value from the subscription business. “But it’s getting more difficult to extract the next customer,” he says.
Coming up for Schibsted is “taking it one step further” by becoming a subscription hub, “not necessarily media related, not just electricity and groceries, but a lot of things are gravitating from there,” Lund says.
They are also looking at new markets, among them female hygiene and extreme sports, a high involvement category. “And we have a large distribution business.”
It’s an opportunity the two share: Orskov admits they nearly got rid of their distribution network ten years ago, when delivering daily newspapers was seen as a headache. “Then five or six years ago, we started using it for ecommerce.
“We deliver books, we can deliver whatever, and that has been a tremendous growth story during the epidemic.”
For Kristen Skogen Lund, it’s the fastest growing part of the group. “I love that story,” she says. “We deliver breakfast, flowers, Christmas cards, local foods, things we distribute from e-tailers, increasing the ticket value of each delivery, and it’s growing really fast.”
One growth area is peer-to-peer, “so cool and user-friendly,” she says. “We thought newspaper distribution would die in 2017 and looked at how we could dismantle it. Instead they said they’d turn it around.”
For Orskov too, newspaper delivery costs are “the same as in 2010” as a result, “meaning the newspaper will live longer as a result”.
Both have been learning “the value of people”, and Lund says Schibsted has so far recruited about 1000 people, including headhunters. “We just bring them in, and still we can’t fill everything,” she says.
Listening in is India’s DD Purkayastha, until earlier this year chief executive of publishing giant ABP, quizzing attitudes on bringing staff back into the office. “We’ve prepared a lot for this, and after two or three months of normality; we’ve decided on a hybrid policy with each team to decide,” says Lund. “We’ll take the best from remote and hybrid, and decide how to do it.”
Stig Orskov favours an in-office presence, “quite good but not a necessity”, so JP will be “experimenting and “a lot more flexible”.
“It may be a learning process, and I’m very keen to see where this leads.”
Another delegate wants to know whether they should focus on loyal readers or finding new ones is told, “ideally you should do both, not one at the expense of the other.
“Try to find out what’s unique about your content, use the data to build your uniqueness and your base, something that’s difficult to do if you’re not in a direct relationshsip with your readers,” says Lund.
Then there’s the question of when buy, when to build, and when to partner. A huge question, “not always easy to get right”, she says, pointing to occasions when quite small companies have been acquired at high cost, others when you can buy a company that’s “already on the way”. Sometimes the issue is time to market, or competence to enter a new niche.
“Partnerships can be powerful, but bring problems with the issue of data ownerhip because of GDPR regulations,” she says.
With “so much to do and so much to learn from others,” you’d wonder why the two aren’t working together. And the session ends with the feeling that after today’s session, that might just happen.
Pictured: Kristen Skogen Lund (top) and Stig Kirk Orskov (above)