It’s not unusual for the final speakers at a conference such as this week’s World News Media Congress to present a world in which nothing is real, where algorithms drive what we see and hear. But what do you do when you get home?
Sam Guzik, journalist, futurist, “foresight affiliate” with the Future Today Institute and director of news product strategy at New York Public Radio, does exactly that and is challenged by WAN-Ifra chief executive Vincent Peyrègne, wary that people may be sick of “this acceleration of technology”.
Given that major opportunities only exist for a few, “what should a local news publisher do,” he asks.
Guzic (pictured) advocates a “really structured” way to acknowledge the future and keep checking in on it. “Sometimes it gets built in, sometimes we just bookmark it,” he says.
Earlier, Guzik takes delegates – who are virtual, of course – to a world in which a hip-hop group has no human members, software corrects a TV presenter’s errors, and your favourite soap opera never ends. Reporters creating a nightly newscast for every subscriber, for example. Already familiar with Jordan’s Peele’s simulated Obama, and the GPT3 algorithm that writes opinion, delegates have probably already heard, “and maybe used” synthetic media.
“It will open the door for personalisation at a scale hard to fathom. Is your newsroom ready to leverage this,” he asks, adding a warning. “Consumers are already encountering this, and there’s a risk in letting others define expectations.”
He says a “really good strategy” depends on looking at what we can control ourselves, what competition might look like, and how we can turn threats into opportunity.
New devices and platforms such as Amazon’s Echo frames – are changing the nature of competition, posing the question of what news looks like in this always-on contextually-relevant environment… and what the business model is.
“Do we need to be investing in different types of training, and new products,” he says. “It’s not enough just to observe, we need to find new ways of acting.”
And he warns that “being essential doesn’t guarantee a future for news”, an industry “too important to assume we’ll be OK”.
He tells Peyrègne the “first piece of the puzzle” is being open to having the conversation; the second being open to different forms action might take; and the third, “trying to think about what the signals say for each individual market”.
Uptake won’t necessarily be in traditional western markets, with statistics about voice search showing that Asia, Africa and South America – with “more willing” consumers – were among early adopters.
Cut back to the present – or recent past – and the Congress has the now-traditional Innovation in News Media Annual World Report from Juan Señor’s Innovation Media Consulting Group… and a couple of case histories to ground us back on earth.
Señor looks back on a pandemic year in which necessity was not only “the mother of invention” but also of innovation.
This time his list of business models for publishers is down one, to 13, but there are 15 digital product innovations in newsrooms to compensate, advice about triggering a subscription, on setting up fact-checking… and 11 of the best marketing campaigns to convince readers to pay for news.
On revenue diversification, he says, “you should be doing three or four” but adds that “there’s never been a better time to be in the subscriptions business”.
While 40 per cent of revenue should come from subscriptions, he says a choice between advertising or subscriptions is “a false dichotomy, you can have your cake and eat it”.
And of course the challenge of churn, which has “begun in earnest now”, he says, pointing to the dynamic of predictive models, the value of personalisation, and opportunities in e-commerce – “if you’re a publisher, you can have a shop,” he says – plus high-margin e-learning, with “lots of good examples”.
A list of subscription triggers starts with “reliable and accurate scientific reporting”, data visualisations, pop-up newsletters, live blogging, and the “conversion monster” of instant analysis. Plus live streaming of local sport, and podcasting, “but not as we knew it” driving huge growth in Spain, and with four-out-of-ten Australians saying they would pay “just for the podcast”.
Another winner is Gannett’s personalized fact-checking service, which promises to verify information within 24 hours… and no doubt, delivers a tip or two into the bargain.
Finally Señor has 11 strong campaigns that sell journalism, among them from the New Zealand Herald, the South China Morning Post, the New York Times, the Financial Times, and De Morgen’s “kaleidoscope”.
A couple of examples of Innovation’s innovation are a great way to finish up on what’s possible. Kenya’s Standard Group has been transformed, intake editor Kizito Namulanda says, through converged newsroom operations – where “we just turn around and we have a meeting” – multimedia, diversification and a new CMS. A new staff structure and workflows are designed to foster consultation “all the time” and supported by a collegiate style of management. But the change requires “a complete mind shift” he says. “It cannot work with the old”.
Kathleen Capetta also got used to change when she moved from Maine to Compass Media in the Cayman Islands with her three children, only to find the business had been sold, and “do I want to run it”.
That was January 2019, and with the help of Señor’s firm, things had been going pretty well until… you guessed. COVID-19.
“It had been a great adventure in paradise, three little islands, but the fifth-largest financial centre in the world,” she says. “The challenge was to go from a legacy company losing almost a million a year, via a relaunch, to beating budgets the following March.
“The beach was empty as Cayman closed its borders. Revenue evaporated, and I was locked in my bathroom in what was almost a police state for three months.
“I was laying off 20 people by phone, then crawling into bed to cry,” she says. The paper was cut to one day a week, 30 per cent of staff had to go, and restrictions meant key people couldn’t be brought in.
Strategy pillars included expecting ‘biblical plague’ levels, remembering that “your time and energy” sets the tone, and focusing on strong teams rather than superstars, painful though that might be. She says she also learned the importance of training editors in the business side, helping people get through anxiety, and “treating everyone with respect”.
On the positive side, Capetta says they tripled the digital audience, and were able to facilitate tech advances including a paywall and AR.
Maybe they’ll be ready for synthetic media and virtual hip-hop soon too.