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Six strategic takeaways from a week visiting New York newsrooms

Every summer, for the past three years, my colleague Lisa Heyamoto and I have taken a group of University of Oregon students to New York for a week. The aim of the program is to expose them – and us –  to some of the key developments taking place at the heart of our industry.

We cram a lot in. This year, our group (comprising 16 students and 2 faculty) undertook 18 meetings in 5 days. That may sound exhausting, but we left invigorated and inspired; our faith in the future of journalism and media reinvigorated by the conversations we had.

Here are six key things we learned that week:

1 You can teach an old dog new tricks

Traditional publishers are actively embracing new platforms and encouraging fresh thinking, through new hires, projects and workspaces.

Condé Nast, surprised a few people earlier this year when they appointed Samantha Barry (formerly of the BBC and CNN but with no previous magazine experience) to run Glamour.

The new Editor-in-Chief wasted no time putting her stamp on the publication. A new logo, redesign, and an editorial focus for the May issue —Barry’s first – “on the idea of women and money: how we earn it, how we spend it, and how we save it,” signalled a clear and decisive changing of the guard.

Barry’s track record shows a consistent commitment to innovation, an ability to inspire culture change, and a history of experimentation with new distribution and storytelling techniques. It’s going to be fascinating to see what she does with Glamour.

Meanwhile, another member of the media old guard, NBC, borrowed a move from Al Jazeera’s digital playbook, by opting to locate their digital studio, NBC Left Field, away from their corporate HQ.

Whereas AJ+ originally launched from San Francisco, several thousand miles away from Al Jazeera’s home in Qatar, NBC Left Field is simply in another part of Manhattan. Nonetheless, being off-site, and in this instance in a co-working space with other start-ups, sends a clear signal of intent.

As NBC said in a showreel for the launch of this new digital video unit: “From the company that invented color television, it’s time to start again.” Watch their content – both in terms of its style and subject matter – and you’ll see how they’re trying to deliver on that ambitious goal.

2 The relationship with digital can be a double-edged sword

Delish.com – a digital only product – which covers food news, recipes and features for “the home cook,” is Hearst Magazines largest in terms of online traffic.

Unlike other publications in their magazine stable, such as Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, Men’s Health and Marie Claire, Delish has no print product to reinforce the brand. Nor is there a print heritage to leverage.

Part of the reason for their success, we were told, is that in the digital era, “everyone has to think like a social editor.” And with their reach solely based on organic views, this means that “the content we create has [to have] shareability in mind.”

Reliance on digital platforms, of course, is not without its challenges. Diversification in routes to digital eyeballs is just as important as diversification in revenues. (Not least because the two are so often inextricably linked.)

Slate announced last month that following changes to Facebook’s News Feed, their traffic had dropped 87% from 28M in January 2017 to 4M in May 2018.  And, of course, Little Things – a website focused on feel good stories and videos –shuttered after four years this February, a victim of changes to Facebook’s algorithm.

These examples highlight how it is incumbent on outlets to identify – and implement – a range of approaches in order to succeed in the digital ecosystem.

Slate is able to do this through its membership program, podcasts, events and website. Conversely, Delish.com is well placed to benefit from partnerships with YouTube, Facebook Watch, as well as the opportunities afforded by branded content. (In fact, they’re hiring a Branded Content Editor right now.)

Digital can be a source of great success – in terms of reach and revenue – but publishers need to constantly remind themselves that this can turn on a dime, often in circumstances they cannot control. And they must be ready for that.

3 Organizations big and small are grappling with similar strategic issues

Sustainability, growth of media and competition, the willingness of audiences to pay for news content, and tapping into the communication preferences of younger consumers, are cross-cutting considerations.

It’s not just larger media players who are contending with this, New York is home to 300 ethnic and cooperative media outlets, and they too have seen their traditional business models disrupted.

According to the co-directors of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media, Karen Pennar and Jehangir Khattak, there used to be 4 Bangladeshi papers in NYC. Now there are 17. And whereas these previously had to be purchased from Bangladeshi grocery stores, now they’re offered for free.

The importance of ethnic media – in a city where over 200 languages are spoken, and c.40% of the city are immigrants – is clear. “Combined circulation of daily and weekly community and ethnic publications reaches 4.5 million people – more than half of New York City’s population,” the Mayor’s office has noted.

Nonetheless, despite this impressive reach, embracing digital skills and business models is just as paramount in this vertical as any other (a fact acknowledged by the Mayor’s office in 2016, with a $1 million grant to this sector designed to focus on digital capacity building).

4 Companies are using transferable skills to unlock new markets

In response to changes in the communications landscape, outlets like World Journal – a Chinese daily founded in 1976 and distributed nationwide, is diversifying by publishing materials such as Brooklyn Weekly, a Chinese Business Directory, a New Life in US and Bilingual Medical manuals.

Others, like the Brooklyn and Portland based digital media company Blue Chalk Media, have successfully identified opportunities to create content for new clients and audiences. One of these is the higher education division of Pearson.

As they explain on their website: “Since Blue Chalk began in 2013, the world of education has changed dramatically. In a generation more familiar with visual communications, textbooks are becoming relics of the past and an increasing number of educators are calling for something new.”

For Blue Chalk, this has meant creating 19 short films dubbed “Pearson Originals,” which bring subjects – in the areas of sociology, religion and psychology – to life in a manner that textbooks cannot. They’re also “working on hundreds of short explainer videos for a number of other subjects.”

“Video is the new coin of the realm,” CEO Greg Moyer told us, “and companies need to be able to tell their story in video.” Blue Chalk’s ability to pivot to these emerging video markets highlights how media companies can diversify their revenues whilst still harnessing their core skills.

5 Personalisation and new platforms can drive reach and loyalty

Alongside the search for new revenues, media organisations are also actively seeking new ways to get their product in front of audiences.

From some organisations, it was ever thus. Reuters, at one point, used pigeons to fly stock prices between Aachen (in Germany) and Brussels. It was, their website notes, “a service that operated for a year until a gap in the telegraph link was closed.”

Jump forward to 2018, and they’re one of a number of publishers actively embracing opportunities to distribute content through voice controlled digital assistants like Amazon Echo and Google Home. They currently enjoy 17,000 listens per minute on their Alexa delivered news briefing, Dan Colarusso, Executive Editor, for Reuters TV and Reuters.com told us.

Additionally, Reuters TV – an algorithmically generated experience – reaches 3-4 million people, with the average viewing time on Apple TV and Roku Smart TV’s being 22 minutes. This compares to 12-13 minutes on mobile.

The service is a further example of the company’s commitment to new delivery forms and a quality user experience. It offers audiences bulletins ranging from 5 to 30 minutes, with viewers able to select the length of the bulletin they want to watch. Reuters tailors each bulletin so that it covers the same stories, but with “a different version of each story and how deep you want to go.”

6 Relationships with audiences are being recalibrated

Alongside these innovations, experiments, and efforts to reinvent and refresh brands and their content, we were also privy to wider discussions about engagement and the need to rebuild trust.

One way to do this, is to let audiences in on the way you work. Both the New York Times and BuzzFeed are offering viewers a glimpse behind the curtain.

The NYT’s experience during the first year of the Trump presidency was captured in a riveting Emmy nominated four-part series by NY based Radical Media, (shown on Showtime in the US and on BBC Two through the Storyville strand in the UK). BuzzFeed are working with Netflix on a show launching this summer.

Another approach, as espoused by Dr. Carrie Brown at City University of New York (CUNY), requires news organisations to do things differently.  Brown told us we need to think of “journalism as a service more than a product.” “What do communities need and how do we deliver it to them, including through new tech?” she asked.

Journalists and news outlets do a good job in terms of watchdog reporting, she suggested, but “we don’t necessarily do a really good job listening [and reporting] from the bottom up,” she said.

With the traditional advertising model for news publishers no longer working, the emphasis on subscriptions and memberships means that “engagement is a business imperative.”

Final Thoughts

What these examples demonstrate is just some of the different ways in which NY-based publishers and stakeholders are embracing digital opportunities and recognising the on-going need to question what we do and how we do it.

This means embracing new platforms, markets and ways of doing things, as well as encouraging new projects, brands and ideas.

It was a memorable week, and I’m already looking forward to seeing what’s changed when we do it all again in 2019.

Header image: Pixabay, #SuperJinNYC group shot: Emma Oravecz

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