The enormous challenges faced by the media this year have forced publishers to question long-held beliefs and attitudes and have created an environment for positive change. This was the message from Wolfgang Blau, President, International and Chief Operating Officer, Condé Nast, who delivered the opening keynote address at the virtual 43rd FIPP World Media Congress.
“To build the media company of the future we have to ask what is the dream, what is the purpose and mission of a media company and journalists today – and where the trajectory of change that we have seen is heading,” he said.
“We may be calling this the new normal but the only thing that is new and normal now is that change of all kinds, in all areas of our business, is accelerating. The good news is that humans are incredibly adaptable and inventive and if you look at the history of some of the world’s long established media companies many of them have made it through much, much greater challenges.”
Focus is key
Blau stressed the importance of media companies knowing exactly what their brand stands for in a post-Covid world.
“The reason why clients are advertising has changed,” he said. “Size of audiences is still important, but the role of the media company’s brand, its purpose and authority in a specific subject area – the value of that is just going up.
“The pandemic has given us the time to take a step back and not only look at the facts, figures and spreadsheets that describe our businesses but the role media brands play in our society. Many of Condé Nast’s editorial teams around the world have come out of the crisis with a renewed sense of purpose and with a much clearer idea of what their brand stands for.”
Blau, speaking during the first FIPP Congress to be hosted virtually as a result of Covid-19, used the success of Vanity Fair in Italy as an example. The magazine has seen an 80% increase in single-copy sales after it became a platform for Italy’s leading artists discussing how to get through the pandemic.
“We learnt that if your journalism is being perceived as essential for those interested in that brand’s subject matter, they have a strong future,” he said. “But if it is seen as generic and something you can also find somewhere else, you will inevitably struggle. Every single story needs to carry that quality of being worth someone’s time.”
Using the positive energy
Blau believes it is important to use newfound positive energy in media companies to “lift, highlight and promote the voices and issues that help move us forward”.
“In these recent months we have seen that these issues are not easy and they are not comfortable to confront,” he added. “But they do move us forward and they do open doors and help us become more meaningful for our readers.
“Society is changing and so are we. Society is addressing its shortcomings and we are addressing ours. We are committed to putting these issues around anti-racism and promoting diversity and being more inclusive – editorially and how we run our teams – at the centre of our operations.”
The importance of going green
One of the most important lessons 2020 has taught us, according to Blau, is that we are a global community and need to work together to protect the planet.
“We are dependent on each other for our collective wellbeing and we must take care of our home, our planet,” he pointed out. “To credibly inspire communities around the world, we first have to clean up our own act. We work a lot with paper mills around the world and try to reduce trucking. One of the most powerful things you can do regarding your carbon footprint as a publishing company, is to shift from newsstand sales to subscription because then you can calibrate more easily how much you need to print.
“We also began reaching out and forging partnerships and were surprised what appetite there is out there among global organisations to work with media on these topics.”
The rise of fake news
According to Blau one of the biggest hurdles facing the media is the politicisation of journalism.
“Once shared concepts and reference points such as the trust in science have now become brittle and are being discussed as if they were opinions,” he said. “Until recently the mention of vaccinations as a way to help prevent pandemics would not have caused an emotional reaction because it was seen by everyone as an established scientific fact. But the politicisation of scientific truths is something that challenges the very foundation of journalism.”
“I think journalists need to be more confident. Be humble but don’t second- guess yourself. Don’t step into that trap also of confusing objectivity with a style of reporting that reduces journalism to regurgitating to ‘what he said’ and ‘what she said’, independently of whether their statements were truthful or not.”
Do I stay or do I go
Weighing into the post-Covid remote working debate, Blau predicted there has been a permanent change in the way teams operate.
“It is very likely that we will regularly spend time working from home,” he said. “With us having so many teams and so many locations it really has brought us closer together and the only limitation has been timezones. And I think, like everyone, we were surprised how quickly we managed the transition.”
Pierre de Villiers