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“We’re competing for that scarcest of modern world resources — attention”: How publishers are innovating for 2020, and beyond

“News Media Innovation 2020,” a new report from The Centre for Media Transition (an applied research unit based at the University of Technology Sydney), offers a comprehensive overview of the innovations that have driven the publishing business in recent years, and suggests ways forward.

The report, authored by Jacqui Park, Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Journalism and Innovation at the CMT, is based on her in-depth interviews and discussions with over 80 news media innovators and thinkers. It looks into how publishers might:

  • understand the news media needs of their audiences and communities.
  • equip journalists with the skills to drive innovation in journalism.
  • develop the support structures for experimentation and shared learning for the whole industry.
  • build initial runways for access to investment and other funding.
  • network news innovators across Asia-Pacific and link them with peers and funders around the world.

“Global fight for attention”

According to Park, “Disruption and innovation is the call and response of the modern world. News media is caught shuttling helter-skelter from one to the other, attempting to juggle the impact of disruption while innovating to create a new media ecosystem.

“But disruption is not a matter of having to deal with new technological tools or the platform-based internet. The disruption of news media lies in the abrupt turnabout in the information and the attention economies.”

She refers to the ubiquity and infinite supply of information that audiences face today, compared to the finite supply of time and attention they have. “It’s not about the tech. Or the business model. It’s about attention. It’s about the big social shift where this world of information abundance crashes into the finite amount of time each of us has to pay it attention,” writes Park on Medium. 

Journalists are engaged, whether they know it or not, in a global fight for attention, from competition within their own industry and from outside it. 

Jacqui Park, Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Journalism and Innovation, CMT

“Collective and iterative project”

The report draws insights and questions about innovation in product development, business models, distribution and journalism—the four pillars, according to Park. She suggests that they need to be integrated in a holistic strategy that understands and engages its audience at the centre of the process. 

“Innovation across the sector is a collective and iterative project, assuming an implied collaborative understanding. Each individual idea, practice or change should be assessed for its contribution to the sector’s often tentative reaching for its next footing, rather than assessed for its own (probably unknowable) impact,” writes Park. 

An example is The Guardian’s large-scale donations strategy which is now being replicated by other publishers. But different organizations adapting the strategy need to back it up with their own product/market assessment to ensure that the solution is tailored for their unique requirements. 

In the UK, the idea of a media organization asking its readers for direct contributions was unheard of at the time. And I’ll be honest with you, it really did not have much support inside The Guardian or outside to begin with. But the readers understood it.

Katharine Viner, Editor-in-chief of the Guardian

The goal is R.E.A: Repeat Engaged Attention

The Guardian along with some other publishers like Times UK, and Brazil’s O Globo has also reduced the amount of content it publishes, prioritizing quantity over quality. The Guardian reduced its online content by 30% without any complaints from readers, according to the report. “All that’s happened is that they’re reading more of the good stories and the traffic has gone up. So, you know less is more,” commented Katharine Viner, Editor-in-chief of the Guardian.

Taking this strategy further is The Tortoise which has made slow news central to its membership model. The publisher provides reporting against five defining issues powered by editorial member ‘thinkins’. Launched in April last year, the publication notched up 20,000 subscribers in the first six months.

In India, finance and tech newsletter, The Ken has limited itself to delivering a single in-depth story of about 2,500 words to its subscribers each day. At US$50 a year it’s relatively costly for the region. In comparison, the digital subscription for national newspaper The Hindu, is pegged at US$30. The Ken has already attracted the attention of serious investment, according to Park.

Core question posed by the digital disruption of news media: do you have what it takes to hold the audience’s attention? The situation calls for an innovation response that captures the audience with compelling content, packaged and delivered in the right way at the right time. The goal is R.E.A: repeat engaged attention. 

Jacqui Park, Author, News Media Innovation 2020

Here are the key takeaways from the report: 

  1. Disruption of news media has come from outside. Innovation is about remaking news media from the inside. 
  2. The disruption is not about the technology. It’s not even about the business model. It’s about the clash between living in a world of information abundance and having only a finite amount of time to pay it attention. 
  3. Innovation in the news media has circled through three overlapping cycles: digital-first publishing, social media distribution and, now, audience-centred publishing. 
  4. It has taken these three cycles to understand what is at the core of the disruption challenge: audiences. 
  5. Practically, putting audiences at the centre means having a holistic strategy that combines innovation in content, business models, distribution and product. 

It also includes several case studies that reveal how new and established media organizations are placing audiences first.

“Business as usual is not an option”

Park suggests that identifying and understanding audience requirements needs to be deeply embedded in the innovation practices of the industry. This involves a deeper knowledge base on how to build and scale audiences, how to reach them, engage them (and promote to them) and how to identify otherwise missed opportunities. 

Some of the most successful innovators in news media approach the task holistically. “They start with the journalism and create products that their audience will deeply value, building community and encouraging engagement,” she wrote on

Once we understand the question — that we’re competing for that scarcest of modern world resources — attention — then we can really start thinking about how we respond to that challenge. And that means innovating with journalism that is so compelling — so attuned to the wants and needs of our audience — that it can break through all those competing demands on attention.

Jacqui Park, Author, News Media Innovation 2020

“It has taken a long time to understand that beyond the business model, social distribution and technology, the biggest disruption has been to the audience: their habits, needs and expectations and how they value information,” comments Park. 

“This calls for an audience-focused response, and an understanding that just as disruption is at the heart of the business, innovation too has to be at the center of everything. Business as usual is not an option.”

The full report can be downloaded from The Centre for Media Transition: 
News Media Innovation 2020