Positive News’ Sean Dagan Wood on building membership around constructive journalism

This week, we hear from co-founder of the Constructive Journalism Project and Editor-in-Chief of Positive News Magazine Sean Dagan Wood, to learn how at least one publisher is building a membership model around news with a constructive spin.

In the news round-up, the team discuss how Kylie Jenner caused Snap’s stock to plummet, the swings and roundabouts of Vox Media redundancies and The Atlantic’s hiring spree, and Salon using its audience’s spare processing power to mine a cryptocurrency. Peter puts his tinfoil hat on for Conspiracy Corner.

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President of theguardian.org, Rachel White on funding independent journalism

On this week’s episode of Media Voices, Esther interviews the Guardian’s director of philanthropic & strategic partnerships Rachel White about finding ways of funding independent journalism.

In the news round-up, the crew of the good ship Media Voices discuss Google’s plans to fix local news, an uptick in trust in traditional media in the UK and discuss Jonah Peretti insisting that everything is fine at BuzzFeed.

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Media’s hopes and dreams for 2018

It’s safe to say that 2017 was a bit of a bumpy year for media organisations. From mass job cuts, ill-advised pivots and a growing outcry against the burgeoning duopoly, there’s no sign of the wave of digital disruption easing up on the industry.

In our bumper end-of-year special, we chewed over many of the issues that the past year has thrown up, interspersed with contributions from some of our past guests.

Rather than concoct yet another list of media predictions for 2018, we decided instead to ask some of the experts that have appeared on the podcast what they hope 2018 holds for the industry. All the responses below are included in the episode – give it a listen if you want to hear more about what each guest thought about the year gone by and what their own personal priorities are for 2018.

Kevin Anderson, media analyst

“Hiring – I want to see lots and lots of new jobs. We’re ending this year on a bit of a sour note with cuts coming not just from the big legacy beasts of media, but also 500 job cuts at Oath, this bastard stepchild of Yahoo and AOL that Verizon owns now. But we’re also seeing these job cuts at digital media companies, large and small. I think we’ve seen the end of the VC-funded focus on scale, which for anyone who was serious about strategy, we knew that was never going to be the answer.

“I think there should be a lot more focus on the strategies out there that are working and the companies that are really building a solid business. There are some really great models out there, there are some really great strategies that I hope a lot of other companies execute, and just focus on those things that we do know work and focus on the execution to make it work.”

Listen to Kevin’s episode on going beyond the article.

Becky Lucas, insight and strategy editor, British GQ

“I would love for media brands to really double down on their USPs and what they were when they first launched, and back away from trying to bring in readers from absolutely everywhere, diluting what their brands are about. So a focus on growing loyal readers who come back time and time again because they expect a certain quality or a certain type of content on a website is what we should all be aiming for.”

Listen to Becky’s episode on the true meaning of ‘engagement’.

Matt Kelly, editor, The New European

“The most important thing from my point of view is a complete re-thinking of how we approach local communities as local newspapers. Local news is at a very interesting point in its existence in that you see it’s under threat in a lot of places, and I think society will miss it when it’s gone, if it goes. Part of the blame lies at the door of publishers; you can’t just keep blaming the audience for switching us off. We’ve got to re-think how we connect with audiences, and part of that I believe involves opening the door to communities a lot more, and trying to stop being just a one-directional product – not just throwing content at people, but allowing people to use you as a community platform.

“It’s about the reinvention of local media and it’s about really getting in to touch with the community, trying to throw away all the preconceptions we’ve got about what qualifies as journalism, not throwing away the values that we adhere to, or indeed our obligation and our duty to cover the community in a news sense, but also to accept that there are a lot of things that the community does that we don’t pay attention to. Is there a way that we can re-engage with the community, and through that re-engagement can we go back and even come back into revenue streams that many regional newspapers have considered long-gone around classifieds, property and recruitment? Can we really, coherently claim to be bigger than Facebook in our communities? That’s my goal.”

Listen to Matt’s episode on bravery and business models.

Lisa Smosarski, editor-in-chief, Stylist

“The thing that I would most like to see in 2018 in media is a brilliant new launch. Everyone’s been playing it so safe for the last few years; there’s been a lot of nervousness in the market, a lot of consolidating existing titles and brands, but actually there have been very few big content launches. It’s been fantastic this year seeing what’s happened with Vogue and Edward Enninful, how that’s reinvigorated the glossy fashion market and recreated the conversation around magazines. But I think a fantastic, exciting new launch in any market on a mass scale would be brilliant.

“We have a fantastic initiative that we’re launching in January which is wrapped into the centenary of the women’s vote, and I’ll be looking at how that manifests across all our different platforms of the Stylist brand. I’m also really interested in our video proposition, so I’ll be spending lots of time with our digital teams and working out how we can bring that to life even more – we’ve had some massive hits this year and we want to keep growing that side our business.”

Listen to Lisa’s episode on growing magazine circulation.

Liz Gerard, newspaper analyst

“I’d like things to be a bit calmer and less aggressive – I don’t like the aggression that’s coming out at the moment directed at anybody who deviates from the prescribed view…dissent doesn’t seem to be allowed these days. I would like to get younger voices on board; our newspapers are run by old white men, and I think it’s time we got a bit of diversity in our national press. That might reinvigorate it…”

Listen to Liz’s episode on the recent history of tabloid front pages.

Katherine Goldstein, Nieman fellow

“I hope next year that so many of the news organisations that create great work will start to examine how their work environments have led to sexist and unequal work environments, what they can do to truly support women in reaching leadership roles and being sure their contributions are valued through all stages of their careers, and not just focus on sexual harassment hotlines, or firing a few bad apples. It’s a much much bigger problem to solve and I hope news organisations are going to do some of the long and hard work to make sure they better support everyone.

“My top media priority for this year is to continue to hold everyone’s feet to the fire about how women are treated in the workplace. It’s not just about sexual harassment…there are so many ways that women face sexism in their everyday lives and in the workplace, and I hope to tell stories that share those realities and uncover truths that have been simmering for a long time.”

Listen to Katherine’s episode on maternity culture in journalism.

Simon Davies, MD, EMEA, Quartz

“From a more macro scale, I want to see more of a focus on user experiences, and the idea of actually focusing on an individual’s experience with a brand with the environment that they’re having that experience in, rather than merely trying to blast out audiences, or target audiences if you’re an advertiser. It’s happening, and it’s happening for a few reasons…but I think it’s a realisation that what we should all be trying to do is actually produce positive user experiences on a one-to-one basis. Partly the issue is also being forced by GDPR, and by increased issues and concerns around brand safety, but generally there’s an increased awareness among advertisers [and media owners].

“We’re going to be focusing on being better at interrogating, understanding and getting meaning from data. We’ve invested a lot in our insights team, because that’s where the value is, and the better we can understand what that data is telling us, then the better we’ll be able to produce content the way that the audience wants to consume it.”

Listen to Simon’s episode on building innovation into the workflow.

Esra Doğramacı, senior editor for digital, Deutsche Welle

“I would really like to start to see media organisations develop and discover their own identities, and especially their own digital identities. I think the last couple of years have been a really fantastic time for experimentation, but you see a lot of ‘copy-catting’ going on, and everybody just looking over their shoulders and chasing the next thing that comes along. I would like to see media, publishers and broadcasters have a much better sense of who they are and what they’re good at, and really focus on capitalising on that.”

Listen to Esra’s episode on best practice for digital video.

Of course, the three of us have our own hopes and dreams for media in 2018, and couldn’t resist pitching in.

Chris: “Next year, what I would like to see most of all is an increase in transparency around business models and reporting. If you want to build a membership scheme, then you have to show your audience exactly how the pudding is made from start to finish. We’ve seen some great examples of that going on already, from the Guardian’s membership scheme, the Atlantic’s masthead, and at publish.org, and I think that it’s a great first step along that road to increasing transparency and regaining some trust.”

Esther: “I would really like to see to see a ‘pivot’ to membership. I would love to see magazine and newspaper organisations actually taking this membership approach; looking at the Membership Puzzle Project, looking at their research and the lessons they’ve learned, because it forces them to look at themselves and go “Right…what’s good about us? What do people like about us and what will people pay to be members of?” It encompasses diversifying revenue streams – you can’t just shove a product at a person and expect them to pay a ‘membership’ – membership is about more than just the content you’re producing.”

Peter: “I would like to see a focus on brand values, where publishers are actually saying “This is who we are, this is what we stand for,” and then taking that and turning it into direct relationships with their audience, whether that’s through paid, or just through regular emails, personalisation or a better use of data. They need to really build those relationships so that people know what they’re doing and they know what people want. That’ll involve a real focusing in on brand values rather than this chase for volume or chase for quantity over quality.”

Whether you’re a new listener, a frequent ‘dipper’ or tune in each week, thanks for your support throughout 2017 and we look forward to bringing you more news, analysis and interviews from the media and publishing world this year. As always, we welcome feedback, interview suggestions and general comments, so please feel free to get in touch.

Esther Kezia Thorpe


Is digital dying?

According to Betteridge’s law, the answer to all headline questions is, of course, no. But the last few weeks have seen some stories about digital media organisations that have shaken the firm belief that digital can stand alone profitably with a bright future as print lies spluttering.

In a single week it emerged that Buzzfeed and Vice are going to miss their revenue targets, Mashable was sold for $50 million, and the resistance to the Duopoly is growing as Broadcasters, the FT’s Lionel Barber and the Guardian’s Kath Viner have all waded in.

These events all set the tone of this episode of the Media Voices podcast, dedicated entirely to this question of whether we’re witnessing the beginning of the end for digital media.

People have long been saying ‘print is dead’ but it is becoming clear that digital was dead from the start – at least as a sole revenue source – despite all the hope and all the resources that companies have been pouring into it.

One of the poster boys for digital pureplays, Buzzfeed is set to miss its revenue targets, dashing hopes of an IPO next year. It was aiming for $350 million, but is looking to be at least 15-20% off that figure. By itself it’s not too big an issue, but Vice, another high-profile pureplay is rumoured to be missing its own targets as well. Vice was valued at $5.7 billion when private-equity firm TPG invested $450 million in June this year. The company’s investors are said to be pushing it to rein in costs and achieve profitability next year.

To top it off, Mashable has agreed to sell to Ziff Davis for $50 million, which is 20% of its 2016 valuation of $250 million following a $15 million round of funding last year led by Time Warner’s Turner.

The ‘digital dream’ of easy money streaming in, matching the revenue of the golden days of print is over, argues Peter, but it’s not the death of digital media at all. As a form of media, it’s not going away any time soon, but it won’t be able to cover the burgeoning costs of legacy print structures.

Esther points out that rather than being the death of digital, it should instead be the death of overvaluations, a point that Neil Thackray had made on Twitter. “Buzzfeed are growing, and they’re not just growing, they’re growing really strongly. The failure here is by investors for buying into these ridiculous growth projections. Without mad projections you don’t get the funding, but with them you get investors who ultimately get burned.”

So certainly some of the blame appears to come down on the side of the VC companies and the way they fund these businesses. Peter has very little sympathy for them, but cares deeply about the people who work for these companies, who will be in the firing line. Drawing on an analogy from an article by Josh Marshall, he said that “It’s almost like digital media musical chairs, with 30 people trying to sit in 15 chairs, but Facebook and Google have already taken 10 of them.”

Chris says that the worrying thing is that Buzzfeed are a company who seemed to have everything going for them in the market. “Buzzfeed, whose page revenue per 1000 impressions is high compared to legacy publishers, the fact that they’re going to miss their revenue targets even with having recently opened up their pages to programmatic and banner advertising…doesn’t that tell you everything you need to know about the state of digital advertising?”

Whether it’s the digital advertising aspect that inflated the expectations and revenue targets or other factors that caused such a gap, we won’t know. But it should be a big red flag to any publishers still wholly reliant on advertising revenue.

Of course, digital advertising spend itself is growing, but the revenue growth is going to two places.

“I never blame the Duopoly for anything,” quips Peter. “It’s like blaming a tyrannosaurus rex for ripping your throat out. The problem is, how does digital media, whether that’s Buzzfeed or the little magazine down the road, how do they survive in this ecosystem which is dominated by these people?…In terms of the rules by which we live which is rapacious capitalism, they’re doing exactly what they’re supposed to do.”

It’s an issue which the Guardian’s editor Kath Viner has taken on in a recent speech, saying that the current business model supporting journalism was “collapsing” as Facebook and Google “swallow digital advertising”.

Esther argues that this has happened because Facebook have made digital advertising so easy for small and medium businesses, essentially productising it to anyone and everyone. A recent article from The Drum revealed that the vast majority of Facebook’s 6 million advertisers are defined as small advertisers, for whom advertising on publisher websites and in magazines would usually be completely inaccessible. “It’s idiot-proof,” she comments. “You can put your money in, define your audiences and see results there and then, and that’s what’s been missing.”

So rather than signalling the death of digital, are the revelations this week another sign that scale simply isn’t sustainable? Chris thinks so, and says that this week was the week that digital publishers admitted that they just couldn’t keep up with Facebook.

“This genie that’s out the bottle…hopefully leads people like Kath Viner or whoever to get back to focusing on the readership instead of trying to be Facebook,” Peter said, emphasising that they need to find scalable models for themselves. It’s a point that Skift’s founder and CEO Rafat Ali has written about in ‘The end of scale’ and how futile it is to try and compete with the media giant.

“[Rafat] has got a successful business…but he’s never set out to challenge Facebook. He’s just set out to do what he does best. If the Guardian, the Times…all these other newspapers and magazines can actually get back to focusing on their audience and monetising that, instead of being big enough to attract venture capital investment, then maybe we’ve got a future.”

Esther believes the Economist is one example of a media organisation doing it right. “Rather than using social to drive web traffic, they’ve got a laser focus on turning each person who reads their articles into a paid subscriber,” she says, referring to talks and articles Denise Law has produced over the years about the success of their mixed social strategy.

Few publishers have an audience of 5 million to play with, but Peter sees a common thread between Denise and Rafat’s strategies. “That focus on the audience; what the audience wants, defining the audience, that’s really important….they’re talking about giving people what they want and focusing on the quality of the information.”

“What the Economist always did, and it’s the same thing that The Week always did, they always focused on their readers. They always focused on their mission. The Economist never gave anything away for free. The Week never gave anything away for free, and now they’re winning.”

Chris agrees, and says that organisations need to have the staff there to back those strategies up. “If you have the people there who truly understand what audiences want and how audiences consume media, and don’t rely on this unspoken pact that ‘we can serve you ads if you go on our stuff’, they’re the people who are going to do really well.”

The pivot to video is an unfortunate symptom of this focus on scale, and one which the Media Voices team believe is going to land lots of publishers in hot water in the coming year. “Pivot to video is just banner advertising 2.0” argues Peter.

So what paths are there out of this?

Chris Evans at the Telegraph has talked about blaming Facebook and Google for the lost revenue, but is optimistic that the industry is recovering its confidence because “we are learning to see technology not as a problem but an opportunity”. Publishers like De Correspondent are using the technology to sell to people, and to create content that people want to buy. “They’re making a different thing,” Peter points out. “They’re not taking a print newspaper and shifting it into a digital product…there’s none of that skewmorphism going on. There’s just honest-to-God innovation.”

It’s not all doom and gloom in the numbers either, says Esther. Jason Kint of Digital Content Next says on Twitter that he has seen growth climbing and the best quarter yet for their members in Q3. He attributes it to revenue diversification and advertising’s ‘flight to quality’.

Chris thinks about all the organisations we admire and that are doing well, and draws out a common theme. “They have fingers in all the pies that they can find. They have a finger in print, a finger in digital, a finger in ecommerce, a finger in events…they have a finger in every revenue stream you can think of.”

“The one thing that comes out of a crash is always opportunity,” says Peter, in a rare state of of cheery optimism. “If this really, truly is a crash, and people are waking up to the fact that Facebook and Google aren’t going to save them, and VCs aren’t going to save them, then they’re going to have to save themselves.”

“How are they going to do that? By being what they truly are….they’re not pivoting to video just because Facebook wants them to.”

Esther Kezia Thorpe


The Death of Digital Special

In this very special episode of Media Voices, we discuss the conflux of news about BuzzFeed, VICE, Mashable and many more and ask whether the dream of a digital future for publishers is over before it began.

It’s Media Voices’ first birthday! The team briefly reminisce about the travails of launching the podcast, their favourite episodes, and their plans for the future.

One of those plans is to make Media Voices so good you have to listen to every single episode. The only way we can do that is if you tell us what you like, what you don’t like and what should be doing that we haven’t even thought about. Please take a few minutes, complete our survey, and tell us how we could make Media Voices better for you.

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The Tip-Off’s Maeve McClenaghan on celebrating investigative journalism

This week, host and founder of The Tip-Off Maeve McClenaghan takes us through why it’s important to celebrate investigative journalism in an age of ‘fake news’ and limited resources for journalists.

In the news round-up, the team takes a deep dive into new ad-blocking stats, laments the closure of Teen Vogue in print, worries about Snapchat’s future and celebrates more paywall success. Audio glitches suspiciously kill a discussion on billionaire media owners.

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Dennis Executive Director Kerin O’Connor on The Week’s enduring appeal

This week, publisher of The Week Kerin O’Connor takes us through the reasons behind the magazine’s continued success on the newsstand, and how it encourages a relationship between it and its audience.

In the news round-up the Media Voices team talk about the Guardian’s membership success, the spectacularly frightening changes to the Facebook news feed, and ask whether we should be nice to the Duopoly. Listener beware, you’re in for a scare!

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Deutsche Welle’s Esra Doğramacı on best practice for digital video

In this week’s episode of Media Voices, Peter travels to Cape Town and interviews Deutsche Welle’s Esra Doğramacı, to find out how the German broadcaster is approaching digital video.

In the news round-up, we discuss BuzzFeed turning on banner advertisements and whether that makes them sell-outs, The Atlantic launching a membership supplement for its hardcore members, and the Yellow Pages going out of print. The team wonders if they can get through a whole episode without mentioning Trump.

Subscribe to Media Voices on iTunes here or by searching for ‘Media Voices’ in your favourite podcast app.