This week, we hear from Jo Holdaway, Chief Data and Marketing Officer at Independent Digital News & Media – home of The Independent and The Evening Standard. She talks about what sort of data is important to publishers, especially when it comes to subscription strategies, why it’s important to have a diverse team working with data, and how she’s preparing the business for the sunsetting of third-party cookies.

In the news round up, Peter and Esther are joined by guest host Adam Tinworth of OneMan&HisBlog to dissect the findings of the latest Reuters Digital News Report 2021. We look at how people prefer to access news, which existing trends have been accelerated by the pandemic, and whether a brief bounce-back in trust can be sustained.

The full transcript is live here, or see below for some highlights:

The benefits of an integrated data team

I think we’re quite unique in our setup. So we’ve always had editors that have been very commercially astute. There’s not really been that church and state operations in The Independent particularly. So we’ve always had commercially astute editors, and that just makes the whole thing much easier. So obviously, each side respects the other enormously.

But what helps is data facilitating that relationship a little bit more. We’ve always been quite lucky with that. And it’s quite uncommon to have that close relationship in publishing.

The centralised model works really well, because it’s really important for analysts to have support, and to have like minded people that they know that they can talk to; a cross fertilisation of ideas, and because it enables us to have an overview of how the whole business works.

Data is the heart of everything, whether it’s finance, or editorial, or commercial, or product, it just gives us a unique perspective over what our output could be and how it could affect the business.

Evolving a subscription product

In 2018, we launched a more popular subscription product, Independent Premium. What we were doing then is really experimenting in the subs space. And what we’ve found, and what hopefully I’ve driven, is a change of how we approach this.

So it’s now a serious reader revenue stream. It’s contributing nicely to diversification of our commercial strategy. But we’re still in early days. So last year, we really concentrated on setting up a solid foundation for subscription success in the future.

We had a transformational change in our culture, and our attitude to subscriptions, because before it was very much a marketing focus and responsibility. And it’s like, actually no, accountability for this revenue stream crosses multi-disciplines. So any team who contributes to this revenue stream, whether it’s editorial, or product, or data, or finance, CRM, etc, all need to have a stake in it.

So we’ve now got multidisciplinary task forces across the business. And it also meant building a really strong team with experience.

How the Google News Initiative’s Subscriptions Labs has helped shaped future strategy

Ultimately, it all comes back to the quality of the editorial and the value exchange with readers. So we’re hoping at the end of this fiscal, we’ll be in a position to be able to offer the business, ‘Okay, here are your choices. Depending on the level of content and the quality and mix of content you want to put behind the paywall, this is what we think we can give you as a return,’ because we balance our subs revenues with advertising. That still accounts for 65% of our revenues.

So we can balance that quite nicely because we look at segmentation – we only offer subscriptions to individuals, we think we’re on the cusp of subscribing. And because we segment our audience so heavily, it doesn’t affect the advertising revenue model, particularly the ads. The articles that we know do really well behind the paywall are not those that are necessarily driving the scale for ad monetization.

So it’s been a real learning curve over 2021. And we now think we’re in a position to really take control of the subscriptions space.

Preparing for the sunsetting of third-party cookies

After taking note of our own first-party data progression, the main thing that we’ve done is to have the thought of, we want to widen our opportunity, we want to make sure that our inventory is available to buyers, how they want to buy it.

We don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket and go for one approach post third-party cookie blocking and then go, ‘Oh, well, that didn’t work.’ Put the whole revenue at risk.

It’s reminding me of when GDPR launched and everyone was milling around panicking without making definitive decisions, and it was all a bit of mess. So we’ve engaged with as wide a partner portfolio as possible.

Our Reuters Digital News Report 2021 highlights

  • Trust is up almost everywhere, with 44% saying they trust news most of the time. The lowest levels are in US, unsurprisingly.
  • 17% now pay for some kind of online news – that’s up two points since last year.
  • Lockdowns have accelerated the trends in how people access news – there’s been a surge in people accessing news via smartphones.

Peter: Acceleration of existing trends

  • The pandemic was a big problem for newspapers, but not in magazines, underlining print’s future as a luxury medium.
  • The local and national subscription bundling in the US is interesting, with 20% paying for some sort of combined bundle.
  • Only 3% of people in the UK pay for news at a local level, although this is heavily skewed by the BBC and a lack of paid regional products.

Adam: Interplay of trust and news needs

  • There’s been a recovery of trust, but not to pre-Brexit levels.
  • Some places are making local news work. Progress has been faster in Norway and Sweden, partly because they are small markets protected by language, but also because a limited number of digitally-committed publishers have almost all sought to charge for online news. Over 40% are paying for news, some are paying for both local and national.

  • Looking at the local topics, there’s a big opportunity around community attachment, especially in the wake of the pandemic. Social media and search take the biggest shares for information about shops and restaurants (49%), local services (47%), or things to do in the area (46%). These are things publishers could be – and should be – covering.

Esther: The differences in how people access news, especially under 35’s

  • 1 in 4 people go directly to a news site or app. This drops to 18% in under 35’s, with 1 in 3 preferring to go via social media.
  • Email was a really low point of access; 5% across all ages and just 3% for under 35’s. This is a stark reminder that all the hype about email is taking place in a very small industry bubble.
  • It’s really important for publishers to be on social media platforms, even though that’s not where their traditional audiences are. “Social media are a complex space for mainstream media organisations to navigate. They have to share this space with a range of other content creators who do not have the same editorial principles and values,” said report co-author Dr Simge Andı. But it’s also where people spend time, and where a lot of misinformation originates.

Access the full Reuters Digital News Report 2021 here.

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