Interviewer: Esther Kezia Thorpe

Esther: What does your role at the Evening Standard involve, and how did you end up getting into video production for publishers?

Chris: I have been at the Evening Standard for a couple of years now. I lead a video and audio team. We’re sort of a cohesive unit that all work together but have two distinct sections to it.

The video team is what I started doing, and then the audio team is new as of about a year ago. And we cover everything from breaking news to lifestyle features, and then in the audio side, we’ve got short form audio news content and podcasts as well. So I sort of oversee about nine people at the Standard.

Then before that I was at The Telegraph for five years where I was producing lifestyle video content, and latterly, documentaries and news features.

So pretty much anything and everything video then.

Yeah, I mean, I’ve been working in video since before online video was a thing! I got my first job in London was very early days of online video working for a website producing ‘How to’ content.

And then that was about the time that YouTube was born. And so we had like this independent platform, and then YouTube started and quickly hoovered up a lot of the market and so we had to change our strategy and all sorts.

So I’ve been working in online video from the outset, and then had a stint in broadcast as well producing TV documentaries, and a bit of current affairs, bit of lifestyle documentary factual entertainment stuff, did that for a few years, and then got the job at The Telegraph, so then I’ve been working for publishers for the last seven years.

That’s quite unusual because often people who are trained in video back – I don’t want to say back then – but before online video, they tended to go into broadcast, so you tend to get people coming out of the broadcast world into publishing.

Yeah, well, yes. I studied TV production at Bournemouth University at the time when video was just being talked about as an online proposition. And I can remember sitting in seminars, having debates about whether broadcast TV was going to converge with the Internet, and that sort of thing.

So I thought I was going to be a TV documentary maker, and then pretty quickly realised that the jobs market was going in the direction of producing content for online.

I think it’s quite interesting where you are in the publisher space, because there was quite a fallout in 2018/2019 with the great ‘pivot to video’ that a lot of publishers went for. I know quite a few struggled to see real returns on investment. Is video something that only works for certain types of publishers like news publishers, or can it work for everybody if it’s done right?

Okay, so there’s a couple of things there. On the pivot to video thing. I think a lot of people got stung by the fact that the return on investment wasn’t immediate, and I think partly that was because a lot of people were at the behest of the platforms, basically.

The publishing world had been promised a lot of things by platforms, there would be this great ‘pivot to video’ and by 2020, all of your newsfeed would be video, and video video video. And that’s kind of true. I think a lot of the social platforms and things, video is a massive part of what they do, but I don’t think necessarily the profitability followed as quickly as maybe the boards of the publishers, the people that were counting the money and making sure that everything was making the business work properly would have liked to have seen. At least that’s the feeling that I get from a couple of levels down the ladder as it were.

And I’ve been in meetings since between platforms and groups of publishers, where publishers have clearly learned from that. We now are in a position where, if platforms are promising stuff to publishers, then almost as one, the publishers are basically saying, ‘That sounds fine, but what’s in it for us? And how do we make it work for our business? And where’s the roadmap to profitability and monetisation?’

I think that in order to get content from publishers, platforms need to be smart about making sure that there is a route to that. It has to be a symbiotic relationship.

I mean, that pivot to video clearly, clearly had an impact on the way that publishers view working with platforms, and rightly so. I think we’ve got our businesses to run and they’ve got theirs, so we’ve got to make sure it works for everybody.

And then the second question about, does video work for all publishers? I think the thing is, video can be very expensive to produce. So something that I’ve tried to do at the Evening Standard is be very careful about making our efforts cost effective.

We’ve got to start with where our audience is, and do something really well, and start building our traffic in one area before we can start branching out into some of the other areas that maybe we need to grow that audience in, and work a bit harder for.

So for us, that’s been breaking news. When I joined, we redoubled our focus on breaking news content and making sure that we had the relevant breaking news clips at the top of all the articles that we could, and make sure that we’re targeting high trafficking articles, and giving our audience the most relevant video content to them, what they were looking for. That’s different to what some other publishers do, some people just throw video at absolutely everything, which is also a perfectly valid strategy.

But I think for us, it was about making it relevant to the user experience, but also in volume in the areas that had the highest traffic, and then trying to build out from there. So one of the one of the areas that I think is most profitable, but also most challenging to attract an audience to and keep them with you and engaged, is in the more lifestyle areas.

When a breaking news event happens there is obviously massive spikes in traffic, and everybody’s very interested in this one thing that’s happening. And so it’s actually quite easy to serve video to that audience, because there’s people out there that are looking for that right then. But it tends to be a shorter tail. And that spike will disappear very quickly, and then you’ll be on to the next thing.

Lifestyle content and features content and documentary content, I think you have to work a little bit harder at your strategy to make sure that your audience is going to be there for probably over a longer time frame.

Luckily, I’ve been working quite closely, looking at where our traffic’s coming from and looking at the articles on the Evening Standard website in the lifestyle sections that are doing particularly well, and then creating a video strategy around those types of articles, and really trying to pay close attention to targeting stuff for SEO and search.

So I think yes, video can work for all publishers but you need a different strategy depending on what kind of publisher you are.

And the Evening Standard, certainly those of us in London mainly know it for the free print edition that gets handed out at tube stations in the UK. So where do video and audio fit into that, given that there’s such a heavy reliance on print, especially for that brand?

Yeah, so that’s a really good question. I mean, print is obviously massively important. It’s the central identifying factor of our brand. The reason people know the Evening Standard is because it’s synonymous with London, and you see people every day reading our print edition on the Tube.

But equally if you look at the way the print market is going across the board, print figures are declining, and when you look at people on the Tube, you’ll see just as many if not more looking at screens and listening to headphones. So I think the Evening Standard has to be responsive to that.

And we’ve over the last two or three years really expanded our digital offering. In February this year, we passed the hundred million page view mark. And then at the end of this year – actually 2019 – was the first year that we reached a billion page views in a year, which, for us is an amazing milestone. I mean, it’s all relative, right? But for us, it’s significant.

And also, that audience is…a digital audience is by its nature, not restricted to geography. So what we’ve got is a great opportunity to build a digital brand that capitalises on that existing London audience, provides a unique London perspective on the events of the world, but is able to reach beyond our geographic boundaries, and takes our editorial perspective.

We’re positive, we’re cosmopolitan, we’re fairly politically centrist, we’re diverse and inclusive, like London is, we take all of that to a global audience and then you’ve got a really interesting proposition.

Obviously, video and audio is a fantastic and really important part of that. I mean, video is really important to us, because obviously, you’re looking at the user experience and what people are expecting when they come to a story. They want to see video, they want…particularly if it’s a video story, and it is about a world event that’s happened, they want to see the video of that thing happening. That sounds obvious…but that’s the central part of it.

But also, it’s also really important to us for things like dwell time and user engagement, and of course the question of ‘How do you make a digital proposition profitable?’ Well, video can command quite high CPMs, so can be a very profitable part of our digital ecosystem.

So digital audio is obviously having a real moment and has been since about 2014, and the podcast renaissance. But I think the technology is very exciting at the moment, and is changing the way that we interact with audio and the web. In terms of building a comprehensive digital strategy, audio has to be really important, because that’s where audiences are going, particularly our commuter audience: the amount of people that are listening to podcasts on a daily basis, for some that’s their chief way of interacting with the news. So we need to position ourselves there so that we can meet our existing audience where they’ve moved to, and attract new audiences that are already inhabiting that listening space instead of reading,

Which fits beautifully into my next question, which is, you’ve launched two podcasts last year, The Leader and Women Tech Charge. So what was some of the reasoning behind launching these?

So I think there is clearly an audio-friendly audience. People are maybe eschewing reading articles online or picking up a newspaper in favour of listening to podcasts. That’s a space that our audience is moving into. So it’s worth experimenting with, figuring out if we can move into that space to meet our audience where they’re going.

We have some pretty clear brand values that our audience associate with us and like, so we wanted to produce some podcasts that communicate those brand values and meet that audience where they are with the values they’re interested in.

So what can we do that will fit into that space? Well, then we happened to meet the amazing Anne-Marie Imafidon, who hosts our Women Tech Charge podcast now, and we just thought she was extraordinary. We had a successful women in tech product online that our tech reporter Amelia Heathman was doing. Anne-Marie was open to the idea of doing a podcast.

We looked at the podcast market and thought, well, there’s a gap for…actually we worked with, we spoke to Apple and Acast and they agreed, there’s a gap for female-hosted podcasts for a very intelligent female audience. Historically podcasts have skewed white male. So there’s there’s a gap in the market there.

So we put two and two together and came up with Women Tech Charge. Anne-Marie has been completely central to that and is a really fantastic host, very knowledgeable in the subject area. All of our guests know her and love her and you get some amazing stories out of these incredible women who are doing amazing things in the world of tech.

We’ve had space engineers, and spies, and inventors, and developers, and all sorts of very interesting people talking about their experiences of being a woman in a in a male dominated environment, and very exciting edge-of-the-tech scene. So it brings our brand values all together, that’s Women Tech Charge.

And then The Leader is very much the voice of the paper in audio. We wanted something that represented the brand more fully in the areas that people know it for. I think what’s interesting is that Women Tech Charge was very much a deliberate going after a niche audience, like a very specific we want to speak to women working in the tech sector, or interested in working in the tech sector. That’s, you know, by virtue of its definition, a fairly defined audience.

The Leader, we wanted to do something in news and politics and analysis, because that’s what people come to the Evening Standard for. They know us as a news brand, so we wanted to represent that in audio. And obviously, then if you’re doing news, it makes sense to do it daily.

Obviously, there’s a fairly strong track record of lots of other people having lots of success doing daily news podcasts. And it seemed like a very natural fit for our brand. So that’s what we wanted to do.

And we’re incredibly proud of it. It’s a fantastic podcast and David Marsland, who hosts it has been doing an incredible job, he’s well liked around the newsroom. And he came in to do the podcast and then very quickly built up rapport with all the journalists that he works with, and they are keen to be on the podcast, they’re keen to talk about some of the scoops that they’ve had. This is the best thing about doing a podcast is that you get to show off your best stuff.

So we had recently Robert Jobson, our Royal Editor had an exclusive, he had a front page that then got picked up around the world, so he scooped the world on the palace reaction, inside the palace on the news from Harry and Meghan. So the day after Harry and Meghan announced their bombshell desire to change their roles within the Royal family, Robert had this fantastic exclusive look inside what the palace’s reaction was. And of course, he could bring that to the podcast and talk about it more fully.

And what’s brilliant is that obviously these journalists are amazing characters in their own right. So Robert is a wealth of knowledge, an extraordinary character. And so being able to put him in front of a mic and allow him to talk about that in more detail, really brings something different to the audience that is not just a written report, but it’s also then, you’re bringing in the personality of the people that are working for you, and then the brand starts to have a bit more colour and character.

We’ve had extraordinary listener interest in our coverage of Iran, and some of the stuff around Donald Trump’s impeachment, we’ve had David Gardner on recently, he’s our US correspondent, talking about the Trump impeachment stuff.

And then, not to even mention all the amazing politics journalists that we’ve got, and the coverage that we can do there. The reason we launched The Leader at the time that we did was because we had an extraordinary time in British politics, and we were able to bring our comment and analysis to a new audience through The Leader in that extraordinary time. So we’ve had George Osborne on the podcast talking about his view on what Boris Johnson should be doing around Brexit and what’s likely to happen with the general election.

There’s so many I haven’t mentioned; Ayesha Hazarika on the Labour Party, she used to work for the Labour Party as an advisor. And so her perspective on what’s going to be happening with the Labour leadership is second to none. It’s a really interesting insight.

So anyway, all of this is to say, it’s a fantastic opportunity for us to bring out the best of our journalism to the audience, where they are in 2020, which a lot of them is, listening to audio.

So the last thing I wanted to touch on was your project with Google that you’re working on. Can you talk a bit about what that involves, and what you’re hoping to achieve with it?

So yes, you’ll be aware of the narrative news experience on Google, when you talk to your smart speaker, or Android on your phone, you say, ‘Play me the news.’ And it will give you a bulletin that is like a radio bulletin, which is fine. But it’s sort of a traditional radio news experience.

And so the product that Google have created is sort of a next generation of that, which is now live in the US, which creates a curated news feed drawn from multiple different publishers.

So you’ll have say five top stories all drawn from different publishers. And then, as you continue listening to it, it’ll start to serve you some longer content. And then eventually, you might end up listening to a podcast. So it creates…it’s like a Google News but in audio.

Now, this is kind of one of those examples of Google saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got this really cool thing, come and put some content into it, and we’ll build an audience together.’ But of course, that is exactly the situation we were talking about earlier where the publishers then have to have something in return.

So Google have partnered with a number of publishers around the world to get this going, and we’re one of them. That has been a really interesting project for us, and has basically allowed us to build out our audio capability.

And so out of that also comes the opportunity to make podcasts, and meet audiences. So we’ve got a team of three or four people working on the Google News content, and they’re turning out about 55 stories a day into that ecosystem. So those are short form single topic stories of about 30 seconds to a minute each. You start to get into kind of mini podcast territory.

So part of our tactics has been to take the content from The Leader and break that up into three individual parts and serve that into the Google system as well.

Now we’ve seen some quite interesting audience figures from that, enough to make it continue to be interesting to us. And what’s interesting as well is that currently, for a long time it was only in beta, but now it’s been launched, it’s going out into the States. We’re publishing new audio content every day that’s reaching a US audience in…not insignificant numbers…like if it was an individual podcast, you’d be delighted with some of the numbers.

But you know, I think what’s really interesting is that, now you’re talking about interactive audio, because you’re talking to a thing, it’s giving you news audio, and then you’ve got the opportunity to interact with that. You can skip it, you can go back, you can say, I like this, and you go through the app to nominate certain publishers that you’re interested in.

And particularly when you get into that second bit, where you’re into the longer content, then you’re starting to look at opportunities to hand people off to your podcasts, or on the roadmap in the future, perhaps you could be talking to this stuff in your car; you’re listening to it on your smart speaker in the morning, and then you’re listening to it in your car, and on the commute if you’re in the US, or if you commute by car in the UK, and then maybe you’re interacting with Android later on in your home, watching your TV, and listening to it before you go to bed or something. But that creates lots of interesting interaction opportunities.

If you can hand people off from one product to another, then you end up with effectively a web of audio content. Now, what does that sound like? It sounds like the internet, but in audio form. We’re increasingly interacting with the internet via voice, which means that audio is the natural way for it to be served, which means that you’re at the beginnings of kind of a nascent audio web. So that means that you can create audiences at different points along that web, and then you start to get network effects because you can refer them from one product to another.

So you’re not just looking at a linear kind of podcast network, but you’re you’re starting to get an ecosystem that you can invite people into, and audiences can move around in, which is really exciting. Because one of the challenges of producing podcasts that are the really big standout ones; you go to a publisher and you say, I want to produce something incredibly expensive, and they say, well, where’s the audience for that?

If you’ve got an ecosystem where you’ve already got a massive audience, and you can encourage that audience to move over into the podcast, which is on a similar subject, then suddenly, you’ve got evidence to say, this is worth investing in.

We know that the audience really like this stuff. If we do something, if we do a flagship piece of content around this subject area, then it’s more than just a shot in the dark.

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