Interviewer: Chris Sutcliffe

Chris Sutcliffe: To begin with, I’d like to ask you about a Twitter thread that you took part in earlier in the week, which also included my Media Voices co-host, Peter Houston. It was talking about what publishers are selling versus what they should be selling.

You illustrated this through the medium of Coke bottles. What Coke sells is a very easily definable product and they market that very well, but publishers don’t seem to have the same success in a lot of cases. So what was really the impetus for that thread and what spoke to you about that topic?

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen: That whole thread responds, sometimes in quite darkly humorously ways, to a very fundamental feature of how a lot of journalism and a lot of news organisations approach their relationship with the public. We’re all citizens, but also consumers. It tends to be quite focused on the needs and desires of journalists and news organisations and much less attuned to ‘what does this look like from the other side of that relationship, from the point of view of the public?’

Essentially, the thread is a response to the fact that, sometimes, news organisations who want to sell people subscriptions or sign them up as members or donors are quite focused on their own needs, and not nearly as focused on the needs and desires and aspirations of the people they’re trying to respond to.

The media analyst, Thomas Baekdal, did this mock up of an imaginary, hypothetical Coke advert saying, “buy this bottle of Coca Cola, because we would like more people to drink it”. It’s not a very compelling pitch, really, but I think it’s a pitch that most people who listen to a podcast like this can think of examples of news organisations that have tried to sell subscriptions more or less along those lines.

It then occasioned a number of different versions of similar darkly humorous takes: “buy this bottle of Coke, because we spent a lot of money producing it”, or “buy this bottle of Coke, because society needs Coke”. I think the different takes can be more or less therapeutic and spot on as to what existing publishers are actually doing.

I think what all of them have in common is that they point out a problem, it seems to me, that much of the way in which journalism and the news industry thinks about the business challenges and opportunities ahead is through the lens of their own problems. But the way in which we can create value and convince people to support us in creating that value is by focusing on other people’s problems and convincing them that we are, in fact, a response to that.

This doesn’t have to be, if you will, strictly utilitarian and transactional. It’s interesting that you suggested that Coke has a clearly defined product. That depends a lot on what one means the product is. Coke is a feeling, it’s an identity, it’s a sense of something that goes beyond a sugary drink.

I think we can easily think of journalism and news media as offering more than the sort of basic, utilitarian value of the information that’s being provided, and also help people see the world in a different way, experience the world in different ways. It can help people feel a sense of belonging to a community of other people like them, or even unlike them but who have something in common. For example, identifying with and engaging with a particular news provider.

I think it’s fair to say that in a lot of the marketing we see, when news organisations who are turning to reader revenues are trying to sell subscriptions, that light is very focused on us and not very focused on the public that we aim and claim to serve. They are the ones who have to convince.

You don’t need to convince me or journalists that what we do is important, or that we want more people to engage with it and even pay for it. You need to convince the people who aren’t doing it. Simple as that.

There was the one that you mentioned there, which is “please buy this bottle of Coke because it costs a lot to produce”. That seems to be the ultimate one that speaks to what you’re talking about there, where it’s almost performative within the company, rather than actually appealing to the public about this. Of course it costs money to produce good journalism, but that in itself isn’t a particularly good selling point to a public who don’t necessarily see the point of that.

I think it suggests, if you will, that we risk coming across as a little bit entitled, as if we were entitled to other people paying our salaries and our rent. Personally, I believe that there is a very great and very significant public value to some journalism much of the time, but even the argument that you should buy this metaphorical bottle of Coca Cola because society needs it is quite a weak argument.

Societies and people need lots of different things and most of them they don’t get in most of the world. So ‘you’ll miss us when we’re gone’ is not a particularly convincing pitch either. We have to be much more clear-eyed about creating value and showing that value, demonstrating that value, and communicating that value to people who have a lot of choices.

They have a lot of things competing for their attention, a lot of things competing for the money that they have available. Frankly, at the moment, it’s not obvious that journalism comes top of that competition.

To what extent do you think that that is the kind of woolly proposition that is behind the success of places like the New York Times, which does have very concrete value exchanges, like its crosswords and cooking verticals as well, which are included in that news bundle?

I think the core value proposition in the New York Times is the quality of its news reporting, and the calibre of analysis and opinion that people associate with it. Alongside that comes the identity that the paper carries with it as a prestigious paper of record and one that is recognised globally by many as something that you want to engage with, even if you don’t happen to live in the island of Manhattan or even in the United States. I think that’s what sets the New York Times apart.

We need to be clear that that is a reputation and a reality that most news organisations don’t match. Most news organisations do not have the kind of newsroom the New York Times has, do not have access to the kind of talent around analysis and opinion, do not have the reputation and the history and the stature and prestige of the New York Times.

We can see already that it’s a limited number of organisations that are competing directly head-to-head with the New York Times in that space: the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, some British-based upmarket titles as well. Now, the New York Times has been very good at bundling in different ways, that unique offer with things that are also utilitarian and are tailored to the demographic and user constituency that the New York Times is attracting.

That has helped them acquire more subscribers and retain the ones that they already have. In some cases, they’re also generating incremental revenues by selling the freestanding subscriptions to things that are less directly and necessarily tied to the New York Times’ news journalism and commentary.

But it seems to me that the essential part of that whole package is the New York Times and its journalism. The other things can enhance it, both from the point of view of the users and as a business. But on their own, it’s hard to see that the New York Times could make sort of a full pivot to cooking across works and ditch the journalism. The journalism is essential to that business, but it can be enhanced in other ways.

To who else do you look for inspiration around who’s doing marketing and subscriptions and memberships really well?

I think it’s worth leaving aside the half-dozen to a dozen large, globally-oriented. English language, upmarket publishers that have pretty distinct markets and unfair advantages, in a way, that aren’t really applicable to most news organisations across the globe.

In that sense, I would really focus on the demonstrated, best-in-class examples of newspapers in smaller markets that have been really, really successful in building up large subscriber bases of people who value their journalism and digital-born, newer entrants, who have done the same, whether around subscription or around membership.

I think the poster child of the first category of news organisations with a long history that are really on a roll in terms of building digital subscription basis is Dagens Nyheter in Sweden, where a really clear focus on doing journalism in news reporting and analysis and opinion that is worth paying for, and then very rigorously researching and understanding that value proposition and doucmenting whether people in fact recognise it, see it, and experience it.

They’re constantly tweaking, ‘where do we put our efforts editorially? Where do we invest? How can we improve the product side, the user experience side, the tech side of this, to make it as frictionless as possible for people to really engage with this journalism and have the best possible experience with it?’

The confidence to make it available on the basis of an email signup and registration, for free or heavily discounted, because of the belief that the majority of the people who agree to give this journalism their attention will come to the conclusion that it’s worth more than just their attention. It’s also worth their money. This has driven very, very significant success at Dagens Nyheter in Sweden, and I think many publishers around the world could really learn from that.

And they’re not alone. They have advantages in terms of their history and their brand, but there are new entrants in countries around the world who are doing similar things, whether it’s Mediapart in France, or El Diario in Spain, or Malaysiakini in Malaysia, organisations who have carved out a very clear and distinct identity that’s based on the quality of their journalism.

It’s a type of journalism that doesn’t try to be everything for everybody or cover the whole waterfront, but create a very clear added value against the backdrop of, let’s be frank, largely commodified and generic and highly substitutable, very short life journalism that is available for free at the point of consumption.

It’s convinced tens of thousands of people to not just honour them with their attention, but to pay them as subscribers or as members, because they believe in their journalism, they bind to the mission of it, but also because they recognise the value that accrues to them as users of it individually and for the groups that they are part of.

I think this is really encouraging. It takes nothing away from the fact there is a wider crisis of the business of journalism, but I think it’s really encouraging to see a growing number of legacy titles, but also new entrants, that are convincing significant numbers of people to pay for journalism in a world in which basic commodified information is abundant and free and everywhere. Still, even against that backdrop, we’re seeing more and more titles.

I think that’s really interesting, in light of the conversations that we’ve had around local and regional news and the advantages that they have to provide, what’s called service journalism, or what people are terming service journalism, even though, it’s hard to delineate that from regular journalism. The idea that you demonstrate value to your audience by actually being of use to them in some way.

Frankly, it reflects the entitlement and lack of clear-eyed realism that has suffused much of the business of news historically. Very stable businesses, high profit margins, pretty slow development, and a pretty state market, often dominated by limited number of known competitors, are confronted with this greatest structural transformation in the media environment at least since the printing press, if not longer.

To assume that business as usual would cut it in that environment is suicidal. We’re seeing the results of that. I’m not saying it would have been easy to do things differently, but the lack of realism and the lack of will to confront just how much the marketplace has changed and how much we, as a consequence, need to think about to change what we do in the business that can sustain and sometimes constrain it is quite striking.

There are things that publishers have no control over. They’re very real challenges that are exposed externally, whether they are political, or the rise of platforms, or advertisers’ changing preferences. But there are also some that are self-inflicted wounds.

We haven’t been realistic about the environment that we’re in. We haven’t been clear-eyed enough about how do we actually create value for people. In light of that, it’s not surprising that some of the struggles we face are even more severe than they could have been. We should recognise that some people are doing much, much better, and seeing much, much better results.

Just before we get into some of the specifics about why those outlets are doing it well, where do you think we are in terms of actually confronting that lack of self awareness? Do you think there’s a movement towards it now, or are people still quite entrenched in their own thinking about the publishing ecosystem?

I think it becomes harder and harder to cling to the outdated worldview, but I do think we need to contend with the fact that there are probably sort of some generational differences here that are not necessarily so much about the analysis, but just about different interests.

Let’s be clear, this stuff is hard. A lot of the changes that might lead to better business outcomes in the long run are very, very painful in the short run for the organisation. They can be quite difficult to sell to owners and investors who may be focused on the next quarters’ results and not the results in five years time, or ten years time.

It’s only human if there are some senior editors and executives, who might think in their heart of hearts, “maybe it’ll last my time out. Maybe I can get away with business as usual, trim the costs on the legacy print product, wave my hands, talk about AI and blockchain and TikTok from time to time, and then someone else has got to figure it out.” That is an understandable reaction, because these are daunting challenges. They are very hard, and not everyone who faces them will succeed.

But the truth of the matter is, that might be true for someone who’s 60, that it might last their timeout, it might even be true for someone who’s in their late 50s. It’s not true for everybody else. I think we’re increasingly clearly seeing that generational issue, which is not about age, but about the reality of people’s different situations.

There are many experienced people in the industry who are really leading the digital transformation, so it’s not about age. But there are different interests here. There is a rear guard, and there is a vanguard. I think we need to recognise that difference of interest and that there is a conflict here that’s not solely about the future of the profession in the industry, but it’s also about just people having different positions in the industry.

Historically, we’ve seen some countries and geographies have a higher proportion of people who have been willing to pay for news. How much of that is because of how well the individual news outlets in those countries have marketed themselves, and how much of it is just due to cultural differences?

Some of the most successful companies in the subscription game are in the Nordic countries, and they have some inimitable advantages that you can’t replicate elsewhere.

It’s hard to go to a publisher in France or Spain and say, “well, if only you had become Protestant 400 years ago, and had a nation built that was highly reliant on mass-based membership organisations, that consider newspapers to be an essential part of it driving very high print subscription rates for most of the 20th century, then you’d be in a better place, right?” I don’t really see a way in which Le Mond publishers can act on that observation.

That said, there are operational things that every publisher can learn from what some of those companies are doing. Everybody can look at at their operational success and think about how that might be applied in their own context. It’s also important that it’s not only the people who have unfair, inimitable advantages who are succeeding in this space.

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