Peter Houston, Chris Sutcliffe, Esther Kezia Thorpe
Chris Sutcliffe: Thank you to everybody for coming along to this the launch and presentation of the Media Moments 2021 Report. Every year, we take a look at everything that’s happened over the course of the year. It would, of course, be a fool’s errand to try to condense everything down into one report.
Well, you’re looking at those fools right now, and we’ve been doing that since 2008. As we’ve done it, we’ve seen the media world evolve so much, even over the course of those three, four years, even this time last year, we weren’t thinking that we’d have to include something like an NFT category. But it’s been changing all the time.
And as a result of that, we do have to stay on top of everything. So in addition to our weekly podcasts which we do, we also do a daily newsletter as part of Media Voices. And beyond that, reports like this give us an opportunity to really examine everything that we talked about in more depth. It provides a bit of a snapshot.
So as some of you might have heard there, we’ve done 12 chapters this year instead of eight, and we’ve taken a bit of a fly-by-night approach to some of it. It was almost impossible to condense everything down into our word count, but we’ve done our best to provide as holistic and encompassing a look as we possibly could of everything that’s happened across the media world. We are aware that we have a blind spot in terms of geographical location sometimes and some of those niche media. We would love to write more about those. But for the most part, we’re really happy with this report this year.
We think that we’re more optimistic than we were this time last year, let’s say, about the media worlds, when we were feeling quite down about it. But as you’ll see from this report – which you’ll all receive a copy of at the end of the session, there’s gonna be a direct link, and we’ll also email you – there is so much cause for optimism this year, far more than we’ve seen in any of the other media reports we’ve done.
It would not have been possible for us to write about this without the help of our partners, with What’s New In Publishing, who’ve been fantastic terms of support, and actually providing us with a lot of the information. And of course, thank you so much to Sovrn for sponsoring as well, we could not do it without them. They have, as ever, been a fantastic resource as well as a partner.
So you might have noticed as well that we’re joined by some guests in a bit of a departure from what we’ve done before. We are going to be hearing from four phenomenal guests, who are going to give their take on what have been some of the most important moments from the media world over the past year.
But for now, what we’re going to do is myself and my two co-authors on the report, Peter and Esther, are going to take you through what we think has been, I suppose, an interesting point from the last year, something that we really want to dig into.
Before we do that, I do want to say that myself and Peter want to say thank you so much to Esther, who in addition to having written her sections has also put the report together visually, which I know is no small task. So to begin with, I think I’m going to ask Peter to explain what he thinks has been one of the most important media moments from the past year.
Peter Houston: Thank you, Chris. I mean, Chris’s point about this being a fool’s errand is is really well made. Try to take a full year in this market and sum that up in 45 pages and 12 chapters is nuts. But it’s never stopped us before. The biggest one for me this year was advertising, the advertising market. Because the narrative, I think for so long has been reader revenue and subscriptions and paywalls and it’s all about shifting to these stable revenue streams.
A stable revenue stream is only stable if you know if it’s still in place. I think more and more the subscription space is getting busier and busier and that has been countered by this kind of advertising. I don’t want to say rennaissance. Publishing people always fall into the golden age of bullshit, which actually is bullshit. So it’s not a golden age of advertising, but there’s definitely a shift in the narrative.
Jacob Donnelly particularly has been talking about the move, particularly in newsletters with subs-only evangelists, the kind of ‘all ads are bad’ crowd, are actually starting to say ‘well, now maybe getting some ads on this isn’t such a bad idea. Bryan’s probably got something to say about that later. But I think the growth there is real, the growth is almost universal. It’s all 16, 17% in the UK, the US, China. So I think that was a high point for me.
I think there’s still loads of problems with the advertising space. I think there’s too many crappy ads and too many ads. The whole cookie thing has got to get sorted out. But that was definitely the highlight for me, to see that return to advertising. Particularly seeing it as part of the mix, seeing advertising come back into that mix of revenues. I think this was definitely the highlight for me.
CS: That’s fantastic. And Esther you have a couple things you want to point about subscriptions. I know we’re going to get into that in more depth in a bit, butyou’ve pulled out some key stats, I think.
Esther Kezia Thorpe: No, I was going to pull out some key stats about subscriptions and then all the panellists told me, they also want to talk about subscriptions. So I’m going to step back from subscriptions, because I wrote the chapter on it. But actually, one of the most exciting things, I think, for me has been some of the moves platforms have made to make paid podcasting possible.
I know both Apple and Spotify – in fact Spotify rolled out paid tools literally last week, following Apple’s launch over the summer. I think when it launched in the summer, it passed me by. I can’t think why. As I was doing some research for an article I was writing on Immediate, I suddenly realised that actually they were already in on this. They were experimenting with podcasts, they’d launched a couple of things.
We saw Empire had some successes with paid podcasts that launched last year, Der Spiegel has rolled out an audio plus bundle this summer. Obviously, there’s problems that have been going on with platforms, but some of the tools that they’re putting in place to enable publishers to start paid podcasts is quite an exciting area, and I’m really quite excited to see where it’s going to go in 2022. That’s what I’m really keeping an eye on this year and I was really excited about catching up on what’s happened in the year.
CS: Nice. And myself, obviously, it will be impossible to write about this year without talking about e-commerce. A few years ago, I remember we were covering a conference for the media briefing, and we heard about Timing UK’s plans around e-commerce. And while they were mainly concentrating around low ticket items, and low ticket verticals, it’s one step in every part of the chain.
From content creation to ideation to product recommendation, it proved remarkably prescient, because e-commerce in 2021 builds upon that explosion in digital payment last year. But the brands that have been the key beneficiaries have been those with consumer touch points at every single part of the journey.
Now, that’s not particularly mind-blowing. It’s something you’d expect from very well-established brands with expertise and fingers in every part of the pie. But as you’ll see from the e-commerce chapter, those brands effectively hold their consumers hands now, from recommendation right through the funnel. Many acquisitions we’ve seen this year have actually been a service of employing their expertise in new high value verticals.
We have also seen though, as I mentioned, we’ve been burned by platforms in the past. A lot of the platforms that are investing heavily in e-commerce are those that have a tech advantage over us in terms of how they actually reach audiences. I’m thinking about the way Snap talks about its camera as being the new keyboard, for instance. People are habituated to viewing things through that world, and even making purchases that way now.
So while I don’t want to pour a bucket of cold water on this, I do think that we need to be wary about how we’re actually thinking about e-commerce on platforms that we don’t operate ourselves. Despite that, as you’ll see from the e-commerce chapter, and as I’m sure we’ll talk about in a second, there have been so many success stories this year that it’s really buoyed my mood.
It’s made me feel much more confident about our industry’s ability to make revenue from areas that depend on our own expertise. So before we discuss anything else, we should talk about our panel. You might recognise Brian Morrissey, who is the ex-Digiday Editor in Chief, and he’s now of the Rebooting newsletter and, I believe, a podcast as well?
Brian Morissey: Yeah, just started one.
CS: Fantastic. And Charlotte Tobitt of Press Gazette, who you’ll know if you exist within this world, you’ll use Press Gazette as an invaluable resource. Thank you for being here, Charlotte.
Charlotte Tobitt: Thanks for having me, Chris.
CS: Of course. And we’ve got Professor Lucy Kueng, who is of the Reuters Institute. Lucy, we’ve worked together in the past, but thank you again for coming here.
Lucy Keung: You’re welcome, pleasure to be here. Thanks for the invite.
CS: Of course. And finally, last but not least, we’ve got Dominic Perkins from Sovrn who, as we mentioned at the start, we would not have been able to put this report together without, so thank you very much Dominic.
Dominic Perkins: Thank you very much for having me.
CS: Perfect. So actually Charlotte, I wanted to begin with you because we’re going to talk about subscriptions briefly here. You, as part of your remit of the Press Gazette, take a look at who has been doing really, really well on subscriptions just in terms of run numbers. So over the past year, how have you felt around how our industry is actually marketing subscriptions, providing consumers with good value for money from their subscriptions?
CT: Generally, I feel like that’s an area where the industry is doing really well. One of my colleagues has done what he calls the 100k Club, where he’s tracking how many English language publishers have more than 100,000 Digital subscribers, and that’s over 30 now, and it’s all the people you’d expect and I suppose some you might not expect to be so high. I’ll give the top five: New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Gannett, The Athletic.
But interestingly Substack is now number six. So that’s sort of shot up, I think we’re going to talk more about newsletters. But that’s sort of the raw power, I think people are interested in it. Generally, there’s been a real willingness to pay, this thing from 2020 of people realising they have to pay for trusted news amid the pandemic. I do think that’s borne out and stayed and hasn’t gone away.
Some publishers were worried that, after the initial boom of subscriptions in 2020, that retention rates would obviously fall if people had a trial period o an initial offer that they would just not renew it. But actually, I think it was a Boston Globe that we wrote about, where although they did have a lot of cancellations, the retention rate was about what it was during a pandemic.
So obviously, you’d expect a certain number of people to cancel, but by proving to them why it was worth having the subscription and proving that they are a valuable part of your life and giving you engaging things every day – that’s how you do it. So like the Telegraph as well.
The main thing we think about now is subscriptions, like above all else, and they’ve got this style metric, which looks at every article and how it engages subscribers. They don’t think about page views, but they think about are our subscribers enjoying this, and does it sign up new subscribers. So it’s this whole refocus across the industry, which I do think is paying off.
And the other thing I was just going to mention was about the trial offers and stuff, but actually a lot of people decided it wasn’t worth doing them, and they’d rather have fewer people sign up, but actually make money and actually engage those people rather than just having loads of people sign up for hardly any money.
For example, we wrote about stopping doing these discount offers, and it really paid off. They marketed the subscriptions properly and it really meant that the revenue per subscriber went up. So all these things are worth doing, rather than just putting a subscription out there, as we’re thinking about how do we make sure they know it is valuable and part of their everyday life.
CS: So to the rest of the panel then, have you seen a marked change in how our publications, or the media industry as a whole actually, is thinking about communicating that value exchange, whether that is choosing to stop doing huge discounting, or by more regular communication about what consumers are actually getting over the past year? Have you seen any major changes in how we actually think about how we reach our audiences and talk to them through subscriptions? Brian, you want to take that one?
BM: Sure. I will. I think one of the things that’s important to realise is that, compared to several years ago, the idea of charging for access to content is pretty normal now. It really wasn’t then, except for specialty publications and a few exceptions, but now it’s sort of expected to some degree. I think one of the good things is that it has become a consumer habit. That’s the good part.
The bad part is that, navigating the internet now, you’re running up against walls everywhere and so it’s a different type of experience. I think a lot of publishers are still – and again, it’s hard to talk about published as a monolith – but a lot of publishers are addicted to piling up big numbers with discount offers. We just had Black Friday, I think we’ve exported Black Friday, but not Thanksgiving, which, I guess is part of the unbundling.
CS: Yeah, we got the worst part of it.
BM: Yeah, I don’t really totally understand that, because I always thought they sort of go together, but that’s okay. Nobody wants to eat turkey, but everyone likes discounts. I’ve just been bombarded with these $1 offers for a year of the Athletic and stuff like this. It’s a difficult one because we talk a lot about trust and nobody likes it. It’s like a balloon mortgage to some degree, right?
When you’re paying $1 a month and then it jumps to $15 a month or more, you’re gonna end up rubbing a lot of people the wrong way, right? It’s kind of a bait and switch tactic. I understand why people do it and the reality of subscription programmes is you have a lot of sleepers, people who aren’t really active at all.
For a lot of publishers, it’s like, let’s not wake the sleepers. Let’s make them call in order to cancel. It’s amazing to me that publications like The Wall Street Journal still rely on that to keep subscribers, just make it hard to stop subscribing. The FTC here is going to crack down on that.
A lot of it should be cracked down on. It’s corner-cutting, and it would be great if publishers had more faith in in their products. For Netflix, they sent me an email before it’s going to be renewed. I don’t see that from a lot of publishers because publishers don’t want to wake the sleepers. Too many publishers, not all publishers. I think that that’s a weakness.
CS: Certainly. And Lucy, of those publications that Charlotte mentioned at the start, is there anybody who you think is doing particularly well, I think Esther flagged up more than a few of them actually in the report itself, but who over the past year has really come into their own in terms of doing subscriptions? Whether that be selling them, retaining, anything like that?
LK: Well, I think I concur with the findings of your report, I think the industry is in a much more mature and solid place than we would have expected it to be. I’m not really seeing massive optics, what I’m seeing is that the whole system is getting better oiled, more mature. I’m seeing a shift towards, in terms of organisations, no longer looking at total subscriber numbers, it’s average revenue per user, lifetime customer value.
The whole thing is just getting much more sophisticated. I think where I’m still seeing the issue is getting that thinking to penetrate deep into the content creation areas, especially. I think that is the shift you’re seeing in the leading organisations and I think we’re going to see that percolate out to the rest of the organisation. In general, I have come across really in all geographies, a large number of n India, in Norway, in the UK, in the US, really successful organisations right now, a lot of them.
There is a split between organisations that are really good at creating a narrative about themselves and organisations that have quietly got their job together. I think that’s one of our problems as researchers and writers, getting the signal from the noise. So yeah, I think that a lot are actually doing much better than any of us expected they would be.
CS: I think, Peter, in our latest episode, actually, you were talking about the idea that individuals who market themselves through Substack have a much clearer story to tell in a lot of cases than some of the publications.
PH: Yeah, they’re themselves by definition. I think that, if they’ve got a solid proposition, then that makes it easier for people to sell that proposition. I’ve got a question for Dom, actually, based on your past experience, just the idea of the change internally – you were at Immediate before?
DP: That’s right.
PH: That change internally, away maybe from the advertising focus to the reader revenue focus. Was that stark, or was it evolutionary? How did that work?
DP: I’ve been here at Sovrn for just over three weeks, so I’ve still got my publisher hat on. The pandemic was great in some cases. To your point earlier, from an advertising point of view, we had a very successful period of time. Immediate has specialist titles, food, entertainment, obviously, everyone was trying to engage with those.
I think one of the things we noticed from that, and not from a media point of view, but from the market in general, was in some cases, it was a very short-sighted revenue claim to try and boost the revenues from around the business and advertising. So people went the opposite direction to where we should be going and they put more ads on their pages.
Immediate did look at it from a ‘less is more’ perspective. That really came through from the subscription dialogue that we were having with our publishing teams and everybody else. And looking at it from a publishing point of view, at that point, what we’re looking at from Sovrn is how can we help companies or publishers understand the value of their content and what worked well, so they can reduce the ad load, if you like, and have a better user experience?
That was something that was driving Immediate Media’s subscription policy: how do we get a much better user experience? Because people know that there’s a value exchange, so we’re trying to help people understand the value of their content, whether that’s from an ad, whether that’s from e-commerce, or an affiliate link, rather than advertising. What works for that consumer because then the churn is going to stop. You’re going to have better engagement.
So that’s what we’re trying to do. And certainly that was the kind of golden egg that they were trying to unlock at Immediate. What is that balance? They still have to make money, and does that subscription revenue make as much money as advertising brings in for them?
CS: That’s an interesting one. You’re going to have, I suppose, a very wide-ranging eye across all that kind of stuff. One thing that we touched on very briefly before was this idea that individual newsletters now are basically skyrocketing in terms of interest and the number of people doing it, obviously. I’m sure that most people have seen that Farah Storr has left Elle to join Substack. At the same time, we’ve also seen a couple of notable revisions back from individual publishing to going under the aegis of a larger publication. So Charlotte, I wondered what your take is at the moment on newsletters as a force, both for publications and for individual journalists?
CT: I think for publications, they’re massive. And it’s interesting, I wrote something in 2020, which was about email newsletters being this really good way to engage with your readers, but a really old school way of doing it, but for some reason, people have not actually been doing that much for ages. But now, obviously, everyone’s doing it. There are so many newsletters, absolute overload.
But interestingly, as mentioned in your report, the Telegraph decided to reduce its number of newsletters just because instead of just doing loads, it’s better to do a few really well and actually make sure that your subscribers like them and will keep coming and will engage with them. At Press Gazette, even, our main way to engage with our readers is a daily newsletter. So I know from firsthand experience as well.
In terms of individual writers, I think it still remains to be seen, really. I do worry that everyone’s very excited about it, but I think it’s a bit like podcasts in the sense that most of the revenue goes to just the few on top, the few most successful ones. And so it’s all very well for people to say that there are all these amazing newsletters and all these amazing podcasts. But if a very small percentage of people at the top of the table are making money, then is it working?
CS: Yeah, absolutely. If you’re not in that 0.0001%, then absolutely. So Lucy, if we don’t talk about the individuals, what is the current state of newsletters publications. Charlotte mentioned that kind of cutting back.
LK: Newsletters once you’ve got the automated system in are painfully easy. I mean, you can just do this now endlessly. And I think that has been a problem. Right? So I think a lot of organisations doing what the telegraph is doing and, and kind of finishing it down and focusing it, I think, to pick up on the point that Charlotte just made.
I mean, the major industry, the creative industries have always been winner takes all I mean, with Hollywood films, with classical music, wit publishing, I mean, that that is actually the dynamic in the industry. If a lot of mud is thrown against the wall, some sticks, and a little bit of that might become the next JK Rowling’s or whatever. So I think we’re never going to break that dynamic.
But what I do think actually the growth in podcasting, the growth in newsletters, it’s really pulling out a fundamental shift in the media, which is really another stone that’s being taken out as a mass media concept, essentially. What we are seeing, across the board, is that consumption is shifting from generic to specific. There’s various, really prime real estate, in terms of very interesting areas that really have traction with audiences, that advertising advertisers are interested in.
They’re being plucked off and by players who are doing either newsletters or podcasts or both, who are very dangerous to mass media players because they offer both speed and depth. You can see that the generalists are now having to decide where are we going to focus our energies right now, because we can’t cover the whole waterfront.
I think that shift from generic to specific is going to continue. You look at Axel Springer’s purchases. It’s not trying to buy News Corp, it’s trying to buy Morning Brew, it’s by Politico – very specific players in a particular vertical where there’s the option to go B2C and B2B as well.
BM: Yeah, I would concur with that, with what Lucy said because we’re definitely seeing a flight to niche and and to verticals. I think newsletters and podcasts are interesting because they’re examples of a larger shift going on, just in general, from institutions to individuals.
There’s been a lot of trust lost over the last decade plus really, and I think it’s normal for this phase of media to go more towards individuals, because people end up trusting people more than they do faceless brands. I think that has a lot of advantages for individuals and so I think that newsletters and podcasts are both very personal media in some ways, because they’re usually tied to a person, a personality, or a person. I think that’s one of the big advantages of it.
Just the fact that most email newsletters are basically webpages that are sent to an email address. At the end of the day, that’s what it is. And the question is, why is it working so well? I really do think that it’s because it’s very much tied to a person. I think it’s more valuable now to have a narrower but deeper audience than it is to have a broad fly-by-night audience. This is just part of that overall trend.
CS: Yeah, certainly, that’s been a trend we’ve been seeing for years. Charlotte, do you want to say something?
CT: I was just going to add to what Brian said that. It’s interesting because I think publishers had slowly started to realise that newsletters were a way of building a more specific relationship. We’ve spoken to some where, the i for example, they started to make the newsletters more tailored from a particular person within the organisation, like the culture editor, or at the New Statesman, the political editor.
It’s very much based around their personality, even though it’s a branded email. So then it does make sense that the next step from that is for the writers, obviously, to be like, well, why do I even need the brand, they’ve built the newsletter around my voice? It doesn’t make sense. I suppose they might not think they need the publication for the profile and the audience, but maybe they do still need it for the money.
CS: Yeah, that makes sense. I think you’re right, as well, I saw that Roisin O’Connor, who’s the music correspondent for the Independent has, off the back of her newsletter, which she does for herself, but one for the parent brand has now launched Spotify playlists specifically for subscribers and everything. It’s a really interesting dynamic, where you have individuals within an organisation who are almost acting as ambassadors, I suppose for the brand itself.
I promised we would rattle through this, because, just as our report does, we can only touch on everything for so long. I wondered if we could talk about some of the biggest M&A activity that you’ve seen this year. Obviously, I’m going to set you the challenge of trying to do this without mentioning the name Future.
DP: Right, okay. I think Future is on everyone’s lips from a publishing point of view. But at the same time, there’s been some really interesting acquisitions, again, from an ad tech point of view. We’ve seen Outbrain recently, again acquiring video technology. You can see companies diversifying what they’re up to and where they’ve been, and joining Sovrn, recently acquiring Monetizer 101.
From an affiliate network point of view, it allows publishers to look at how they diversify their revenues. And that’s really what publishers are trying to look at at the moment. It’s a really clever way of being able to give publishers the tools to do that, to understand the value of their products or their audiences, and dedicate content and monetization towards that. They’re the kinds of things that we’ve seen from other publishers.
I think there’s going to be a lot more happening, certainly in 2022. I think you’re right, from a specialist point of view, that really does bake into a publisher, that relationship with their consumers. To add to a point just quickly, before we go on to that in more depth, though, about newsletters, adjusting to that point, I think publishers do have to be very careful about how they define those newsletters from metering and things like that.
To Charlotte’s point with the Telegraph, there’s little point in having millions and millions of email addresses other than from perhaps an advertising point of view. If you’re going to be sending out loads and loads of emails, which aren’t really required or wanted, they’ve got to be wanted to be engaged with. I think engagement is a really important part.
Again, the other thing from a publishing point of view is that if you are registering users, you’ve got to be really transparent with the rights that you’re asking for at that point. And I think sometimes that can go slightly amiss from publishers when they’re thinking about the future of what they could do with that relationship with the user. Those would be my points.
CS: Lucy, in terms of those huge, sky-high valuations and the M&A activity that’s happened as a result, what’s your sense of what’s going to happen over the next couple of years? Are we done with M&A activity for a while, or is this just the next step in the process?
LK: It’s going to accelerate. It’s going to accelerate, because I think once you’ve done the digital homework, and you’ve got a beautifully executed digital machinery, you have this horrible moment where you realise average revenue per use on digital is just a fraction of what it was in the old days. So if you’re serious about your content creation or your newsroom, you’ve got to find growth from somewhere. And that is actually acquisition.
So I think M&A activity will continue. I think there’s two really interesting things underlying that development. What you’re seeing is actually an acknowledgment, the growth is coming from non-core activities. Actually, they might subsidise the core media activities, but the growth is coming from non-core activities.
Even if you look at the New York Times last year, their growth was in the cooking and the puzzling apps. It wasn’t in the news and that was a bit that added the financial growth. I think the other problem for the media industry is that it’s really hard to do M&A. Well, there was a report last year from McKinsey, which I didn’t have a chance to dig into yet, but they found that they put this sector together, technology, media and comms, but it was the bottom of the league table in terms of how good it is at M&A. So the average return was -2.2.
What they do well are the big deals. So I think that’s why – I’m sorry, I’m mentioning Future – but Futureis really, really good at M&A, really good at acquisitions. It’s a very complex area. So I think that’s really the issue. I think there will be more of that. But I think, as this McKinsey report showed, you can lose as much value as you create. It’s absolutely not a silver bullet. But yeah, I think we’ll see loads more of it. Because where’s the growth going to come from, as everyone’s gone more digital? There’s this realisation we need growth from somewhere else now.
CS: Yeah, absolutely. And Brian’s departed and left his big Ghostbusters tower of books there. Oh no, he’s back.
BM: It’s Miami, they just come into our apartment. Sorry.
CS: It’s okay. Well, we should dig into how people can walk into your apartment for a little bit, probably. But in terms of M&A activity, Lucy made a very good point that growth is going to have to come from somewhere and that is going to be M&A or it’s going to be those tertiary activities.
BM: But I also think at the beginning of the pandemic, I remember it was told to me that it was obvious that the strong get stronger, and the weak get weaker. It exposes weaknesses. We’ve seen, in the early parts of the pandemic, we’re looking at another Great Depression, but governments somehow got their act together and flooded the market with tonnes of liquidity. And so there’s a lot of people sitting on a lot of money.
Some of it, we’ve seen in ad tech, a lot of people going public and stuff. That becomes a good currency in which to scoop up extra resources. And so I think we’ll see that continue. Because, when you talk about Future and Dotdash, similar companies, they have models that work and once you get a model that works, you can use M&A in order to scale pretty quickly.
EKT: I know you said, you don’t want to talk about Future, but I think you can’t in this conversation. If you look at their turnaround from five years ago, when they were making virtually nothing, and then you look at the turnaround the company’s done, and most of that has been through very smart acquisitions.
In the chapter, I compare and contrasted this to Aldom, which has gone the opposite way and is buying up all these properties, cutting them, squeezing them, and then throwing them out of the way. But I think one of the things that this year has shown is that post-pandemic media properties are still really desirable targets for investment and acquisition.
Axel Springer paid a billion dollars for Politico, you’ve got BuzzFeed that I think is due to go public any day now and have been valued at 1.5 billion. I do always ask this question with these companies, and I know when Dennis acquired their car comparison website and Future acquired GoCompare – at what point is publishing not these publishers’ core business?
At what point is commerce their core business? At what point is retail their core business? At what point is price comparison their core business? That I think is going to be quite interesting in the years to come. At the point that half of your revenue is coming from e-commerce, are you a publisher anymore?
CT: If I can jump in on that? I think that’s a huge issue, actually. I’ve been trying to revise a textbook I wrote on stretching the media. It’s been a complete nightmare, because the media industry doesn’t really exist anymore. It’s actually full of non-media players, whether it’s Apple and Amazon, who are big actors in the media as a way of acquiring and retaining customers to other products.
What you see particularly, and this is linking up the newsletter issue, but you’ve got a lot of, say, finance VC consultancies coming into the media, so McKinsey A16Z, JP Morgan is buying a lot of newsletters. Essentially for them, they can control a message and it’s an incredibly cheap customer acquisition tool. So we’ve got an awful lot of big players in the media industry, who are not primarily media companies, that the content creation is not their raison d’etre.
In a way, for people working in the media industry, that’s actually going to mean growth, more opportunities to work in other sectors. But I think it is a really profound transformation to the media industry and all the concepts of mass media. It’s all gradually evaporating. I think it’s becoming a very strange conglomeration. If you bring in the whole creative economy, as well, which I think is where there’s going to be a huge amount of growth, that’s different again.
PH: If I think back to the conversation I had with Aaron Asadi at Future, mentioning Future again, Aaron’s the head of ecommerce at Future I agree with you, at what point are you not a media company anymore, but he put a huge emphasis on the content operation, because that was what was driving the sales. That’s where the sales were coming from. So if you’re writing reviews, you have to read good reviews, you have to read credible reviews.
EKT: Okay, but at what point-
CS: This isn’t the podcast.
EKT: At what point did publishers stop becoming basically marketers for Amazon?
CS: Dom, you’re bound to have a look at their wider ecommerce strategy, I imagine.
DP: I think that’s the point. I agree, I think content owners, why shouldn’t they be able to drive people through that funnel? And why shouldn’t they better offer alternatives to Amazon? There’s a huge amount of that. We were looking at this at Immediate, how can publishers create their own? One of the things that’s come through the pandemic is this ability to shop locally. They don’t want to shop at Amazon, they want to support local.
So why can’t you create a retailer network based out of local suppliers? And that’s something that publishers can do. Again, I think what the company Future have done is a very clever way of being able to build that whole staff out. I think you’ll see more and more of that happening, whether it’s companies, publishers taking on the technology and building out that retailer network themselves, to support the local manufacturers and retailers. I think it’s a great idea.
CS: And Charlotte, I think it was end of last week, or maybe earlier this week, you wrote about the independence results. There’s still room there for e-commerce growth. They see a lot of headroom there. So to what extent and is this something that we’re seeing across the way, that it’s not just magazines, it’s not just individual sub-brands, this is across the entire media industry? Are newspapers going to be the big beneficiaries of e-commerce based on their trusted reputation?
CT: Yeah, I think people think of it less at newspapers, but actually, if you think about the sort of thing that they do SEO pieces around, that is where they are directing people to. II think more and more people are doing these Christmas and Black Friday lists and stuff, and it’s all there. As you say, the Independent’s got this Indie Best bit, which in a way is just a more obvious version of what others are doing.
I think others just do it a bit more piecemeal, whereas the Independent’s like ‘this makes money, we are doing this specific thing’. And it is working. As you say, their Chief Exec is very clear that that is going to be one of their big growth areas for next year because they have really lent into it and are just doing it properly.
I think what we’re all talking about, in terms of at what point the media companies stop being media companies, I think the only question that raises for me, as Tom says, it’s well within all their rights to publish what they want and share links to Amazon if it’s going to bring in revenue.
But I think the concerning thing potentially is for newspapers, not for magazines, we rely on them for public interest news. If they are leaning away from that, to not see themselves as a news company, to see themselves as a tech company with a bit of news strapped on, obviously, that’s great if they are using these other avenues to enable them to do that. But if they get distracted, I think that might be where the problem lies.
CS: Yeah, there’s a little bit of a perverse incentive there to shift resources potentially. It’s something that I know that we’re going to be keeping an eye on, all of us here. I don’t doubt that if we do this event this time next year, we’ll be chatting about e-commerce again, but will we be talking about NFTs? So Peter, you on the podcast, you have have been sceptical about NFTs and their role in revenue generation newspapers.
PH: I’m sceptical in the same way that I’m sceptical of a Ponzi scheme. You know that they’re a fashion. I’m not saying NFTs aren’t something that’s going to be around for a while, but the way they’re being used at the moment is an absolute flash in the pan. It’s a fad. The Economist does this story about crypto and NFTs and sells its cover and makes £400,000 for charity That’s brilliant, great, but they’re not going to do that on a regular basis.
So I think where NFTs get interesting, and Brian out there just wrote about this in today’s newsletter, where it gets interesting is if there’s actually a use case that builds up around it. I read a piece – I can’t remember who wrote it – about the future of the music industry and actually people owning a share of the recordings, the artists are putting out.
The same thing could apply to magazines just as easily. I think that is where it starts getting interesting. We’ve got that ownership thing going on. But the way it’s being used at the moment. One of the leading crypto coins at the minute is a friggin meme-based dog coin. So that’s where we’re at.
CS: That’s at least half of them.
PH: Brian, you’ve just written about this.
BM: Yeah, maybe it’s living in Miami, I’m not as sceptical, I guess. I mean, I understand why, Peter, you’re sceptical and probably a lot of people are sceptical because there’s a lot of nonsense with the crypto world and it’s really difficult to understand and it’s a lot of hot air and hype and whatnot. But I think the principles of it make a lot of sense.
Again, the loss of trust in institutions, and so decentralised individuals makes a tonne of sense to try to establish trust in a different way. Not having an intermediary or gatekeeper also just makes a lot of sense in the media world, if we see what happened with Facebook and Google and whatnot. So all that stuff makes sense.
I think the problem, to Peter’s point, is a lot of people are talking about theoretical possibilities and the only sort of tangible things seem like gimmicks, like selling an NFT of a cover. It’s like a short term thing. But if you think of NFTS as like a membership card and we talked about the shift to niche communities and stuff like this, moving from audience to community is one thing but when the community then has a literal stake in the endeavour, I think that changes things completely.
You can start to think that hey, this could be something real. I do think that, like any revolution, it will mostly fizzle out and disappoint, but I do think that this has a good chance of being a new technology paradigm.
CS: The incident with the Correspondent and how they forced people to buy NFTs as proof of membership.
BM: Yeah, no, that could have worked. I would encourage everyone to just spend like a few hours like really understanding what Board Ape Yacht Club is doing, and try to apply it in your mind to media and you can start to see a pretty powerful model emerging. Because NFTs where you just buy a JPEG and you tell people I own this or whatever is kind of uninteresting, but when it unlocks access, I think it gets pretty interesting.
That’s where NFTs are gonna go, whether it’s an NFT, or a token. That’s more like details and stuff, but I do think that when you start to have rights associated with it that allow you to contribute to the community. I think that’s kind of interesting.
CS: I suppose that we are rapidly coming to the end of the discussion. I wonder if I could go around and ask the panellists and my co-hosts something that they are most excited about for next year? This time when we come to share the report for 2022, is there one thing that you’re looking forward to seeing develop over the next year or that you hope we talk about, something that’s come to fruition? So Dom, do you want to to kick us off with that?
DP: One of the things that I was thinking about for next year is I want to see this experimentation that publishers have been doing carrying on. Moving forward as they’re doing, trialling new ways to commercialise their content. One of the things I just wanted to quickly ask Brian, one of the things about this token opportunity that was going through my head when I was looking at the NFTs was – could you sort of acquire a cover that unlocks or that there is a token for search in the future?
So for example, could it be the front cover of the Sun from years ago, Freddie Star ate my hamster, bought by someone and every time someone searches for that they get money back for it or whatever it might be? And then does that mean that front covers of magazines and newspapers become a lot more exciting than they ever used to be? Or that they used to be, which maybe we’ve lost recently? They’re the kind of things that I would love to see publishers experimenting with and looking at new ways of engaging with people and making revenue from it.
BM: Yeah, no, I think that’s a great point. To me, like the big thing is, it could bring scarcity for the first time to digital media. I mean, digital media’s great strength is its great weakness, which is that it’s limitless. When things are limitless, the value of them tends to go down. I think we’ve seen that with the ad industry. It became limitless. And I think when it was chasing cookies, it particularly just completely devalued the value of audiences.
But I think we’re seeing the shift. That’s happening right now, back to content, back to context, like Lucy was talking about, places are rising and falling based on the quality of their product more. A lot of times content, honestly, in too many publications, was overhead. And a lot of content creators, I feel like, felt like they were cogs. And so now, when you shift to subscriptions, with the flight to niche with things like what’s going on in crypto and stuff, you could see a world emerging where there’s way more focus on the actual product, which is the content.
I think a lot of times, over the last several years, people have been chasing after incremental revenue streams, and really losing sight of what business they were in, which is creating really high-quality content. That means something to specific groups of people and ideally communities.
CS: Brian, what’s your one great hope for 2022 in terms of the media?
BM: There’s all sorts of different publishers, but if you look at the most successful publishers out there, and they all have different models, they all focus and double down – I hate that term – on the content, and that’s where the investments take place. If you’re trying to cut costs constantly and cutting newsrooms and stuff – and we’ve seen this with local newspapers and stuff – your product inevitably suffers because those are the people making your product.
The positive examples are all people who have disproportionately invested in the content that it’s their product. It’s not revolutionary, but I just hope people take this basic point and apply it.
CS: So Lucy, I know you focus on digital transformation and it’s a process, it’s not like we’re ever going to be finished with digital transformation. So to what extent do you think we are ready, and what are you looking forward to seeing emerge over the next year?
LK: Picking up on Brian’s point about content, I agree, there’s a really dynamic area of content emerging, which I think sinks so tightly into the commitment and passion of the industry and is a really strong base for differentiating yourself. That’s what someone at Immediate called active content. Really, this is a news organisation really trying to become the pulse of its community.
You’re talking about trying to make a real difference advocating, being activists. Someone described it to me as being the eyes and ears of the community. I think we’re seeing a big explosion in that, and the organisations that are leaning into it are seeing a huge response in terms of engagement, in terms of commitment to the organisation. I think it’s actually interesting.
It’s coming a lot in Asia, and I think it will come up, but I think certainly for, say, local news, which has been so compromised by the current environment and suffered so much, this is an obvious positioning for them. It’s a fantastic return to the core of what media should be about. Interestingly, the pivot to subscriptions, or pivot to focusing on readers, it’s a natural extension from that. So I’m really hoping that’s going to turn into a wave.
CS: Fantastic. And Charlotte then what’s one hope that you have for the media industry, whether that be about anything that our panellists have mentioned, or something entirely new?
CT: Yeah, it’s very similar to what Lucy said, in that, I just hope that publishers don’t forget what they’ve learned and what their readers have told them over the COVID pandemic. Lots of them have been focusing on building this relationship and everything. It’s always too early to say as we emerge from the pandemic, but it’d be a real shame if they squandered that and let subscriptions lapse and didn’t really nail in what it is that that got people on board during this time, especially in digital subscriptions, as we were talking about earlier.
CS: Fantastic. Thanks so much. And just before we do the end, I talk to Esther and Peter every single week, but I do want to gauge what their great hope is for the next year. Esther, do you want to go first?
EKT: Mine is actually related to those previous two. We didn’t write about this in the report, but I’m really hoping it’ll be a section next year. It’s the small people. It’s the local news publishers and the small organisations that are popping up in areas that big news organisation fall out of. I’m thinking Manchester Mill, places like that. This is probably a bit of a shameless plug for an episode.
We’ve got a launch at the start of next year, which is going to look in-depth at a couple of case studies of some of these small organisations in the US that have basically started up because journalists got fed up of the way that businesses are being run and they’ve gone and are really getting down to the ground on what’s happening in their communities. They’re starting to get to the stage where the business models are really working for them. I think if they can nail that, I’d love to see this sort of renaissance in really small, scrappy publishers getting business models that really work for them.
CS: Nice, fantastic and Peter, you presumably want more people to be on Snapchat.
PH: Absolutely, on TikTok, buying NFTs, buying crypto, Shiba crypto. The best phrase to come out of this session today is this flight to niche idea and I love that.. I love the idea that people are focusing on niche content, which ultimately lets people focus on niche revenue. Buzzfeed, Spark, IPO? Who cares? It’ll be great for people that have got shares in Buzzfeed, but is it going to change anyone’s life? Probably not.
It echoes what Esther is saying, flight to niche, small, honest to God publishers really doing some great work. When I say small, I don’t mean tiny. Even like the New Statesman, you’re not the biggest publisher in the world but you do really, really important work, whether that’s at Press Gazette or the New Statesman. I think that kind of level of publishing, I hope, is going to find a level where people are actually making a living and they’re doing well and are doing really good work.
CS: I suppose my hope for the coming year is that this time next year, we get to come back and have another chat with our fantastic panellists. Thank you so much for taking the time to come and have a chat about what you hope is going to be the future of the year, and to discuss everything that we wrote about in Media Moments 2021.
So to those of you in the audience who have been following along, either via this, or via the interactive life blog, which the students of Sydney University are doing, please do read the report. It’s available now, we’ve just dropped a couple of links in the chat, otherwise, it’s going to go to your email. It’s been I was going to say, a labour of love, but it’s really just been a labour. But ultimately, like I said, it’s really been an optimistic way of looking at the future.
PH: Chris, can I just give a shout out to that interactive Twitter thread, that is amazing.
CS: Of course, yeah, absolutely.
PH: They’ve made me sound quite intelligent at point.
CS: So Peter, Esther, and myself, we are the Media Voices team, we do a podcast every week, you can search for us on your favourite podcast channel or by going to voices.media. We also do a daily newsletter, which you can sign up to for most important stories for the week.
And thank you so much to What’s New in Publishing for partnering with us on this, it would not have been possible without you. And the same for Sovrn as well. In the meantime, thank you so much for coming along. It’s been an absolute pleasure to discuss Media Moments 2021 with the panel. And thank you to everyone who stuck around for the entire thing. Thank you so much.