Digital transformation – the COVID-19 upside

WAN-IFRA's vice president Lisa MacLeod explains

Lisa MacLeod, vice president, WAN-IFRA

Rahm Emanuel’s famous words “Never let a good crisis go to waste” are so relevant to the situation media and journalists now find themselves in, particularly with digital transformation. It seems the COVID-19 crisis could be the final warning to adapt digitally or risk extinction. While digital revenues are still no match revenue for print advertising, an informal survey of international colleagues confirmed there are some hard truths emerging. Those news organizations that moved to digital publishing earlier have been in a better position to service their readers through the crisis. And those journalists, whose digital skills are up to speed, have found working through the disruption of isolation much easier.

Here is how digitally savvy organizations found themselves ahead of the game:

– Staff are equipped with laptops and data bundles to enable them to work from home or remotely

– Digital staff are well-skilled and trusted and empowered to make decisions within the hierarchy

– Paywall or registration technology is in place to capture the enormous inflow of digital audiences

– Product teams work in an agile way and can quickly create or alter products to suit audience needs, and tech infrastructure is sound

– Tracking and analytics engines are in place to help newsrooms gauge interest and engagement on topics and themes, and to interact successfully with new readers

– E-Editions are part of the regular product offering and can be quickly scaled to “replace” the comfort of print (but see caveats below)

Unfortunately, the speed at which the lockdowns arrived would have largely precluded those individuals and news operations behind the transformation curve from successfully implementing such measures in a short space of time. But there are many positive stories about how digital is suddenly the cool kid on the block, with one digital transformation lead saying he was delighted because all his lengthy battles to win over his colleagues to digital thinking and publishing had been supercharged and realized in just a few weeks. Previously, he said, he had not even been invited to attend news meetings, “and now I am running them!”

Some of the positive aspects to emerge from the crisis:

– Digital audience numbers are surging, with record numbers of unique browsers being reported globally

– While there has been a reduction in direct digital ad sales and private PMP deals, there are reports of decent budgets flowing to open auction buys as advertisers take advantage of the traffic numbers

– It’s a great time to convert colleagues to the power of digital publishing, emphasizing the immediacy of digital distribution

– Those with paywalls have seen record numbers of digital subscribers, one reporting a 60% increase in the past six weeks

– There is a huge demand for veracity at a time like this, with consumers seeking out branded news above all to make sure that what they are reading is correct and true

– Because the nature of Covid-19 coverage obviates almost all other news streams, it’s a good time to reassess content choices for the future

– Organizational changes in crisis can help pinpoint future leaders in your organization

– Production and operational changes to the distribution of print products may highlight opportunities to make changes permanently in the future. An example would be to move permanently to reduce print editions during the week and double down on the (usually) more profitable weekend print editions

– It’s a great time to experiment with paywall access and pricing: offering lower entry points to capture a bigger slice of the huge influx of online readers

– If the paywall is suspended for COVID coverage, are you at least asking for registration to facilitate future acquisitions?

– This is a time to foster closer engagement with readers, to use video and UGC to really connect with current or future customers

– Build trusted brand relationships now. Examples are media houses facilitating photography competitions, recipe sharing, shared Google docs with lockdown journals, book recommendations, online quizzes and exercise with readers

– There is an opportunity to monetize these “franchises” as advertisers shy away from fragmented advertising and look for meaningful sponsorships instead

– Many media houses have used the opportunity to entrench their e-editions with their readers as a viable alternative to print, with some reporting incredible numbers akin to print consumption – but there are caveats. Is your user journey seamless, and is your e-edition provider/partner able to secure your pdfs to paid-access only, and prevent downloading and sharing? This is a common technology problem and needs to be addressed if e-editions are to provide a “new” revenue stream

Let your stars shine: if you have talent in online video and interactives or graphics, this is a great opportunity for alternatives to text storytelling. There is a huge appetite for data-led stories right now, and video is a powerful and deeper way of capturing the national mood.

Finally, start planning for the future. This planning at the moment seems to be focused almost entirely on disaster scenarios and worst-case outcomes. But it is also a good time to think about the green shoots, and how to build a resilient and future-proofed business.

It is well worth reading Frederic Filloux’s recent Monday Note in which he asked his students for their view of the future for media.

They all see news operations becoming smaller, more agile, and less centralized with new ownership structures and business models favoring deep audience involvement, engagement, and support. Ads are seen for the most part as “unethical, invasive, misleading, and just moderately efficient. Only some forms of carefully vetted sponsorship seem acceptable”.

The students favor a different kind of news, absolutely focused on fact and data-driven analysis. Explanatory journalism scored highly as many of them were “shocked by the recklessness of some journalists always ready to jump on juicy stories without any distance or even research”.

Finally, despite the reaffirmation of the value of good journalism, they were unequivocal that the pandemic has for once and all declared print “the embodiment of the ancient world”. It will not have a place in the future.

2023 promises an interesting ride for print in India

Indian Printer and Publisher founded in 1979 is the oldest B2B trade publication in the multi-platform and multi-channel IPPGroup. While the print and packaging industries have been resilient in the past 33 months since the pandemic lockdown of 25 March 2020, the commercial printing and newspaper industries have yet to recover their pre-Covid trajectory.

The fragmented commercial printing industry faces substantial challenges as does the newspaper industry. While digital short-run printing and the signage industry seem to be recovering a bit faster, ultimately their growth will also be moderated by the progress of the overall economy. On the other hand book printing exports are doing well but they too face several supply-chain and logistics challenges.

The price of publication papers including newsprint has been high in the past year while availability is diminished by several mills shutting down their publication paper and newsprint machines in the past four years. Indian paper mills are also exporting many types of paper and have raised prices for Indian printers. To some extent, this has helped in the recovery of the digital printing industry with its on-demand short-run and low-wastage paradigm.

Ultimately digital print and other digital channels will help print grow in a country where we are still far behind in our paper and print consumption and where digital is a leapfrog technology that will only increase the demand for print in the foreseeable future. For instance, there is no alternative to a rise in textbook consumption but this segment will only reach normality in the next financial year beginning on 1 April 2023.

Thus while the new normal is a moving target and many commercial printers look to diversification, we believe that our target audiences may shift and change. Like them, we will also have to adapt with agility to keep up with their business and technical information needs.

Our 2023 media kit is ready, and it is the right time to take stock and reconnect with your potential markets and customers. Print is the glue for the growth of liberal education, new industry, and an emerging economy. We seek your participation in what promises to be an interesting ride.

– Naresh Khanna

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