WAN-IFRA India – Business models for publishers

Innovation Media’s Juan Señor – Possible cures for the digital transition

VIANaresh Khanna
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At the WAN-IFRA conference in Hyderabad this year, there were a variety of inputs reflecting the natural complexity of the media’s situation when it needs to reduce, reuse, recycle and rethink its assets for digital transformation and monetization – and certainly its business models.

The inputs and cures at the WAN-IFRA India conference ranged from battling fake news to doing good work for the community, to automating content in ways that are similar to programmatic advertising – letting the algorithm decide what news to serve to whom and when. Some remedies even suggested doing away with far-flung newsrooms.

Among the purveyors of these potions, remedies and cures was Juan Señor, who intrigued and beguiled the attendees with a combination of surefire business ideas for newspapers looking to transit to the other side – in terms of survival and digital transformation. He said (broadly), “These are the eleven possible answers to your (newspaper’s) crises, aches and pains – and, if you can implement any three of these successfully, you will most likely have a solution or get to the other side. To turn adversity into opportunity.”

Señor also distributed a few hard copies of the well illustrated and produced Innovation in News Media Report 2019, a document that his company produces for WAN-IFRA, after the presentation and when he ran out, the PDF was quickly in the mail. The report contains an outline of his presentation at Hyderabad, and articles and diagrams that illustrate some of the key concepts such as newsroom architecture, culture, analytics, and media tech.   

Señor rapidly mentioned a host of case studies as he went along, where the eleven possible courses of action have been tried and where they have succeeded. Frank and upfront – he had come to sell his (and his company’s) consulting services which he was able to succinctly describe and convincingly offer as any good consultant would. And within minutes of his presentation ending, he had at least one large Indian newspaper setting up an initial three- or four-day scoping visit.

Señor prefaced his presentation by making clear that, “The fundamental premise is that you must follow the virtuous circle. The first priority of an editor is to make sure that his publication is making money. Revenues will give you sustainability and profitability and this will give you the independence you want. A deep understanding of increasingly profiled audiences is key to loyal engagement. And of course credibility will lead to audience growth and hence to revenues.”

Señor cautioned against several bad habits – such as giving away content for free and leaning too heavily on certain types of social media although he was positive about Instagram. “Treat your site as the destination. The exception to all this is Instagram where the engagement is much higher, especially for your visually driven content. The same can be applied to SnapChat but we would put Instagram before Snapchat,” he said.

Business models for publishers

The eleven tried and tested remedies are given below. A publisher merely needs to implement as many of these as make sense and can be done reasonably. Success in even three is likely to mean a successful transition. Publishers who are really serious should invite Juan Señor and the Innovation Media Consulting Group.

  1. The paid content model – combinations of digital, print and digital plus print. Reader revenue is a must. “A balanced model must be presented and the middle rule between free and very expensive must be maintained. Look at revenues in terms of margins and not just revenue. The New Yorker is a great success that has gone through a phonemenal transformation and 65% of revenue comes from readers and they are confident they can double revenue by 2020 …. The key for you to explore is what content triggers subscription.”
  2. The publisher as an enabler for philanthropy. For instance, the publisher invites donations or support (crowdfunding) for a specific series of public service journalism. The Guardian has recently crowdfunded reporting teams of social and environment issues across the US.
  3. The publisher as a retailer who looks at highly segmented audiences and consumers to satisfy their purchase needs with products and services offered. Could be developed in partnership with eCommerce companies in the retail market. Is The Hindu doing this with its store in Chennai? The daily has also started selling facsimiles of its front pages on a particular date that could be used as birthday gifts.
  4. The publisher as an event and festival organizer – the idea is to put branded content on the stage. Festivals can even be followed by slightly more portentous summits. Several Indian media groups seem to already be doing this in their own way.
  5. The publisher as a club – member readers are entitled to privileged theater tickets or seats at a restaurant. This could even extend to the publisher becoming an eRetailer although Señor cautioned that magazines are often better at this than newspapers. You can buy tickets in bulk but sell them on at a profit to readers to whom you have offered a holistic club membership. The reader-member can also show their membership card to get various offers and discounts.
  6. Ad-dependent publishers can also look more closely and in a new way at ad revenues by using native advertising, branded content and programmatic advertising. Examples of these are the eMail newsletter and website Quartz, The Atlantic magazine and Guardian Labs.
  7. The publisher as an agency. This is aimed at advertisers who do not have the capacity to contract creative agencies for advertising material for their audiences. As an advertising creative agency, publishers can charge money for writing, creatives and placement of ads in other media. This could usefully require the engagement of the publisher’s quality infographics, design and journalism teams. 360 degree campaigns can be developed and disseminated using the entire media portfolio of the publisher.
  8. The publisher as a data broker since there is so much talk about big data for a variety of products and services such as event discounts and even blockchain and bitcoins. An example is a publisher who will do a content-driven event but will offer a purchase at that time at a particular price. Data base development enables micro-targeting – Señor presented the idea of a journalist-driven travel site – ‘Beautiful Destinations.’ Micro targeted content is developed by watching consumer preferences for destinations and now this team of journalists is even advising airlines.
  9. The publisher licenses its brand upfront for use on products or services or even for instance a real estate development. Here a publisher provides its recognition and seal of quality. Examples include Disney and National Geographic.
  10. The publisher as an IT provider. This is actually a legacy tradition since many of the best editorial and publishing systems software have been developed in the past by publishers or with their extensive inputs or even by their in-house software teams. It is a matter of leveraging the heavy duty investment in hardware, software and round-the-clock maintenance that publishers have to develop and maintain in any case, as they become even more digital.
  11. The publisher as an investor. Señor suggested that you can turn your newsroom spaces (now that you may have downsized) into an investment hub. “You could turn from selling clicks to clocks; all it costs you is office space,” he suggested. Other possibilities are investing in emerging businesses in exchange for advertising. Perhaps not different than what Bennett-Coleman, owners of the Times of India group, has done with its use of ‘private treaties’ to invest in segments such as real estate development which it can then both advertise and talk up in its pages, websites and even television channels.

The new revenue streams that Señor talked about all require a great deal of effort and commitment in audience understanding and making the right choices for the assets and investment capabilities at hand. But on the whole, this is not new for the fast growing Indian media publishers who have been on it for the past two decades. Both the possible revenue streams and solutions may not eventually look exactly like Señor’s case studies, but the successes are sure to be interesting. And rewarding.

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