Think Tank

Producing the content worth paying for [Part 1]

NWE caught up with Juan Señor, a man of many talents including reporter, presenter, Arctic expedition member, and disability activist.  For the purposes of this interview, however, we spoke to him in his capacity as president of INNOVATION Media Consulting in which role he has helped news operations across the globe to reinvent themselves and remain relevant. We sought his take on product development, revenue streams, and the salvation of journalism.

“I’ve been quoted for a long time as saying that only journalism will save journalism; we’ve been saying this for over a decade really.” Juan Señor might be forgiven for tiring of having to repeat that journalism itself, and not technology should be the focus of publishing, but the good news is that he is resolutely upbeat. 

“We’ve seen a lot of revenue drivers come and go, often peripheral to the core of the business and with mixed results. It’s been finally, really in the last five years that we’ve seen reader revenue taking off, journalism worth paying for, and therefore, newsrooms that produce content worth paying for.”

“Let me start by saying that any successful paywall strategy begins and ends in the newsroom.”

Juan Señor

Triggering subscriptions, not chasing traffic

Juan has just overseen the design of “what we believe will be the most advanced newsroom in Eastern Europe” and with it the full panoply of publishing including TV, audio, print, digital, mobile, and social. “But at the core of it, it’s really about generating content worth paying for, and organising the product based on what content triggers a subscription. We know what triggers traffic, what creates volume, and the old paradigm of the news business was to generate traffic, traffic, traffic. But the most difficult question that our newsroom needs to answer, and focus on, is what content triggers a subscription.

The moment you begin to understand that, and with the help of product specialists brought into the newsroom, then it all comes together. Then you have a sustainable business where journalism saves journalism, not events, not branded content, all that is wonderful, it must be part of it, it must be part of the revenue mix. All these things are great, but if you don’t have at least 40% of your revenue coming from readers paying for it, the business is not sustainable.”

From clicks to clocks

Getting away from pure traffic metrics is only part of the story and Juan stresses that a successful subscription strategy involves smarter use of metrics.

“We still believe in listening to your editors, even when a story may not get traffic. Editorially, you may still have a duty to report it.  Journalists should use metrics, the same way that a drunken man uses lampposts; to lean on, rather than for lighting. Metrics are a rear view mirror. In reality, you’re looking back and at the end of the day, you pay an editor to make an editorial call. Just looking at metrics and seeing where they are taking us is not good quality journalism. But if you have readers that keep coming back to a section, keep coming back to a writer, then it’s obviously time well spent. That’s the key. Time spent reading. That is what an advertiser wants to see, which is what a product guy needs to also be focused on. So time spent means shifting from clicks to clocks.”

Successful strategies start in the newsroom

“Let me start by saying that any successful paywall strategy begins and ends in the newsroom.”

Getting journalists themselves onside with strategy is the first step to achieving that balance of revenues.  “A lot of the framing of product is in terms of ‘product people versus journalists’, and we are creating another false dichotomy, which is not healthy. In the beginning it was print versus digital, then mobile people versus desktop people, then social media focused journalism versus people saying ‘my website is a destination’. First of all we need to do away with these tensions; saying that somehow product can interfere with journalism and the other way around. Or  that these two sets of people don’t understand each other? They do and it works.” 

Making it work does mean the right mindset in the newsroom, however.

“The head of content of that newsroom has to understand that their focus has to be on creating content worth paying for. Stop thinking from a supply point of view and begin to think from a demand point of view.” Which means moving on from the traditional newsroom process. “In the past, especially in the printed press, we all focused on supplying pages to a newspaper. We had our pages assigned every day: three pages in economy, two pages on international, what have you.  The problem with digital now is that there are so many products out there that we need to serve. The starting point is that your newsroom needs to understand where is the demand for your content from your audience.” 

The good news is that a lot of that should come naturally to journalists. “Every good editor knows instinctively who his or her readers are. If they don’t then they shouldn’t be running a news brand.” 

The next step is to take that instinctive understanding and expand it to their habits. “So then you have the understanding of their news consumption habits. So this percentage of my audience is no longer buying a newspaper, this percentage of my audience is no longer checking me on a desktop website.This person wants to find me here; these are their news consumption habits. And you create profiles, personas, to understand how they want to consume.

Once you know what the demand is for that product, then you create very specific content for that specific platform. The right content, for the right people, at the right time, on the right platform. It sounds simple, it is obviously very complicated, and it is a paradigm shift in terms of how newsrooms have to rethink the way they create content.”

Read about how Juan Señor goes about restructuring the newsroom and its skill sets to “make the magic happen” in part 2 of this interview.

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