No time to waste

With challenging external factors, media companies are looking to get their operational businesses streamlined and positioned for the next economic upturn, or at least refocused on new markets. And any way you look at it, the name of this game is digital.

Hugh

The progress of The Australian’s and The Australian Financial Review’s respective digital subscription models will be closely followed by the industry

Australians will watch with interest as News Limited sees the impact of The Australian’s paywall and those that will ring-fence its metro titles when they are implemented later this year. Fairfax Media has taken initial steps with AFR.com by bundling its print and online subscriptions, where once there was a distinct price regime for each point of access.

This has stimulated usage of AFR.com and provided some good initial data which will no doubt feed into the next iteration of the paper’s digital strategy.

Other publishers are starting to use detailed information about patterns of usage to feed into cross-selling and build new value for clients. And this is the key point for media in 2012: data.

Data in all its forms can add enormous value for publishers: data about reader habits and preferences, data about customer needs, and data as a basis for new forms of journalism.

Product development that takes advantage of all available data inputs for marketing and sales – and data output for editorial – will deliver much needed trial, purchase and loyalty as publishers look to grow valuable digital audiences.

The past 10 years have shown us a lot, and one of the lessons is that audiences expect creativity and technical excellence in production values, as well as good content.

“Quality” content on its own will not convince consumers to pay online. Quality – whatever that is – needs to be packaged cleverly. It needs to be easily accessible on all devices, searchable, filterable, and interactive.

In digital publishing terms, we’re about to step into the interim stage of maturity as an industry. We’ve left infancy behind but we’re not yet fully formed.

The need for experimentation hasn’t passed but expectations are vastly higher than they were five years ago.

Just as the first phase of digital product development in media publishing was characterised by a serendipitous relationship between traditional journalism and the disciplines of software development, so the next phase of digital publishing needs to take advantage of other non-traditional media skills and expertise.

Some publishers have begun creating new roles in their newsrooms and marketing teams, whether it be social media managers or visual data journalists.

This is a good step but the challenge is to do more than simply retrain the smartest young reporters.

Those smart young reporters have a lot to offer, but they won’t provide the solution on their own. So bringing in new skills, such as computer scientists, and training them as computational journalists is an example of a potential approach.

In the past two years there has been a belated recognition at the highest levels that digital really is the future.

The next 12 months is the time to act. It’s going to take careful planning, and in some instances a new culture of innovation. Others will confront the need for the entire business to transform.

All this will take courage and some luck. The alternative – shirking the challenge – is not pleasant to contemplate.

Hugh Martin is CEO of Crown Content. Follow him on Twitter @hughjm

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