When ‘doing the right thing’ works for publisher business models

Minority report: back in the news

Last year MTV News was one of many outlets that pivoted to video production at the behest of Facebook. You can throw a rock and hit a piece of analysis of the reasons why, but the important thing to take away from that is that in doing so it laid off a number of reporters who were focusing on LGBTQ and BAME issues. Almost exactly a year later, the tide has turned, and MTV News is once again hiring people to cover those issues – scant comfort to those reporters it initially laid off.

But that shift back to socially-worthy coverage tells us more about the focus of the media industry than simply ‘we were duped by Facebook’. For one thing, any new spotlight shone on issues like those are  more vital than ever in Trump’s America, where civil liberties can be stripped away at any time, and should be applauded. Even in the UK, the polarisation of the news media has led to tacit xenophobia, transphobia and more on the front pages of many of the right-wing papers.

But as publications look to avoid the perils of ‘mile-wide, inch-deep’ reporting that has proven unsuccessful in generating revenue online, increased coverage of those issues has a strong business case as well. Let’s take a look at why:

Representation opens up new markets

As has been demonstrated countless times by reports like those conducted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, one of the primary reasons for distrust in the mainstream media is a lack of representation. That has led audiences who don’t fit the mould of middle-class, straight and white that comprise a publication’s visible talent and target demographics to seek their news elsewhere. Publications have effectively hamstrung themselves by creating an overreliance on the core audiences to whom they cater, and for whom they are now forced to create content that alienates new audiences.

Those core audiences, however, are ageing up on average, and are less likely to be amenable to many of the strategies in which publishers are placing their faith, like digital subscriptions and ecommerce. Consequently, when MTV broadens its content strategy to include news content that is visibly more representative of minority audiences, it is betting on being able to monetise those new audiences in a way that it cannot with its core.

Relationships are the name of the game

As mentioned early, digital subscriptions are set to be a huge part of publisher revenues over the coming years. Even Quartz, which has previously been very open about the fact that native and sponsored advertising was its main priority, has recently been making noise about their digital reader revenue plans.

Closer to home, the New Statesman’s paywall model has been up and running for the past few months. When I spoke to its digital editor Jasper Jackson for the Media Voices podcast, he mentioned that many of its recent strategies have been about deepening its relationship with a subset of readers, even if that comes at the expense of a wider audience.

Writing for Digital Content Next, Robbie Kellman Baxter, founder of Peninsula Strategies, points out that publishers looking to succeed must either focus on ads or membership (and the prevailing wind is towards membership):

“Get a clear picture of who your “members” are. Are you in business to support advertisers or readers? There is no shame in either. But too many publishers are getting lost in the middle—trying to become more reader-centric while not being willing to give up any ad revenue. The problem is that advertisers want volume of eyeballs while readers want unique content and experiences. Their goals aren’t aligned, and media companies that spread themselves too thin, trying to manage both, end up doing neither well.”

Simply put, it is much easier to monetise a core, engaged audience, and by-and-large those audiences tend to cluster around publications that speak to their interests directly. LGBT audiences are far more likely to subscribe to news that speaks specifically to LGBT issues, for instance. Now that it is well-known more generalist audiences, no matter the scale, are unlikely to be able to support publications through advertising revenue, it makes business sense to launch new products in those niches round which engaged audiences gather. Cynical, maybe, but true.

Defiance is a flag

As with the pro-EU The New European and the pro-independence The National, there is value in having a product to, in TNE’s editor’s words, “wave as a flag” to signal your beliefs.

Causes are a flashpoint for high emotion, and people will demonstrably pay to support a publication that they feel adds visibility or speaks for them around those issues.

Of course, that’s all easier said than done. As CEO of Hearken Jennifer Brandel points out, when media companies attempt to appeal to niche audiences, even in a genuine manner, it is all too easy to do it badly, or worse, cynically:

“Too often, when it comes to engaging communities, we act like askholes. We ask for their story, we extract their experiences and concerns, and then we package and polish them up to share with audiences for our own financial gain. We don’t follow up. We don’t thank them. We don’t ask what they need. We just ask for what we need from them.”

And if there’s one thing that niche audiences can sniff out, it’s those organisations that seek to exploit them for financial gain. So efforts to alleviate that, while still uncommon, will become less so over time:

The other pitfall is that, while supporting worthy causes can be beneficial to publisher business models, so can supporting unworthy causes. Look at the success to date of blatant propaganda and abuse outlet sites on either side of the political spectrum, and you’ll see that people will just as quickly rally around and support immoral causes as moral ones. In fact, sites like Infowars are, while abhorrent, really the proof point that it is possible to support ‘journalism’ by appealing to a niche base.

Happily, it does mean that, for a while at least, membership-oriented publishers can align themselves with causes they wholeheartedly agree in.

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Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work in the TMT (technology, media, and telecoms) space, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog. 

Image via Kelly Bell Photography on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.