The future of journalism was one of the main topics on the agenda during the world spread conference Social Media Week New York, which was held in Manhattan in New York City in the last week of February. Social Media Week was simultaneously running in Copenhagen along with cities like Milan, Bangalore and Jakarta addressing the same topics but in a local context.
In New York City - the epicentre of media, the content was not as strict as the title suggests, it was not only social media that was in focus, but the digital platforms as a whole, including user engagement and development processes ensuring that media companies and organizations can play a part in the ever-changing digital race.
The New York Times was dominating the scene sharing their experience and thoughts for the future. They acknowledge that they are sitting on a burning platform, and in contrast to many of their competitors they are constantly investing resources in experimenting with future business models where quality and user involvement is the goal, with technology as the mean. Three strategies eclipsed the focus of the development oriented media companies.
New York Times has experimented with how quality content and earnings can go hand in hand. They have found a recipe that meets the challenge that many brands are facing, that they have to go from traditional advertisement to thought leadership, if they want to secure a place in the digital users awareness. Thought leaders set standards that create innovation and originality in their own industry, by dominating the agenda from sharing content to creating new concepts and products.
On an average day the American consumers are exposed to 5,000 ads, so there is no room for more noise, but only signal. New York Times has amongst others solved this challenge by offering their advertisers to sponsor "Branded Content". The New York Times call it their Brand Studio, a custom content studio that covers topics and develops digital concepts in collaboration with brands.
As the popular Netflix series "Orange is the New Black" launched a new season, Netflix funded a series of articles about female prisoners in the United States, as part of their marketing. This did not only give New York Times a chance to go in depth with an important social issue, but also created a new context to make a topic relevant, and secure revenue.
The same occurred with the fashion brand Cole Haan, when they were promoting their new ballerina shoes. It became an article and video series about what it takes to be a ballet dancer in the New York Ballet.
It is important to emphasise that the New York Times does not compromise with their journalistic tradition and ethics with branded content. Branded content makes it possible to allocate resources to experiment with new forms of media and channels from video to data visualization.
The digital media company Mashable uses the same model, hereunder having hotel chains as sponsors for their travel section, a trend that will become even easier with video in the future, where each program can be sponsored.
From quantitative to qualitative data
Data Strategy was the second major topic of Social Media Week, including whether data is the future of journalism. New York Times stressed that they are on a journey that goes beyond the number of clicks and impressions. Most media companies agree that there is a need for new metrics, which measures quality rather than quantity. Qualitative measurements registers how much time a reader spends on an article (TTR), they record the scroll speed as an indication of whether the article has been read or just skimmed through, and not least if the reader shares the article in their network.
Mashable has “on top of the trend” strategy, where they have developed algorithms that monitor data to select topics that are about to trend. This strategy enables that their journalists are ready with the articles when the topics actually peak.
Google and the Financial Times are other actors who are also moving away from quantity by invoicing their advertisers for the time users spend watching their commercials, rather than the number of impressions.
This development is a sign that we are entering a more mature state in journalism and technology. For many years it has been all about developing algorithms and focus on SEO (Search Engine Optimization), but the increased competition for the users attention has forced brands, hereunder media and advertisers, to create content that will actually be seen and shared.
A start-up inside the business
The last common feature of the leading media companies, is that they devote resources to experiment with creating innovative digital concepts. Many of the frontrunning newspapers in the United States have set up dedicated teams, that operates on the edge of business and technology. New York Times has a R&D Lab that researches and develops digital concepts that can be used to support articles and series in the future. They work as a startup inside the business, where the focus is on the horizon, providing a constant injection of knowledge and inspiration to the departments who are concentrating on the daily operations.
It is not just about print, social, mobile or digital, but the ability to constantly know ones users and use technology to reach them where they are, both physically and virtually - two worlds that are merging.
Although there is much to learn from the many of the leading media outlets, each newspaper and media company, however, has to find the formula that best suits their problems, content and audience, according to Pete Cashmore, founder and CEO of Mashable. He gets inspiration from emerging technologies and start-ups that develop solutions, that the media industry can utilize in their context.
Last year the Washington Post opened WPNYC, an office in New York, working with development of technology and design. WPNYC's goal is to address the challenges that the industry is facing from the reading experience to internal tools and workflows, and just as important to change the culture inside the company. The team acts more like a start-up than a typical media department. The team consists of people working in the design, development and strategy, and are experts in the field of user experience, prototyping and data analysis.
Eight years ago the Financial Times were pioneers as they introduced the metered paywall, which allows registered readers to access three free articles per month - if you want more, you have to subscribe. The model has according to the newspaper's earnings for 2014 increased their online subscriptions by 21 percent. The Financial Times has a circulation of 720,000, of which digital subscriptions now account for two-thirds. Right now, the newspaper is launching a new model that offers readers a one-month trial subscription for a symbolic amount. Financial Times describes it as an evolution of their previous model, where they try to create a habit, that will lead to a subscription. Their new model is expected to increase their subscriptions by between 11-29 percent, compared to their metered model.
Entering a new era
This year's Social Media Week in New York was living proof that we are about to move into a new era of technology, where we not only collect quantitative data, but instead are changing the focus to collect the right data, to better understand the readers needs and behavior. The goal is to increase earnings, but without compromising the quality and values of journalism. Users are drowning in easy solutions where they are forced to look at ugly ads, rather than seeing content that catches their attention.
The fruits of the short-term solutions have long been harvested - the time has come to think smarter.