Credit: Image by titus torome from Pixabay 

Jacqui Park is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Media Transition at the University of Technology, Sydney. She also publishes a fortnightly newsletter on media startups and innovation in Asia-Pacific, The Story.

Journalism is competing for that scarcest of modern world resources — attention. Meeting that challenge requires journalism that is so compelling, so attuned to the wants and needs of the audience, that it can break through all the competing demands on a reader’s time.

What works? I have been looking at examples in the Asia-Pacific to get some ideas. Over the past year, through in-depth interviews and discussions with over 80 news media innovators and thinkers and following the real-time commentary in blogs, speeches and articles, I have been deeply immersed in news media innovation across the Asia-Pacific. Out of all that, I’ve crafted my report: News Media Innovation 2020.

Six-year-old Japanese news app NewsPicks may be closest to working out one of the central challenges of journalism right now: how do we genuinely engage the audience in both creation and consumption? It has adopted a social media sensibility, curating global finance and tech news using comments from a network of experts and peers to encourage engagement and sharing. The result is 110,000 paying subscribers in the ever-elusive millennial demographic.

Hong Kong’s venerable South China Morning Post (SCMP) is answering the question: how do you turn a local publication into a sustainable global voice? It is attempting to build a global advertising-supported readers network as the go-to source of news and analysis about China, both for Chinese audiences everywhere and for anyone else interested in China.

In New Zealand, online start-up The Spinoff has used a mix of vertical sponsorship and a recently-launched sophisticated membership programme to source revenues to support a self-proclaimed 'smart, funny, provocative' site for it’s 'young, urban and earning' audience. It now claims an average monthly unique audience of about 800,000 (about one in six New Zealand residents) and a daily organic social reach of about 100,000.

In each of these cases, the organisation is attempting to meet the core of the disruption challenge: that big social shift where information abundance crashes into the finite amount of time each of us has to pay it attention. 

What caused the battle for attention?

The industry’s initial innovation response was to try to work out how we can put the bundle (the newspaper, the news broadcast) online. How can we transition those habits of the morning paper or the evening television news to the web?

Then along came the advertising collapse, coinciding with the shift by our audiences first to social and then to mobile. This shook the craft much more than did the initial move to the internet. It broke the bundle - and suddenly each individual story lived or died on its own according to discovery among a fickle audience.

Audiences have atomised. Time has become moveable. Habits have become fluid.

How are news organisations in Asia-Pacific responding?

The most successful innovators in news media, like the teams at Newspicks, SCMP or The Spinoff, approach the task holistically. They start with the journalism and create products that their audience will deeply value, building community and encouraging engagement.

This demands a product mentality, to be constantly prototyping new things, quickly discarding while learning from what does not work. As they say in Silicon Valley: "falling forward".

I wanted to understand how innovators in the Asia-Pacific conceptualise this in relation to the news media that is trying just to be as good, or just as fit for purpose, as they were last century? To be able to do the job of informing, entertaining, connecting our communities, but in such a radically changed environment?

A readers-first mantra

Capturing attention requires a rigorously audience-focused approach. In the successful news media innovations, journalists start any story, (or venture), by asking: what is the value in this? Why should anyone use some of their limited attention on this?

This changes a lot more than you think. Successful innovators understand how compelling content, engaging storytelling and a targeted market niche enables it to fulfil that job and creates that value for the audience. It shifts the product from a B2B to a B2C business, as focus shifts from advertising to the audience.

In my research, I found people succeeding by engaging their audience with open communication. With those deeper insights into what the audience want and value, they had confidence in their ideas, were able to work up prototypes to test quickly, and develop products that people value.

Some are using the new media tools to listen — and talk — to their audience, getting the all-important ground context that helps frame and centre their stories, and in the process, build a more intimate relationship with their audiences.

Influencers, newsletters and reader surveys

Look at why NewsPicks invested heavily in its commenting system. By focusing on influential niche industries, businesses and entrepreneurs, it enabled young audiences to build a personalised business news service.

Elsewhere, SCMP designs its products with in-built triggers that encourage faster sign up of newsletters for example, building habits of loyalty; and The Spinoff conducts monthly surveys of readers to identify interests and then considers how or whether it can bring an appropriate standpoint to the subject.

Audience-first innovation shapes new approaches to journalism and creates a business model where all revenue streams are designed with the reader in mind. That may result in direct reader revenues through subscriptions, memberships or donations or continuing advertising revenues that leverage the licence that a relationship of trust provides.

In my research, I found optimism for the future as well as a hunger to share and learn from each other. Collaboration is vital. Networking and space for experimentation that allows for failure, and the learning and sharing of lessons creates a supportive ecosystem.

You can subscribe to The Story, a fortnightly newsletter on media innovation in the Asia Pacific region, here.

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