When Irish news publisher Independent News & Media (INM) was sold to Belgian media company Mediahuis in 2019, this signalled the end of an era. It was, however, the start of a new one, as Mediahuis would embark on a digital transformation within INM.
Today, INM has 32.5k digital subscribers on its main site Independent.ie, and less than 5k on the Belfast Telegraph and its combined regional titles. Take it with a pinch of salt though, as this is in a year where the coronavirus pandemic has had a big influence on subscription figures.
Still, this is substantial growth, considering the stiff competition. The average Irish news consumer has a wide array of choices in English-speaking news outlets in the UK and the US. Its main competitor, The Irish Times, has had a paywall in place for a number of years by this point. And the national broadcaster RTÉ "floods the market" with free, high-quality content.
The Irish are also reluctant to pay. The 2020 Reuters Digital News Report found that just 12 per cent of Irish news consumers are willing to pay for news. Dempsey commented that even that was higher than their own survey results had revealed.
Add to that the publisher lacked any form of customer care service to track issues. The tech stack was also due an upgrade and conversations were being had about whether to launch on "creaking old tech" or reinvest in new systems. The problem was that the company had amassed significant technical debt.
A high rate of senior staff turnaround added to the woes. Back in 2019, its B2B advertising business was still "relatively thriving" and previous attempts to launch a paywall have been thwarted by the board twice. There was considerable internal pushback. Then the acquisition came along.
"I was there [in mid-2019] in the newsroom when [Marc Vangeel, Mediahuis CEO] came in and I was with the engineers on the floor when he said: 'We believe in digital first, and that means print second'," Dempsey recalls.
"That was quite a disruptive thing to say in the newsroom at the time. He followed that up with: 'We're a digital subscription business'. You could feel the mood change, suddenly people were like 'We're going to do this now, it didn't work out once or twice before but this time it's different."
Screenshot: INM presentation at INMA subscription summit 2021
Changing the mood in the room
A change in energy and body language were two of Dempsey's key tools to overcoming group and individual-level resistance: "It's very easy when beleaguered by difficult projects to carry yourself in a certain way that isn't going to take everybody on board. There was a lot of work to make sure senior managers were all giving off the right level of energy around the project at the right time."
He also took inspiration from Maslow's hierarchy of needs and wider consultancy work. This helped to shift the leadership focus on making sure staff knew their jobs were safe, their work necessary to transformation, and where they belong in a disrupted business.
"There was so much cynicism in the organisation that we really needed to work hard to combat that and make sure people felt this was going to happen and had a reason to believe."
He ticked the needs off as he went. The consultancy also validated many of the pitched ideas around the paywall strategy, helping to chip away at senior pushback. HR departments worked on getting new people with digital skills into the building and cross-functional teams were devised across editorial, marketing and tech, working together on paywall implementation.
"Don't worry about getting it right, get it live," Dempsey says. The tech matters but it can be easily exposed. A paywall that works at launch can be ineffective two years down the line. The priority for INM was getting to the market quickly to start testing and improving.
"Don't be beguiled by the tech, this is not a tech project, it is a realignment of the whole business to be more customer-facing and that goes all the way through the business. At the outset of this project, I wouldn't have understood that fully."
It opted, as an example, to go with a local vendor Flip-Pay as its paywall provider. This offered a solution for identity payment data and customer care all in one product. There was a perceived quality risk at a board level but he made the counter-argument that more high-end products, like Piano, would delay implementation time and incur greater costs.
News agenda drives subscriptions
INM planned to implement the paywall since 2019 and started immediately to announce the upcoming changes to its audience and get those sign-ups poised.
It also helped to create change within the organisation, teaching the staff to value new metrics like 'engaged time' and weaning them off raw traffic metrics.
When the site launched with new fonts, tidier mastheads and a cleaner app layout, it tried to look like a premium product that those registered users would be willing to buy into.
He describes its position as a 'last movers advantage', where they could research other price points and trial a number of offers, codes and deals. Independent.ie base premium subscription comes in at £6 a month, compared to The Irish Times' £2.50 a week (£10 a month).
It is now focused on 'dialling the brand up to 11' and closing the gap between brand and product.
"[We want to] take our logotypes and make them eyeball-bleedingly obvious in terms of what the brand is, the colours are dialled up, the fonts are dialled up, everything is dialled up. When you bring that across into online components, suddenly in my mind it goes from a very recognisable set of patterns around a news website to something that feels a little more eye-catching and premium across the board."
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