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“Digital disruption comes in waves, it is not just a linear upgrade of software, it’s a transformation,” said Alberto Barreiro, chief experience officer at Spanish media conglomerate Prisa.

Barreiro spoke at WAN-IFRA’s Digital Media Europe event in Vienna today (20 April) about the group’s priorities in the digital space, with a particular emphasis on how daily newspaper El País, which Prisa owns among other titles, is responding to this change.

“We cannot talk about digital strategy,” Barreiro added, “but about our strategy in a digital world where we have to deal with the consequences of technology.”

He said the biggest threat publishers face is their own “sense of comfort”, encouraged by the fact that most of them have managed to survive the “first wave of digital disruption”.

The first wave, Barreiro said, also known as the time where traditional media companies went online, was characterised by:

  • large investment in technology

  • experiments with charging for content

  • a conflictive relationship with platforms

  • a growing struggle to match audiences with advertisers

  • competition that remained largely ensconced within the media industry

  • a delayed clash in newsroom culture.

But the media industry is currently trying to ride the second wave and stay afloat, navigating the waters alongside companies such as Facebook and Google, often competing for people’s time and attention with them.

“The media is now all over the place. We are not .com anymore and who knows, maybe we are in the process of disappearing as a destination.

“But the interface is where all the value and profit are, so whoever controls that interface controls the business,” Barreiro argued, pointing at initiatives such as Google's Accelerated Mobile Pages and Facebook Instant Articles.

So in the second phase of digital change, publishers should be concerned with putting readers at the core of their work, using audience data smarter and offering people mobility across their different products, on mobile, desktop and distributed channels, he added.

How are these changes being implemented at El País?

To start with, the outlet has the freedom of experimenting with video on the web thanks to its already established presence and brand, said Barreiro.

El País’s video coverage of the Spanish election debate last year had more than two million simultaneous live viewers, which allowed it to compete directly with the country’s most popular broadcasters for people’s attention at prime time and "build affinity".

To put digital at its core, literally, El País had adopted a revamped newsroom structure, where the print product has taken a step back and digital distribution is now central and surrounded by the outlet’s different desks and departments.

For news outlets who are wondering whether or not they’re on the right path to becoming digital-first, or how far they are from getting there, Barreiro provided a diagram that placed digital natives on one side and “migrant media” on the other – “try to position yourself on this axis and see how far you can take it from there”.

He said El País is measuring success by looking at how efficient the outlet is when it comes to cutting down costs and “producing the same quality with a more efficient layout of resources”.

Barreiro envisions a strong presence for advertising-based business models in news, but he said the “quality relationship between people and companies goes deeper than just the traditional display ad” and it can be broken down into four key components: talent, technology, distribution networks and a title’s brand.

“We need to keep all these components alive if we want to do contextualised advertising.

“And we should also ask ourselves how much branded content can we produce and what value it brings, versus maintaining our identity?”

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