"Can legacy media challenge the online pure players?", asked a panel at the GEN Summit in Vienna yesterday (16 June).
Chaired by BBC visual journalism editor Amanda Farnsworth, the panel brought together Jim Roberts, international consultant and Mashable's former chief content officer, and Rainer Esser, general manager, Die Zeit, to discuss the dynamics between legacy brands and digital native media organisations.
"What legacy editors had to learn is to take the reader and what he likes to read more seriously," explained Esser.
"In former times, legacy editors, they wanted to teach the audience. From BuzzFeed and Vice and Mashable, they learned that they should focus more – not exclusively but much more than in former times – on what the audience wants to read.
"We talk all the time nowadays with our readers. When we invent a new section in our paper we discuss it and we model it with our readers."
Apart from inspiring him to listen to the audience and create a dialogue with people, Esser told delegates he does not particularly admire the digital natives.
A strategy change at Mashable in April saw many of its news staff lose their jobs, with Roberts among the casualties.
"It was a big personal blow to me, but it was also a bit of a wake up call for much of digital media.
"I am not the first person to suggest that there has been a bubble in digital media. Times are difficult," said Roberts, reflecting on his departure from Mashable.
He urged legacy media brands to learn from their relationship with digital natives over the last few years.
He explained how, for the larger part, legacy brands have been followers, allowing new media to lead the way in innovative storytelling and products.
Instead, he said, they should be leaders, not followers. This "legacy" could in fact be an advantage.
Between 60 to 70 per cent of traffic to Die Zeit comes to the homepage, at a time where many in the industry have proclaimed its death.
"We have this huge homepage traffic because of our legacy, because of the high trust people have in our brand.
"Therefore we can monetise our homepage very successfully, and Zeit Online is profitable."
Under 10 per cent of traffic to Zeit Online comes from Facebook – and although this number has been growing in the last few years, it is still less than the percentage many other publishers report.
Esser said that publishing all of their stories on Facebook would be a "loony" strategy for Die Zeit, but they would "cooperate with everybody that makes sense short of the devil".
Roberts also highlighted the benefits of a collaboration between legacy brands and digital natives, pointing to BuzzFeed working with the BBC on the match fixing investigation as an example.
He recalled the resistance of editors at The New York Times when he proposed a collaboration with BuzzFeed in one of his former roles at the title a few years ago, before BuzzFeed was seen as a more serious news outlet.
"Those opportunities should continue to be pursued," he said. "If I were still at Mashable, I would be looking to work with partners that were a bit on the old-school side, so we can benefit again from mutual strengths."
However, his predictions for the future of digital natives are cautious.
"I think that we will inevitably see a shakeout in the world of digital publishers.
"A great deal of investment has come into these companies and I think that's beginning to slow.
He does not believe the world will be as populated with pure play digital publications in the next few years. "But some have incredible staying power," he added.
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