This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on FT Strategies and has been republished here with permission from the author
I recently attended a great roundtable discussion with a number of non-media folk to discuss customer retention tactics. I was talking to an industry expert about the work we do at FT Strategies, and explaining how one of the primary pillars of our focus with news organisations is the graduation from print to digital. "Still?", she asked incredulously.
"Yes. Amazing isn't it?"
I can barely believe that digital transformation has been top of the agenda in the media industry for close to 20 years already.
However, in my own experience and having visited multiple newsrooms globally over the years, for every one editorial team that has done the hard and demanding work of digital transformation, there are many, many more that have not. Where would your newsroom fit?
See if any of this sounds familiar to you:
- Editorial functions pretty much the same as it always has: with a large part of the effort dedicated to print and a small (likely separate) team working on digital
- Deadlines still reflect a print mindset: copy is filed late in the day, and if it makes its way online this will likely happen after the print edition has closed, or in some cases very late the next day
- There is a pervasive fear that digital will "cannibalise" the print edition, so early copy publishing is not regular practice unless it is done by a different team creating their own – often very different – web content
- The C-suite and executives talk about "going digital" but there is little real interest, investment or commitment to making this happen, and new hires are just replicas of the old hires
- There is a paywall in place, or being planned, but the task of growing and retaining subscriptions will fall to commercial or marketing teams
- Marketing and commercial teams circumvent editorial as much as possible and try to build a subscription business on copy that is late, old or irrelevant by the time it reaches its audience
I think the last point is most interesting. As the news industry has (finally) woken up to the idea that paying for journalism is not a new concept, there has been a rush to establish reader revenue models which promise the annuity revenue and stability that digital advertising cannot.
While paid-for content is absolutely correct as a concept, the execution is far more difficult – and one of the reasons for this is a real fear of trying to tackle and change editorial workflows, cadence and practices to service a digital, willing-to-pay audience.
The universal truth in news organisations globally is the separation of "church and state". There is no doubt that editorial integrity should be protected at all costs. But in this modern world the notion that newsrooms should have little or no role in commercial endeavours – including subscription growth – is becoming increasingly obsolete - if not completely counterproductive to sustainability and growth.
As newsrooms become more representative, younger and dynamic and we pay more attention to audience diversity, there is no place for static thinking about our place in the world.
Reader revenue models help newsrooms transform digitally
The establishment of reader revenue models (subscription or membership) at so many news organisations is positive not only for revenue generation but also for the toughest challenge of organisational and cultural change.
A paywall has a galvanising effect on journalists who do not want to see their hard work going on a website for free – and for newsroom leaders it helps with adjusted workflows and better copy flow to publish valuable journalism with a clear value proposition for readers.
Reader revenue strategies are entirely in lockstep with quality journalism, and not with the high volume game of clickbait and churnalism. More importantly, for a paid model to be truly successful it will be enormously strengthened by the input and commitment of all: and this means editorial too.
When newsrooms are at worst actively campaigning against transformation initiatives - such as refusing to do any digital publishing, not attending digital training, treating digitally skilled staffers as inferior, citing labour contracts that do not include digital work… the list goes on - it leaves organisations in a really tough spot.
The answer at this point is very simple: strong leadership. In a recent study, created in collaboration with the Google News Initiative, we found that leadership is a pivotal factor for sustainability and the growth and success of news organisations.
It is this trust and leadership from editors that will ultimately make the difference in the long-term fortunes of news organisations. Print is and will remain a premium product with a definitive market niche. But to ignore the commercial realities – and digital opportunities – of our industry is to be no better than the band leader on the Titanic.
Success lies in a common goal and purpose and having all staff in the same lifeboat and pulling in the same direction is the only way to leverage growth and guarantee sustainability.
Lisa MacLeod is the director of FT Strategies, the subscriptions consultancy from the Financial Times. She has more than 25 years of experience in print-to-digital transformation, most notably at the Financial Times where she led newsroom operations, was an assistant editor and managing editor, associate editor and head of operations for FT.com.
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