Tightening paywalls allows publishers to focus on readers who pay for journalism

CEOs of three top publications at the recent Asian Media Leaders eSummit came together to discuss COVID’s impact on business, the transition from print to digital, and the revenue tussle between media companies and big tech. The panel comprised Sandy Prieto-Romualdez, Chairperson, Inquirer Group of Companies, Philippines; Andy Budiman, CEO, KG Media, Indonesia; and James Chessell, Managing Director, Publishing, Nine, Australia. The session was chaired by Chris Janz, Media Adviser, Australia.

What are a few lessons that you, as publishers, have learned from the pandemic?

Sandy Prieto-Romualdez: The biggest challenge came from the print side of operations with deliveries to certain areas being affected by the pandemic. We had to pick and choose which resources to invest in, lost some of our news outlets, and focused on the ones we retained, with a purpose to continue producing quality content.

Surviving through the pandemic required tough decision-making but it also brought out new appreciation for the work we do every day. However, it has also been a great time to discover new talent and skill sets. For instance, we got our video reporters doing some excellent podcasting.

Andy Budiman: We realised that not all growth during the pandemic is long-lasting. This is reflected in the stock market as well, with Netflix and Facebook share prices basically back to pre-pandemic levels. For several publishers, COVID spurred a dramatic growth in traffic, but presently our page views have come back to pre-pandemic levels. I guess nobody wants to read about the pandemic after it has subsided, at least in this part (Indonesia) of the world.

On the other hand, KG Media took initiatives during the pandemic that have resulted in long-lasting growth. We invested in video production and developed a KG Media digital ad network, both of which still significantly contribute to our revenue growth.

We have a TV station so the transformation from free-to-air content to digital video content has not been very difficult. We reproduce what’s on free-to-air to digital content and put it on YouTube, Instagram and our own video platform. However, for text-based products such as the newspaper and digital media websites, it’s been quite a transformation to move to video-based content.

The fastest way to earn money through video production would be the same as for text-based content, which is through programmatic. Since our content on YouTube is out of our control, it is monetised through the AdSense engine. However, this dependency on Google and YouTube cannot be the only source of revenue. So, we also sell advertising for video by our direct sales team through sponsored projects. We are also thinking of producing more quality content to sell to local OTT streams.

James Chessell: Yes, COVID has been very good for business. For one, people turned to trusted news sources for accurate and quality information about how their lives would be affected by the pandemic. Unfortunately, mainstream news is often associated as pejorative but it really held up as a source of trusted news over the course of the pandemic. Secondly, the utility aspect of the pandemic was indeed unique. Often you get that with stories like elections but with all the lockdowns and associated issues with this, utility played a big role.

But of course, we have witnessed a COVID fatigue set in ever since people have been trying to get on with their lives.

What do you think about people continuing to work from home? Is it important that employees get back to the physical offices?

Sandy Prieto-Romualdez: Working completely from home or office come with their sets of pluses and minuses. With working from home, people manage to save on several hours of commuting, be more productive and have a good work-life balance. However, a few things such as training sessions and brainstorming do work better in person. So, we are attempting to see how we can adapt a hybrid working model to have the best of both those options.

James Chessell: While I completely accept that the world has changed, we’ve transitioned to a three-day a week model for our newsrooms. However, it’s hard to generalise since there are a few roles which work better when working from the office, such as print.

Another thing that has not been mentioned enough about the working-from-home experience is the stress it has put on managers, who not only have their bosses to report to but also manage teams of 11-13 people. It is exhausting to make phone calls every time you want to have a chat as opposed to just walking over to the relevant person. To support these managers, it is essential for journalists to be back to office at least a few times a week.

Several young reporters have also missed out on opportunities that come with interacting with senior journalists in the newsroom. Being in the office not only helps with the training and development end but also aids in socialising and forging relationships, which I feel has been lost and needs to come back.

Where do we stand on digital subscriptions versus digital advertising and how do they vary across geographies?

Andy Budiman: Digital subscription is an important product for us and it grew through the pandemic. Albeit small, the number grows steadily. For most of us, subscriptions are the spiritual successor of the newspaper. They reach the same segment of influential audience who appreciates high-quality news and has the propensity to pay for it.

However, in Indonesia, digital subscription alone is not the ultimate solution to sustainability. We still need to explore many avenues with the power of our trusted news brand.

Sandy Prieto-Romualdez: What’s difficult about getting into the subscription business in the Philippines is that none of the websites actually have a paywall. So, it’s been a bit of paddling upstream. We are discussing if we could build publisher alliances, like in other countries, or one of us is just going to bite the bullet and do it. Our neighbouring Asian countries all have already started testing the subscription waters with the freemium model. We now have to take a look at what the data is showing us.

James Chessell: The commercial side has seen less impact than you would expect. The Australian Financial Review has had a hard paywall, longer than any publication in the world. The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have transitioned to registration walls from incredibly open paywalls.

A key concern for us was whether that would impact our overall traffic because we still rely on digital advertising, notwithstanding the structural challenges in that space. We see it as a key earnings stream as we transition to an even more subscriber-focused newsroom. But where we really changed our business was more on the content and editorial strategy side. It allowed us to focus on journalism that was important to subscribers rather than a broad audience. The newsrooms have really embraced that and are more focused on higher end journalism. We operate in an environment where there’s a national broadcaster/newsroom – Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) – which is free. Also, The Guardian has a reasonable presence in Australia and it’s free, too. So, we need to focus on quality rather than on quantity.

How important is print to the media business, today and also in the future?

Andy Budiman: Our majority of profit is generated through digital products, and not print. That said, print still reaches what we think is the most influential audience in Indonesia – the decision makers in private and government sectors. So, as long as this audience still reads and trusts our newspaper, print still has influence and purpose. As print becomes increasingly niche, we notice the print audience has a high willingness to pay for the product. This year, we increased the cover price of our Kompas newspaper by 45 percent and expected a huge drop in circulation, but the drop is not drastic.

How does the year ahead look like for you?

James Chessell: We’ve been in a low inflation environment in Australia for quite some time, which has supported some of the investment gone into our newsrooms. But we’re now looking at an incredibly tight labour market in Australia, high petrol prices, wage claims. It will be interesting to see how newsrooms, not just in Australia, but around the world, deal with higher inflation environments. There’s several positive things I could say about finding innovative ways to attract subscribers, but if you’re looking hard at the operational side of your business, cost is a key concern, opportunity and potential threat at the moment.

Andy Budiman: The advertising market is a litmus test of the economy. In Indonesia, we have started to see a slowdown already throughout last April, which is unusual because April is Ramadan month where advertising spending normally peaks. When we reach the worst of the worst, and we saw this with COVID, people tend to turn to trusted sources to help manage their own situations. And that’s where we have a role to perform.

Sandy Prieto-Romualdez: We are hopeful that all that you build, your brand is actually worth it. What’s going to distinguish you from the other platforms is putting your resources behind that.

(SOURCE: WAN-IFRA)

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