Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Why premium publishers matter: the case for funding journalism

“What we’re doing is funding journalism, right?” says CNN’s Faisal Karmali of the so-called digital value exchange and the need to educate their readers of just that. 

 “It’s not that we are just trying to create content to make money, it’s that we are trying to find commercial models to keep our journalism going,” he adds at an exclusive publisher-led debate hosted by New Digital Age and LiveRamp

 Tina Lakhani, Head of Ad Tech at IAB UK, Elliot Hemmings, Senior Agency Partner & Telegraph Champion at The Ozone Project; Faisal Karmali, Senior Director of Business Operations, CNN International Commercial, Bedir Aydemir Head of Audience at News UK and Phil McMullan, Evening Standard Head of Insight and Data joined LiveRamp’s Head of Publisher Strategy Simon Burgess and Nora Schwab, Director Publisher Development UK in conversation with New Digital Age Editor Justin Pearse. It follows the publication of a LiveRamp report ‘Building the Future of Publishing: The Fightback in 2020.

 That distinction is what sets premium publishers apart from much of the rest of the web, but as an industry that adapted to online rather than being born on it has put it at a disadvantage.

Moving the value-exchange dial

 The panellists worry that the true value exchange is seen neither by consumers nor, sometimes, by advertisers although they believe the needle is starting to move as regulators and browsers force privacy changes.

 Events such as the US elections, Brexit and most notably the coronavirus pandemic have placed a reader premium on trusted sources of information.

 As McMullan says: “It feels like that last year was like an inflection point, like this flight to quality, of consumers wanting to go to trusted sources of information. And [they were] not necessarily finding that in the walled gardens, but in the tried and trusted publishers which actually investigate and use proper sources for the information.”

 He continues: “I see this year as one of publishers taking back control from what has been the walled gardens driving the direction of the publishing industry for the last 20 years.”

 Now is the time for publishers to work together to build better relationships with those customers, he adds.

Burgess says the time is ripe to leverage those relationships during a period when readers and advertisers are increasingly looking for reassurance around issues such as fake news and inappropriate content. This, particularly so, as consumers become more aware about where their information comes from and how their data is used.

He advocates an industry body initiative to “fight the fight for premium publishers: that these are trusted environments, providing a transparent value exchange in return for data”. There remains a disconnect between consumer perception and reality of the value exchange within the publishing environment.

 Karmali believes there needs to be an industry voice to drive this agenda, in addition to individual publications’ efforts to persuade people of the value of what they get versus what they give and how their privacy is protected. 

Why the industry must come together to educate consumers on data and privacy

Trade bodies do have a part to play in this education piece, says the IAB’s Lakhani. “As an industry, there is an ongoing job to educate consumers about how data was collected and when it’s used and who it’s used by.”

 She is confident that changes in the industry, such as the blocking of third-party cookies, means “this is something that will just continue to improve, like the trust that consumers have in our industry” and also points to Project Rearc’s working groups on privacy.  

 Aydemir says the hope a few years ago was that if consumers were just educated “a bit better” they would just “give up this data, or they would accept that they’re getting this amazing content for free in return for viewing ads”, but this was not necessarily so. There remains a disconnect between what it is they are getting, usually for free, and how much it costs to fund premium publishing and advertising’s role in funding it. 

 He says the Guardian, with its loyal readers, has had success with its subscription and donation drive. “But you know, even so, the vast majority of readers are not donating,” he says. “It just goes to show how hard it is to convince the public that there is value exchange.”

Learning from publishers’ early digital mistakes

The Telegraph, says Hemmings, has seen success in growing an audience of paying subscribers. In the past year, their numbers have increased by a third which shows that more people are increasingly happy to pay for quality journalism. To be successful though, you must put the subscriber first and ensure that everything you do is best-in-class.

 Burgess largely concurs, crediting The Telegraph for building a particular relationship with its readers but adds: “I do think there’s a challenge for publishers that perhaps aren’t in the same situation.”

He continues: “Each individual publisher has its own challenges to work out. Ask – what is the audience, what are they willing or wanting to accept, and how so? Then consider how to package that up to make it valuable enough from either a money or data perspective for consumers to make the exchange.”

McMullan bemoans the early mistakes of publishers moving online and says it has created the need now for publishing to reframe itself. He says: “We, as publishers, gave away our content for free from around the year 2000.

 “It is now a reframing exercise to demonstrate that actually, we spend hundreds of millions of pounds every year, searching out those stories and creating that editorial content. And, like any commercial organisation, we need to make money.”