What It Takes for Legacy Media Companies to Innovate and Thrive

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Idea Light Bulb Conceptual Work on Blackboard

As the media industry spins further away from the long-established familiarity of print models, its companies — large and small, old and new, hyperlocal and international — are hurrying to implement a plan for long-term sustainability. Three organizations with creative solutions spoke on a panel at LOCALCON in London last week about their strategies for keeping legacy media profitable. Axel Springer’s Head of Data Innovation, Jana Moser, was joined onstage by Ross Webster, The Weather Company’s EMEA Managing Director, and Trinity Mirror’s Director of New Businesses, Matthew Colebourne, in a talk moderated by the Wall Street Journal’s EMEA Audience Development Editor, Sarah Marshall.

According to Moser, Axel Springer, which generates $600 million in revenue per year (60 percent of which comes from digital), has found success in investing in companies that excel at embracing and creating new models. The German company, which recently purchased Business Insider, partnered with the international startup accelerator Plug and Play to help find those companies, and has developed something of a motto, Moser said: “Try things out. Don’t stick with what you already know.”

Rather than simply mimic what other companies are doing, Axel Springer looks to fold them into its existing structure in a careful dance of knowing limits while staying ambitious. How ambitious? “Companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon are trying to create a data ecosystem around the consumer and be with the consumer the entire day,” Moser said. “That’s something we want to do as well.”

Axel Springer is a publisher that maintains content marketing and classifieds verticals, and though its offerings are fairly comprehensive — price comparisons, job portals, home rentals, and more — “there are some gaps we’re trying to fill,” like ecommerce, Moser said. “Understanding startup approaches and attitudes toward disruption allows us to learn how to change and adapt.”

In the end, it’s all about monetizing data, specifically “trying to incentivize data usage and increase understanding of how data is important,” Moser said. “You have to understand its purpose and why in the end it will drive your business. It’s the glue between different portfolios.”

Trinity Mirror has a similar mentality. “We make investments in third-party companies, trying to create an incubator,” Colebourne said. “The ones that have worked, we’ve nurtured and then got into our business. What’s been critical for us is picking the point where you put a business into the main group.”

The big picture of Colebourne’s position is to help finance Trinity Mirror’s journalism. “We’re creating a new tomorrow, using the assets of the group to generate new business models in strategic key areas,” he said.  Like Axel Springer, data has become an enormously important resource for the company, particularly within the context of pinpoint, its advertising network that geoprofiles and sells to its app users. Those users are “our best audience in terms of content consumption,” Colebourne said.

Ultimately, Trinity Mirror is finding that the technology surrounding local advertising and data collection is the leg-up in an increasingly commoditized industry. “You can get the same news from 20 different outlets,” Colebourne said. “It’s hard to distinguish yourself [as a publisher]…But we’ve always been good at selling local media to local advertisers.” And so the company is choosing to direct its resources toward technology that can help it continue on that path, albeit in more sophisticated ways than before.

Webster offered a different perspective; The Weather Company has pivoted from media to product technology in recent years, the result of a change in leadership and an acquisition from IBM. The Weather Company realized that its potential for impact was in the enormous amount of information it collects in the form of 26 billion weather forecasts every day. “We thought the value was within the data itself, in a platform that could pull that data together to bring more intuitive decision-making to businesses,” Webster said.

Like Trinity Mirror, The Weather Company is building its advertising business into something of undeniable importance for its current and future partners. Journalism plus advertising can still be the equation for legacy companies hoping to compete with the newer guard of tech-focused media websites for consumer attention; it’s just a matter of accepting the fact that both of those components look a lot different now.

Annie Melton is Street Fight’s news editor.