LMA’s Innovation Sleuth Finds ‘Compelling’ Breakthroughs in News Industry

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Jed Williams is the Local Media Association’s Innovation Mission tour leader. So far this year, Williams has led a week-long bicoastal national tour to media business companies like Google, Gannett, Tribune Broadcasting, McClatchy, Spirited Media and Matter in May, as well as three shorter regional tours — the most recent being three days in the Boston area in late June that included stops at GateHouse Media, Brightcove, Boston Globe, Cxense and HubSpot and Entercom.

To find out what these Innovation Missions turn up and mean for the local news industry, I put these questions to the peripatetic Williams:

I see a lot of innovation going on behind the scenes that doesn’t get the publicity of acquisitions and startups and other headline events. Where is the local news industry in innovation today, based on what you find and see?
You’re hitting on an important point. It’s easy to laser in on the splashy headlines about M&A activity and innovation reports, but quietly, there’s a palpable spirit of innovation at work in local media across newspapers, broadcasters, and pure plays. They may not necessarily be scooping up startups, but they are doggedly testing new products and platforms, and striving to diversify their business models. On recent Innovation Missions, we’ve seen compelling work being done by the Dallas Morning News, Gannett, GateHouse, McClatchy, Entercom and others.

These companies are also making innovation as much about people as products and process. Creating breakthroughs requires a different mental model, and that often requires new DNA.

Do you think the industry is approaching a sea change that could match and perhaps even succeed the first major breakthroughs in the digital space in the aught decade?
There’s no doubt in my mind. It comes down to two drivers: mobile and data. Mobile technology has fundamentally changed the way we do almost everything in our lives, and media consumption is at the top of that list. Storytelling is completely different. Reader expectations on mobile are wildly different than on other devices. The mandate is clear: if media producers don’t create delightful – and fast! – mobile experiences, readers will abandon them. Meanwhile, the amount of data that’s pouring through these pipes is mind-blowing. 90% of the world’s data has been created in the last two years alone! This opens up tremendous opportunities if media can access all of it, synthesize it, and then put it to work to produce better products and experiences.

Technology is becoming so embedded in how digital news takes shape. Are text and video reporters and editors as well as producers learning not only how to deal with this trend but also exploit it for better user experiences?
Yes, to a certain degree. There’s still a long way to go in areas such as video production and new platform distribution. But there’s a lot of progress being made! Journalists are leveraging technology and tools to tell stories in more ways than ever. And they are becoming more adept at telling stories differently on different platforms to maximize the value of each point of distribution. A story on Facebook is consumed quite differently – and likely by a different reader – than one on Twitter or on a website.

The LMA’s Jed Williams

What are some of the innovations from your Innovation Mission tour that stand out as exemplars in the news industry?
What’s striking to me is the clear shift toward adopting a customer-first mentality – at last! Here are a few of the headlines: Mobile load times must be faster. Stories must be told in the forms and on the platforms that engage audiences. Personalization matters, and can drive generate loyalty. Advertising experiences must be cleaner. We’re seeing this take shape in lots of ways, from testing with Facebook Instant Articles and Google AMP to evolving websites to infinite scrolling to ramping up live video streaming.

There’s a lot of work still to do, but it’s refreshing to see the industry genuinely focused on delighting consumers.

We’re hearing more about “dwell time” by users instead of unique visits and pageviews. Any innovations here you want to single out?
There’s a renewed focus by many in the industry on metrics that truly matter. How important is a pageview? Do we even know? On a recent Innovation Mission visit to Gannett, their VP of Product and VP of Advertising Innovation both emphasized that they are re-orienting around new key performance indicators to assess performance. They’re looking much more at metrics like attention quality, hover rate and dwell time…and less at broad-based traffic metrics (PVs, CPMs, etc.).

That’s just one example. There’s a broad industry focus on “where does our traffic come from, and what do they do when they arrive?” And then, “How can we keep them, and what would we like them to do next?”

Do you see innovation finally helping the industry to leverage the digital space into a healthy rate of monetization?
The trend is picking up. I think the paramount challenge for local media leaders is: will we allow innovation the necessary room to breathe and blossom, even if there isn’t an immediate revenue uptick? Innovation, whether for consumers or advertisers, isn’t a “just add water” phenomenon. Monetization can take time, and monetization at scale can take a long time. Business models evolve; they don’t materialize overnight.

There are two principal areas where I see monetization beginning to follow innovation:

  • Leveraging data to build rich consumer profiles and robust databases, then personalizing content and experiences to their tastes. This is part of the diversified, direct consumer revenue model that I mentioned earlier.
  • Creating high-impact advertiser experiences that are finely targeted to their desired customers. In other words, we’re beginning to move beyond static displays ads that canvass everyone.

You singled out the Boston Globe as the leader in digital subscriptions. Does the Globe have a “secret sauce”?
Above all, it’s their resolve to succeed in direct consumer revenue. I think they would tell you there isn’t a “secret sauce,” per se (and they were frank about that in our meeting with them). However, they understand the value of their brand and the uniqueness of their market, and they are relentlessly focused on figuring out the right value exchange with readers that motivates them to pay for quality content. They have been testing this for years: hard paywall, soft paywall, different metered approaches, newsletter conversions, and more

Are local news “pure-plays” into innovation as ambitiously as daily newspapers?
Definitely. In fact, in several cases, I see pure plays (both local and non-local) pushing the boundaries of business model innovation and revenue diversity. Take Spirited Media, for example. Jim Brady is building a local content network that isn’t overly-reliant on any one revenue source. Digital advertising is less than 50 percent of the pie, with events, membership and affiliate commerce all part of the longer-term plan.

There are lots of other examples: Texas Tribune, Voice of San Diego, Talking Points Memo, Barstool Sports, The Information, Cheddar. The ties that bind all of them are a focus on distinct, high-quality content for a well-defined audience, and then building strong relationships with that audience to monetize them in various ways. Advertising is only one element of that.

What do LMA members who are news providers want most of all that has eluded them?
I think it’s a different answer today than a few years ago. In the past, it might have been the elusive “silver bullet” that’s going to save the industry. I think local media leaders are smarter and more realistic now. They realize that there isn’t going to be a panacea. It’s less about lurching at new, shiny objects, and more about building the discipline, culture and skills to incubate innovation within their companies. So, when we meet with a company – take HubSpot on our recent Boston IM, for example – it’s less about what HubSpot is doing (although that’s interesting) and more about the “why” and “how” behind how they make critical decisions.

Can a small, one-town news pure-play afford to get into innovation – or is it reserved for the big digital players?
I might re-phrase it and suggest “Can they afford not to?” Granted, innovation at a small-town newspaper or a single-market pure-play means something very different than innovation at The New York Times or the Washington Post. In fact, I believe we do a disservice to smaller media companies when we over-focus on developments at global leaders like the Post and the Times. While inspiring, they are not particularly relatable to the long tail.

Smaller players probably aren’t going to have dedicated innovation teams, but it doesn’t mean that they can’t give their employees the freedom and support to build new products and test new ways of content delivery. Also, technology is constantly lowering the barrier to entry in areas such as video and digital agency, which makes these opportunities more accessible.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.