An enduring message as the World News Media Congress opened today, was that print-focussed news businesses are worth less.
Not worthless, but worth less, and as attention moves to subscription-based models, even what we know of as “news” may be less important.
More than 1000 publisher executives from 80 countries had registered for the four-day virtual WAN-Ifra event which takes the place of that which had been planned for Taipei this month.
After opening remarks from president Fernando de Yarza López-Madrazo – who also presides over Spanish media group Henneo – content moved to that area most likely to hold the attention of the high-Cs among the audience: what their business is worth, and which way it’s going.
Columbia university professor and fellow Damian Radcliffe fronted the emerging findings from WAN-Ifra’s 2022 World Press Trends survey – with its striking positivity – and Reuters Institute’s Rasmus Nielsen talked winners and losers… and the factors that differentiate them.
But it was Justin Eisenband of US-based FTI Consulting who put a dollar value on that, following a year in which merger and acquisition activity had surged and the valuation multiple “varied significantly”. Right up to last week’s Alden offer for Lee Enterprises, recovering values had accompanied a ten-year high in transactions and volume in that country, with “significant amounts” of consolidation.
Eisenband (pictured) cited growth in the New York Times’ stock price, mirroring that of its digital subscription model, to support the argument that consumer-driven publishers were simply worth more.
It’s also a game for big players, he says, with scale critical both to drive revenue, and synergies in reducing costs.
Winners were also those fastest into other areas, with more newspapers diversifiying from core news products to develop vertical and B2B-focused products.
“More than a quarter of NYT subscribers are on non-news products,” he said.
And with digital media multiples far exceeding those of traditional newspapers, both from a revenue and EBITDA standpoint – “for good reasons,” Eisenband says – he questioned whether traditional newspapers were undervalued.
On the digital-only potential of newspapers, “we know there is material legacy print revenue that can be transitioned, but how much,” he asked, given the 50 per cent from home-delivery print subscribers who “may eventually transition” and other potential earnings.
Despite “unanswered questions”, all of this indicated that newspapers were undervalued, given “significant untapped digital revenue opportunities”.
With huge growth in areas such as branded content – new products with higher CPMs – the outlook was good for businesses “at both ends of the barbell”, though problems might arise for those in the middle, neither big enough, nor focused enough.
Despite de Yarza López-Madrazo’s warnings of “unprecedented existential threats” and challenges to media freedom, initial findings from the annual World Press Trends survey had been overwhelmingly optimistic.
Columbia’s Damian Radcliffe talked of a glass more than half full. “It was striking how positive the vast majority of respondents were,” he said, although differences were surprisingly most noticeable between publishers in developed and developing economies.
A vast majority were confident of their progress with digital transformation, and it was those from developing countries who expected the biggest increases from digital – 16.5 per cent expecting growth led by digital advertising and 14.3 per cent looking to readership revenue. Print remained very important for more than 56 per cent of respondents, and large proportions looked to diversification through events, grants, spin-off business and e-commerce.
Perhaps worryingly, 21 per cent were “pretty happy as they are”, a similar proportion to those in developing countries still expecting good profits.
Other pointers from the survey included the rebound in the staffing levels – “perhaps at surprising speed” – and the better relationships with frenemies, perhaps due to a change of balance in places such as Australia, prompting moderator Lisa MacLeod now of UK subscription consultancy FT Strategies, to ask what was behind the optimism, maybe a post-COVID bump?
While Radcliffe agreed, he thought it more likely that, given “18 months of it”, publishers might simply have had time to develop more robust revenue strategies. There was interest too, in what membership might look like, especially in developing countries, where “a more fluid relationship” might be necessary.
For Reuters, Nielsen showed charts – some of them skewed by country – that pointed to the demise of print and long-term decline of TV news, despite a pandemic bounce.
He noted that the dynamics of digital subscriptions saw some publishers “doing quite well for themselves”, although often with a winner taking all. The COVID-19 pandemic had accelerated digital change, benefitting “a few winners” but putting further pressure on traditional models.
One area of discussion was the proportion of readers who “went direct” for their news – just 25 per cent, and even fewer for younger demographics – rather than seeking it via social media.
Notable was the strong direct market in Hong Kong, plus Finland and Norway, and Australia’s “pick-and-mix” approach – also found to a lesser extent in Canada and the US – while the Philippines and Malaysia were “mostly social” and Japan deeply aggregated. And while publishers were mostly confident they could recruit journalists, data and tech staff were more of a problem.
A question about diversity and fairness in news unsurprisingly found white readers in the US were happy with coverage, but not “black” readers. While the media had focused on gender diversity, other areas such as ethnic, advantage, and to lesser extent political diversity had been neglected. While most publishers were now collecting information to enable them to respond, only 29 per cent had a budget to do anything about it.
Findings about remote working were that it was good for the e’s of efficiency and employee wellbeing, but less good for c’s… creativity, communication and collaboration.
There were also questions about attracting talent, dealing with fairness and diversity, how much further pay models can go, and how to take care of “the whole newsroom”.
With the consensus that people will only pay for online news if asked, Neilsen said the differentiator was outstanding journalism and an excellent product, although in some markets there was “a real risk pay becomes a pivot, that it won’t work just as video didn’t”.
“Make sure your product is worth paying for,” he said. “I want a good experience. You should solve people’s problems and build the business from that.”
The programme continued with sessions on the use of data in content planning, building equitable, safe, and sustainable newsrooms – a roundtable featuring WAN-Ifra’s Women in News editorial leadership award laureates – and further discussion of trends impacting transformation strategies with specific perspectives from JP/Politikens Hus and Schibsted.
The conference continues until Thursday. Tomorrow’s speakers include regional heroes Sinead Boucher – who now owns New Zealand’s Stuff Limited – Jagran New Media chief executive Bharat Gupta, and Retno Pinasti, who is special assistant to the chairman and chief editor of SCTV & Indosiar, Emtek in Indonesia.
Find the full programme here. GXpress is a media partner.