Attending the annual Key Executives Mega-Conference for news publishers, this year hosted in Fort Worth, Texas, is my trusty method to gauge the state of the industry.
Having attended almost all of the past conferences, I can say that the newspaper industry continues to hang on with stubborn optimism — despite its well-documented financial challenges.
And it’s this strong sense of perseverance that draws me to the conference each year. Once again, I was impressed with the enthusiasm and cool confidence exhibited by attendees throughout the show.
Here were the highlights:
1. Continued Rise of Branded Content
The primary theme of the show was figuring out how to drive more revenue through digital opportunities, and none shone brighter than branded content.
Defined by the Content Marketing Institute as a sponsored partnership between brands and the media that encourages audiences to engage with the brand based on the informational value of its content, branded content has a lot going for it:
- 90% of media groups expect their branded content revenue to increase in 2020 (Pressboard Media)
- Branded content distributed through premium publishers sees 50% higher brand lift (Nielsen)
- 90% of people like custom content as a way for brands to engage with them (Financial Times Survey)
- Branded content is 22 times more engaging than display ads (Pressboard Media)
It was no surprise that branded content was easily given the most attention by speakers and industry panels at the conference. In fact, it wasn’t even close.
Executives from Tribune, McClatchy, The Denver Post, The Seattle Times and others ran through case study after case study highlighting campaigns that brought in high-margin revenue and delivered meaningful outcomes for advertisers.
As an example, The Denver Post ran an awareness and engagement campaign for the wireless provider Visible. Through branded content targeting millennials who frequent local speakeasies, the campaign drove impressive results for Visible, including more than 130 hours of reader time spent on the content. It also delivered a healthy 50% profit margin for the publisher.
2. Bold Innovation
While some newspapers looked to boost advertiser revenue, others sought to increase and retain subscribers — often through dramatic means.
I had the pleasure of having lunch with Walter Hussman, Jr. and his team from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The group was fresh off its win of the coveted Mega-Innovation Award for its groundbreaking efforts to boost and retain subscribers. Not surprisingly, they were humble and understated.
Hussman’s idea is startling in its audacity: Betting that subscribers prefer to read the Democrat-Gazette on iPads instead of the traditional print newspaper, they spent $12 million to give iPads to subscribers for free.
Spending $12 million on a program with no guarantee of success is a bold move. But desperate times would seem to call for desperate measures.
Why did Hussman take the chance? He knew the paper’s subscribers include seniors, who love the ability to zoom and increase the font size, making it easier to read. He also knew that including slideshows with multiple color photos, as well as video content, made the local news more compelling.
The iPad makes all of this easy. It also makes the sharing of content with friends and family much easier. And the iPad allows subscribers to store up to 60 issues of the paper in their account. Better yet, they never have to go the mailbox and deal with a wet or late newspaper.
The results have been impressive. To date, 90% of subscribers have enrolled. Reader engagement and time spent with the Democrat-Gazette’s content is up dramatically. And subscriber retention is improving. Hussman hopes the program will be profitable in 2020.
3. Women Leaders Transforming the Newspaper Industry
One of my favorite panels featured Mi-Ai Parrish, professor in media innovation and leadership from Arizona State University; PJ Browning, president of the Newspaper Division; and Julia Wallace, chair in the business of journalism at Arizona State University.
The panel spoke on the challenges women have historically faced in the industry — and the benefits that come when they are given the chance to perform and lead.
I was surprised to learn that women didn’t start working at newspapers until the 1930s, and by the mid-1970s most newspapers still employed only one female writer on average. Big improvements came in the ’80s and beyond, but surprisingly, a bit of regression has come within the last decade.
Why? One reason is the shift to more digital teams at newspapers that tend to be more male dominated. Another reason is the lack of opportunity given to women staff members.
All of this is disturbing to learn, especially given the distinctive talents and perspectives that women can bring to the table — especially at leadership positions. The panel made a compelling case, based on research, for empowering women and taking advantage of their unique skillset:
- Women-led companies have better overall job satisfaction than companies run by men
- Teams that include three or more women have improved results
- Women are excellent at dealing with crisis
- Women CEOs in Fortune 1000 companies drove 3x the returns as S&P 500 companies run by men
- Women are uniquely fit to lead in challenging times and in industries undergoing transitional change (Hint: Now would seem to be the perfect timing for the newspaper industry to embrace women leaders.)
Surely one of the best quotes of the conference came when Dave Kennedy, chief revenue officer at Oahu Publications, proclaimed on behalf of the entire industry: “We are continuing to finance the First Amendment.”
Kennedy is correct. And his comment underscores the massive importance of keeping independent journalism alive in a time of financial instability for traditional media outlets. It’s a daunting challenge. But I don’t see anyone giving up. In fact, I see energy and grit — the kind I wouldn’t bet against.