A new book examines five leading media organizations that are successfully making digital news work - for now at least. “Innovators in Digital News” has some important lessons for those adapting to the digital world.
Why are some news organizations better than others when it comes to surviving the changing news world? To find some answers to this question, media scholar Lucy Küng took a close look at five successful news outlets, both new and old.
Through interviews and research, her book “Innovators in Digital News” examines the Guardian and the New York Times, two traditional media outlets which have developed into leading digital organizations, as well as Quartz, Buzzfeed and Vice, new players which publish purely digital content.
The in-depth case studies, which highlight the commonalities and differences in how these organizations have faced the digital challenge, provide valuable insights for others.
The Guardian: Global, open, digital
The Guardian's digital strategy of “global, open, digital” was based on the notion of providing its digital content for free. In order to pursue its strategy, the Guardian sought to broaden its reach both by expanding to new media platforms and by targeting international audiences, comprising what former editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger called a “global community of liberal intelligent people." In this, the Guardian's website profited from the English language's prominence in today's world.
With its strong commitment to investigative journalism, the Guardian is now a digital/print hybrid and a leading global news brand. However, although digital revenues from activities such as membership schemes and e-commerce activities are rising, the Guardian Media Group as a whole runs at a loss.
The New York Times: Digitizing 'The Gray Lady'
Like the Guardian, the New York Times also started its digital activities relatively early on, launching its website in 1996, and a plethora of other digital projects followed. The organization also started to hire technicians early in the game, giving it a certain advantage in the digital field.
Apps for mobile devices and ventures like the Upshot, a unit that provides data-driven analysis of politics, economics and policy, were designed to reach a younger, digital and mobile audience.
The New York Times has also experimented with diverse ways of generating revenue, such as a metered paywall and native advertising, a form of online advertising where ads are made to look like regular editorial content. But rising digital revenues were not sufficient to balance losses from print.
Mark Thompson, a former BBC Director General who became the CEO of the New York Times Company in 2012, sees global expansion as the key to the organization's continued success in the future.
In 2014, an internal innovation report from the New York Times was leaked. The document revealed an organization that, despite being a leader in digital news and pouring resources into R&D, nonetheless faces numerous internal barriers to doing digital even better. Many of the hurdles, the document revealed, are a legacy of its long print tradition.
Quartz: Disrupt yourself
Atlantic Media (which also published the venerable magazine, the Atlantic) chose “disrupt yourself” as Quartz's motto when they launched the digital-only publication in 2012. Aimed at the "smart, young and bored at work," Quartz is designed for mobile and tablets first. It features a pared-back look combined with easy to navigate pages, and more than half of Quartz's content comes with a graph or a chart.
Quartz bets on native advertising but it also allows for well-designed ads. While revenues are growing, Quartz was not yet profitable as of 2014.
Buzzfeed: The web's king of viral content
Launched in 2006, Buzzfeed lauds itself for being one of the few media outlets that creates content for the way people consume it today. Famous for its listicles, Buzzfeed focuses on younger audiences that are almost permanently online and primarily consume content via social media. Buzzfeed relies heavily on data analysis, using machine learning algorithms to determine which content gets shared and why.
While Buzzfeed grew big on the back of shallow, click-driven content, it now also publishes serious news. Küng sees Buzzfeed as a "textbook disruptor, starting at the bottom of the news content world and then moving swiftly upmarket to threaten leading players in their home territory."
Buzzfeed became profitable in 2013. The next big strategic shift is video, and again, the appearance and content of videos is shaped by rigorous data analysis.
Vice: “The only people who have worked out how to do video on the net efficiently”
Vice was founded as a free music magazine published in the Canadian city of Montreal in the mid-1990s. Today, Vice Media is a profitable, global media operation.
With an emphasis on video, Vice's content is tailored to the interests Generation Y (those born between the 1980s and 2000) and is produced so that it works on whatever screens or devices users choose to view it on. Vice is notorious for gonzo-style content, delivered in edgy language by journalists in their mid-20s. However, like Buzzfeed, Vice is successfully moving into the realm of serious political news.
One of Vice's main financial mainstays is its in-house agency Virtue, which creates content and advertising for brands.
Similarities and differences
Küng's book presents several common elements underpinning successful digital innovation:
a defined target audience
strong leadership which is open to technology
a pro-digital culture
an eye for talent in both journalism and technology.
Küng's book also reveals that to be successful, digital-only organizations don't necessarily have to start with a clean sheet: Quartz is an offshoot of the Atlantic and Vice is deeply rooted in legacy media, with many of its investors coming from traditional media companies.
As well as these commonalities, the case studies also highlight some differences:
diverse revenue models
differing levels of success at generating profit (only Buzzfeed and Vice are profitable)
diverse global strategies.
The Guardian targeted global (in particular US) audiences right from the beginning of its digital endeavors, while the New York Times has only recently started to have a global focus. Both have shied away from offering content in languages other than English— in contrast to Buzzfeed and Vice,which publish content in a large number of languages.
Lucy Küng: Innovators in Digital News, I.B. Taurus in association with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford.