paywalls

Memo #3 to Jeff — Data & User Profiling for The Washington Post

 

For customer-related technologies, the financial and intellectual backing of Jeff Bezos, and his Amazon experience can give The Post a huge competitive advantage. Here is what should be at the top of the to-do list. 

Every digital manager must plan to tap into Amazon’s fantastic engineering firepower. (Even though Bezos bought the newspaper out of his own pocket, the first thing he’ll do — if he hasn’t already — will be drafting some of his techies as “advisors” to The Post.) The key point being: the influx of engineering brainpower must not be limited to the digital side of the house, or to the newspaper’s IT infrastructure. It should impact all activities: editorial, marketing, subscriptions and paid-for products. Let’s dive into details.

Turbo-boosting the editorial. Let’s start with the basics: What characterizes media outlets playing in The Washington Post’s league? It is their ability to line up top journalistic resources to cover stories that matter, in-depth, with multiple angles and treatment modes (text, features stories, photographs, graphics, multimedia storytelling, live blogging, opinions, etc.), while deploying the best expertise on topics covered. These are the five items that make the difference between the bulk of pure players and true legacy media.

In many ways, the above is anti-economic, it is loaded with inherent inefficiencies — dry holes, dead ends, waste of time on promising leads —  that drive nuts “quant zealots” obsessed with KPI’s and productivity measurements. At this point, the difference between great newsroom managers (i.e. editors) and average ones lies in their ability to make some room for “managed inefficiencies”. An editor’s key, delicate duty is weighing the purpose of resource-intensive tasks such as flummoxing the competition, pursuing a worthy story, or launching a months-long journalistic project aimed at a Pulitzer prize. Unfortunately, weak leadership, balking at tough choices and yielding instead to a sorry attempt to spread an even level of (dis)satisfaction among constituencies causes inefficiencies to grow like weed.

The foremost goal of technology-enhanced news content is smartly weaving together all components of a topic. The idea is to keep the reader aboard by encouraging multiple levels of reading, with different angles for a subject, calls to essential archives or to other forms of journalism such as blogs or infographics. In this field, Amazon is light-years ahead of the news industry. By raising the number of editorial treatments seen by the reader, almost twenty years of Amazon’s e-commerce recommendation engine refinements will undoubtedly benefit The Post.

Another key item will be the level of news personalization. What should a Post reader see mostly? News that matters to him or her, or everything the paper’s staff collects? How to define mostly? Fully tailored contents based on past navigation? Stated preferences combined with the preserved serendipity that together make the core of news construction? This is a deeply involved problem — and the subject of a future Monday Note.

Reader profiling. All digital publishers dream of knowing exactly what reader sees what content, where, at what time of the day and on which vector: web, smartphone, tablet. The finer the granularity, the better. Slicing and dicing readership in segments of age, professions, residence, income, interests yields three types of uses:

  • increasing news content stickiness by serving customized content as mentioned earlier
  • smarter customized advertising, as opposed to dumbly drowning users into a flood of ads for months by using data collected during the shopping season. This practice, known as “retargeting”, is one of the internet “seven plagues” and the most potent repellent to advertising
  • channelling the reader to the catalogue of ancillary products any news outlet should operate. For example: once a reader is identified (even anonymously) as working in the legal field, for a media group struggling to fill the last seats of its conference on privacy laws, why not show this loyal reader a one-time only, 50% discounted ticket, valid for 24 hours only? Simplistic as this example might seem, its large scale application is far from trivial: it requires super-accurate analytics, the deployment of “event engines” that will trigger the display of the right offer, at the right time, to the right segment of the population. Fortunately, this is the kind of work Amazon geeks are particularly good at.

For The Washington Post, the benefits are numerous. Research shows that serving the right ad to the right profile can raise its value by a factor of 1.5x to 2x. And the performance of ancillary products (conferences, business events, news-related ebooks or professional products, education packages, etc.) will become easier to measure.

Impact on paywall and subscription models. Paywall theory can be summarized as follows:

  • deploying a wide range of tactics all aimed at significantly raising the number of news contents items (not necessarily articles) a reader watches every month. Let’s make no mistakes: the main dial is under the newsroom’s control, marketing wizardry won’t do the trick
  • finding readers most likely to convert to a paid-for subscription and, week after week, serving them (I write serving, not bombarding) offers they can’t refuse: an extended test-period, or a news-related bonus that reflects the breadth of the company’s line of products.

As with most theories, practice is much harder. A paid-for system is a long-term, investment-intensive, staffing-critical effort. Two legacy media did it particularly well: The Financial Times and The New York Times. The former built a subscription base that now surpasses the paper’s; the latter added $100m a year in revenue that did not exist three years ago. Most paywall strategies underperform for two reasons: first, an error in predicting the editorial contents’ ability to retain readers beyond a free threshold of 10, 15, or 20 stories a month; second, a failure to build the data-driven infrastructure that is mandatory for any paid-for product. The Washington Post does relatively well with the first test. For the second, the backing of Amazon tech brains will give it the best chances to succeed.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Two strategies: The Washington Post vs. The NYT

 

Both are great American newspapers, both suffer from the advertising slump and from the transition to digital. But the New York Times’ paywall strategy is making a huge difference. 

The Washington Post’s financials provide a good glance at the current status of legacy media struggling with the shift to digital. Unlike others large dailies, the components of the Post’s P&L clearly appear in its statements, they are not buried under layers of other activities. Product-wise, the Post remains a great news machine, collecting Pulitzer Prizes with clockwork regularity and fighting hard for scoops. The Post also epitomizes an old media under siege from specialized, more agile outlets such as Politico, ones that break down the once-unified coverage provided by traditional large media houses. In an interview to the New York Times last year, Robert G. Kaiser, a former editor who had been with the paper since 1963, said this:

“When I was managing editor of The Washington Post, everything we did was better than anyone in the business,” he said. “We had the best weather, the best comics, the best news report, the fullest news report. Today, there’s a competitor who does every element of what we do, and many of them do it better. We’ve lost our edge in some very profound and fundamental ways.”

The iconic newspaper has been slow to adapt to the digital era. Its transformation really started around 2008. Since then, it has checked all the required boxes: integration of print and digital productions; editors are now involved on both sides of the news production and all relentlessly push the newsroom to write more for the digital version; many blogs covering a wide array of topics have been launched; and the Post now has a good mobile application. The “quant” culture also set in, with editors now taking into account all the usual metrics and ratios associated with digital operations, including a live update of Google’s most relevant keywords prominently displayed in the newsroom. All this helped the Post collect 25.6 million unique visitors per month, vs. 4 to 5 million for Politico, and 35 million for the New York Times that historically enjoys a more global audience.

Overall, the Washington Post Company still relies heavily on its education business, as show in the table below :

 Revenue:.......$4.0bn (-3% vs. 2011)
 Education:.....$2.2bn (-9%)
 Cable TV:......$0.8bn (+4%)
 Newspaper:.....$0.6bn (-7%)
 Broadcast TV:..$0.4bn (+25%)

But the education business no is longer the cash cow it used to be. Not only did its revenue decrease but, last year, it lost $105m vs. a $96m profit in 2011. As for the newspaper operation, it widened its losses to $53m in 2012 from $21m in 2011. And the trend worsens: for the first quarter of 2013, the newspaper division’s revenue decreased by 4% vs. a year ago and it lost $34m vs. $21m for Q1 2011.

Now, let’s move to a longer-term perspective. The chart below sums up the Post’s (and others legacy media’s) problem:

Translated into a table:

                  Q1-2007   Q1-2013  Change %
 Revenue (All):....$219m.....$127m.....-42%
 Print Ad:.........$125m.....$49m......-61%
 Digital Ad:.......$25m......$26m......+4%

A huge depletion in print advertising, a flat line (at best) for digital advertising, the elements sum up the equation faced by traditional newspapers going from print to online.

Now, let’s look at the circulation side using a comparison with the New York Times. (Note that it’s not possible to extract the same figures for advertising from the NYT Co.’s financial statements because they aggregate too many items.) The chart below shows the evolution of the paid circulation for the Post between 2007 and 2013:

..and for the NY Times:

Call it the paywall effect: The New York Times now aggregates both print and digital circulations. The latter now amounts to 676,000 digital subscribers that have been recruited using the NYT’s metered system (see previous Monday Notes under the “paywall” tag). (Altogether, digital subscribers to the NYT, the International Herald and the Boston Globe now number 708,000). It seems the NYT found the right formula: its digital subscribers portfolio grows at a 45% per year rate, thanks to a combination of sophisticated marketing, mining customer data and aggressive pricing (it even pushes special deals for Mother’s Day.) All this adds to the bottom line: if each digital sub brings $12 a month, the result is about $100m that didn’t exist two years ago. But it does not benefit the advertising side as it continues to suffer. For the first quarter of 2013 vs. the same period last year, the NYT Company lost 13% in print ads revenue and 4% for digital ads. (As usual in their earning calls, NYT officials mention the deflationary effects of ad exchanges as one cause of erosion in digital ads.)

One additional sign that digital advertising will remain in the doldrums: Politico, too, is exploring alternatives; it will be testing a paywall in a sample of six states and for its readers outside the United States. The system will be comparable to the NYT.com or the FT.com, with a fixed number of articles available for free (see Politico’s management internal memo.)

It is increasingly clear that readers are more willing than we once thought to pay for content they value and enjoy. With more than 300 media companies now charging for online content in the U.S., the notion of paying to read expensive-to-produce journalism is no longer that exotic for sophisticated consumers.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com