It’s a truism that journalism — and especially investigative journalism, which takes even more time and resources — can’t survive without sustainable media organizations. But the COVID-19 pandemic has posed an existential threat to news media around the world, and forced outlets to rethink how they do business. Legacy newsrooms in particular have suffered after a sharp fall in print circulation, events, and advertising sales, making it obvious that change is required if they are to survive.

But the pandemic hasn’t led to a drop in audience numbers. In fact, it’s the opposite. Media consumption has shown the fastest growth in five years, even after a decline in advertising and marketing spending. Major news companies — from The New York Times and  The Washington Post in the US, to the The Guardian and Le Monde in Europe, and Malaysiakini and Tempo in Asia — added record digital subscribers last year, creating momentum for many to move toward digital at an even faster pace.

A recent survey by the Reuters Institute at Oxford University also suggests that 76% of media leaders have sped up their plans for digital transformation to adapt to and mitigate the fallout from COVID-19. More than 230 editors, CEOs, and senior newsroom figures cited “changes to working practices; to journalism and formats; to business models; and to the way media companies think about innovation,” as areas for development.

“This is a reset moment,” Lucy Kueng, an expert on digital disruption and research fellow at Reuters, wrote recently. “Organizations are unfrozen. People are expecting change. You have a cover. There will never be a better time to tackle deeper changes that need to happen.” But how do you transition from a legacy media publication into an organization that is digital-first, especially when these types of organizations have a whole  institution built on past business successes, a newsroom culture developed through years of practice, and a staff proud of doing journalism as it has always been done?

Experts in a recent series of GIJN workshops on media transformation reiterated that the transition toward digital for legacy media organizations is difficult, takes a long time, and requires a shift in mindset in every area of business. This includes changing the work culture, the approach to journalism, and diversifying revenue models.

A three-part workshop for a group of top legacy media executives in Bangladesh was recently hosted by GIJN, with support from Google News Initiative, offering advice based on the practical experiences of others in Asia. But the tips they received and the practical case studies considered are relevant for media all over the world that are considering a digital transition.

Like many other countries, media organizations in Bangladesh have been hit hard during the pandemic. The news ecosystem, which is largely dominated by legacy newspapers and dozens of satellite TV channels, continues to suffer for its reliance on traditional advertising-based revenue models, further limiting its ability to produce quality journalism in an already constrained environment.

The audience heard from Koreel Lahiri, program director for South Asia at the Media Development Investment Fund; Premesh Chandran, CEO and co-founder of Malaysia-based Malaysiakini; and Wahyu Dhyatmika, the editor-in-chief of Tempo Magazine, which operates from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.

First: Transform the Culture

Dhyatmika, an investigative journalist turned-editor, led the digital shift at Tempo, a top media group in Indonesia and the first in the country to introduce digital subscriptions. Despite earning their reputation as a print-focused investigative newsroom, this year they expect to make 50% of their total revenue from digital. “It was really, really hard to move from that to digital,” Dhyatmika said. “Because of the print-based mindset and culture, anything digital or anything online was seen as less quality; not as serious or as credible as a print publication.”

Tempo identified three key areas to transform the newsroom: culture, structure, and workflow and systems. According to Dhyatmika, the culture of a newsroom is what needs to be tackled first. “If you do not have buy-in in your newsroom, your editors and reporters don’t believe in your vision and what you want to achieve, then any new structure will be useless,” he said.

Tempo decided to become an adaptive, consumer-centric news provider and set out a five-year strategy for staff to create a digital media outlet that would be interactive, collaborative, and where the audience would be at the center. That meant creating an open newsroom and establishing a transparent process for deciding what would make the news each day, according to Dhyatmika.

Tempo hired a professional consultant and launched a major campaign within the newsroom to make sure everybody was on board. “This is important because some of the arguments that oppose digital transformation are [from] people who will accuse you of changing the soul of the media,” said Dhyatmika.

Change the Structure Gradually

According to the MDIF’s Lahiri, most of those working in the legacy media consider digital as their younger cousin because currently it does not contribute more than 5% or 10% of the top line; meanwhile, the most exclusive news is held back for the flagship product, whether a TV channel or print. But he emphasized a different vision: developing a newsroom structure where digital is the first port of call. “Whether it’s your assignment desk, fact-checking, your output desk, publishing, distribution, social media — everything is led by the digital,” said Lahiri.

Dhyatmika said the only way to implement such a core change is by showing reporters the possibilities that a digital-first strategy offers.

With a newsroom of 200 editors and reporters, Tempo is led by three executive editors (one each for the magazine, newspaper, and online) while five managing editors oversee different desks producing material for the three platforms. At the heart of their digital structure is the Media Lab, a seven-member team made up of editors and reporters, user interface designers, and programmers working side-by-side. The Lab invites editors and reporters to collaborate and design their own digital projects. Tempo also inspires collaboration among teams by holding a monthly meeting called Digital Friday. It acts as a venue where programmers meet with the newsroom and describe projects they are working on, and the newsroom comes up with ideas. “You need to make the encounter happen,” noted Dhyatmika.

For a digital workflow, Lahiri says it’s key that senior newsroom leaders embrace the mindset change, with research, design, code, analytics, marketing, sales, and communications seen as near-equal stakeholders to the traditional newsroom focus on reporting or editing.

Convert Audiences into Subscribers

Key to transforming audiences is transitioning a reader into a user, and a user into a subscriber. A traditional news process relays  information but it is a one-way system. Digital, however, requires outlets to  engage with the audience and invite them into the conversation.

During the workshop, Lahiri discussed a four-part model of audience-focused transformation. It starts by asking “Who do we serve?” and, most importantly, “Who do we not serve?” There is no value in producing everything for everybody, Lahiri said. Even if journalists are passionate about particular audiences, they need to ask if that audience is numerous enough as a group, or wealthy enough, to pay for a subscription. Then editors need to consider what these audiences want you to deliver — and how.

He offered the example of De Correspondent, an Amsterdam-based digital news site (the English-language version stopped publishing in January of this year, but the Dutch site continues). Each of its beat reporters curates and communicates with their communities through newsletters to build a brand around that community and gather ideas for stories. “I think it is important to consider having communities both within and outside your platform,” Lahiri noted.

The questions a newsroom must ask to define an audience-focused digital transformation. Image: Courtesy Koreel Lahiri

He said a newsroom’s audience today comes through various sources. So the next question for engagement is: Has the landing page been optimized for monetization? And, if so, could you use this engagement to become relevant in your readers lives to ensure they keep coming back to you?

“It’s kind of like buying a morning newspaper almost out of habit,” said Chandran of Malaysiakini. “You do not feel right unless you have had a coffee and you have had your newspaper. And so for online itself, how do you develop that habit?”

This is where technology is vital.

“How do you build a technology system that enables someone to make an easy payment?” Chandran continued. “How do you manage the subscription, send reminders, send newsletters? And how to track who is visiting your website pretty often but is not a subscriber yet? How we can give them an offer to make them a subscriber?”

It means having the capacity within the organization and ensuring investment in technology and digital.

Tracking the habits of the audience means measuring feedback and making data-driven decisions. In 2016, when Tempo initiated the transition, it put five television screens showing live analytics around the newsroom so reporters and editors could see how their articles performed in real-time. According to Dhyatmika, it makes a huge difference. They have two kinds of analytics: one for the free website and the other for the daily newspaper and magazine.

“We measure what article gets the most views, and who are the authors of those articles,” he said. “We also measure types of readers. We measure everything.”

Diversify Revenue Streams

The 2014 “Buy a Brick” campaign helped Malaysiakini raise $400,000. Image: Courtesy Premesh Chandran

“Digital consumption habits have completely changed, and now, suddenly, subscription and membership is something that we are seeing popping up in more than 30% of cases,” said Lahiri. But going digital also means diversifying sources. “This is beyond just advertising and subscription or events — those are the three most common ones across media companies, but there is a world of potential opportunities,” he added.

Malaysiakini now has more than 25,000 subscribers and meets 80% of its newsroom expenses from subscription revenue. It took 20 years to reach this stage. When they first introduced the paywall, there were only 1,000 subscribers, a frustratingly low figure for their readership. And most of their readers were unhappy with the subscription as they wanted content for free. Changing the minds of the readers was a battle for the management team.

Their audience in Malaysia is divided in thirds by Malay, Chinese, and English readers. Statistics show that Chinese and English readers had a higher income level, so they began to charge for the sites publishing in those languages, while the Malay site remained free. When creating a paywall, Chandran suggested factoring in readers’ ages as well. “I think for the 15 to 25 generation, your goal is probably to get them online without paying and building brand awareness among them. The 15 to 25 generation can be for advertising-based revenue while your subscription revenue is more for those 30 and above,” he added.

“Freemium is another way to go,” said Chandran. “You only charge heavy users and allow people to have 10 or 15 articles free, so you do not lose all your traffic.” Malaysiakini has now started a model where  people can read an article for free but must subscribe before posting a comment. “Slowly find ways to get new subscribers; appeal to them. You can think about innovative ways to slowly increment and get people on board, as print declines,” Chandran said.

In 2014, as part of their effort to innovate in relation to revenue, Malaysiakini raised $400,000 for a new building by selling bricks to their well-wishers, each priced at around $250. Their new office has a wall of supporters, built with those bricks, showing the names of donors. They later raised $100,000 in just 12 days when they lost a lawsuit and needed money for legal costs. As some supporters do not want to advertise on their site for political reasons, they moved the organization’s sales team to a new subsidiary that runs as an advertising agency. It sells spots for Malaysiakini, and as well as Facebook and Google ads for clients.

Lahiri says there are many such opportunities, including producing licensed video content, translations, publishing books, and content-led e-commerce that resonates with the media brand.

Chandran agrees. “At the end of the day, it is really about your relationship with readers,” he said. “And when you have a strong relationship, how you raise the money, whether it is a subscription, or donation, or selling bricks, or doing something else, it does not matter.”

Invest in Premium Content

Perhaps the most asked question at a time of digital transition is: Why would people pay for content that they can get free elsewhere?

“They will not,” said Chandran. “People only pay when they are willing to pay for it.”

So instead of expecting reader revenue, a newsroom needs to  know what additional value it can offer its audience. This where the question of quality content and the newsroom’s role in business come into play.

Tempo’s strength lies in investigative and in-depth journalism. So when they collaborated with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists on the Panama Papers project, there was a deliberate decision to publish the story first on their digital site, rather than in print. They did the same with the Indonesia Leaks project, a collaboration between 10 digital media outlets to expose a bribery scam implicating the chief of the national police. Tempo online also produced content like news games before elections, and interactive graphics to support an investigation into prostitution, all centered on the needs of the audience.

Indonesia Leaks, a major investigation which was published digital first. Image: Screenshot from Tempo.com

“When you keep breaking news about scandals, when you have a strong investigative team that keeps delivering new stories, that could be a way to convince your audience that it is worth paying for your content because you do not get it elsewhere,” said Tempo’s Dhyatmika.

Another tip for the digital age? Collaboration. As Malaysiakini launched its Chinese website, one of its main competitors was collapsing. Instead of celebrating, the group decided to help them out by launching a joint subscription with equal revenue sharing.

The response was remarkable. Malaysiakini saw significant subscriber growth overnight. “I think solidarity really moves the market and it creates a very strong standing. You look big together,” said Chandran.

Lahiri suggests that newsroom leaders should consider digital content as a “product” that endures and not as a “commodity” that is perishable and loses value quickly. A product development team should have its eyes set on an 18-month or a 36-month horizon while they think about how the audience is evolving.

“It is about maintaining clarity of mission,” said Lahiri. “Be convenient, be premium, yet remain everyday and simple. It is a very tough job to balance that out.”

This article was originally published by the Global Investigative Journalism Network, and republished here with permission.

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