Like so many industries, technology is changing the way that media and publishing companies operate. And in a world where news is breaking fast, consumer habits are continually evolving and diversity and inclusion are more important than ever, technology is making it easier for media to adapt to an ever-changing world. Last week, Bonita Stewart, VP of global partnerships at Google, Miki Toliver King, CMO of the Washington Post, and Kathleen Entwistle, private wealth advisor at Morgan Stanley Private Wealth Management joined Worth for an intimate discussion about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the media industry, how data is transforming decision-making and how technology is allowing publishers to reimagine their business models.
“We are in a really unique time of managing major events with respect to a pandemic and election and civil unrest and the economic challenges that we’re facing,” Toliver King explained. “The combination of all of those really does put us in a unique position to serve what we think is an incredible need for our readers and audience.”
With reliable news sources more important than ever, Stewart agrees that servicing the needs of readers—especially those dependent on local news—is vital during this tumultuous time.
“With the pandemic, one of the things that we’ve seen with some of the turbulence that’s happening within the industry, some of our publishers, quite frankly, are not fairing as well. So, if you look at our local publishers in the U.S, there’s close to 1,300 local newspapers. And I think wherever we are sheltering, we are probably so dependent on that local news. And so, one of the things that we did at Google was to move swiftly,” Stewart explained. “And so, while the industry has evolved over a period of time, we came forth with the journalism relief fund. We provided close to $40 million of relief to 5,600 local and medium-sized newsrooms. That was across 115 countries because we do realize it is global in nature, and we realized, within the industry, while we’re all in the same boat, we were in different boats.”
“One of the major things we had to grapple with very early on was the balance between serving the public need for information and being able to get accurate information out quickly, and balancing that with our business model, which is one that is highly reliant on reader revenue,” Toliver King added. “So, that was one that we really did grapple with and spent a lot of late nights talking through and trying to figure out how best to handle. I think that we did find the right way to balance that in the sense that we made a certain body of our coverage free to the public, and it continues to be free to the public, which is quite a bit of information that is coming out of the CDC, anything related to the day-to-day impact of COVID-19 on communities, versus other coverage that remained behind our pay wall.”
By working closely with the Washington Post’s newsroom, as well as advertising partners, Toliver King has not only been able to find the right balance between serving the public and managing the business, but she has also seen a substantial increase in subscriptions over the last six months.
“We’ve grown nearly 35 percent year to date from where we were in 2019, and it’s encouraging,” she explained. “It’s encouraging to see that even at a moment like this, even in a moment where we’re making quite a bit of our coverage available free to the public, there is still, I think, a growing understanding among our readers, among the audiences generally, that quality journalism is a service worth paying for. And so, I think that that becomes even more obvious as we get further and further into this, as we start to understand what the new normal looks like. There are so many implications for this, for communities all across the country. I think that there is a real need from our readers and our audience to understand this at a really deep level. I do believe that our readers understand now that there is a difference between just a lot of the noise that they have access to, versus the well-reported, investigative news that certain publishers are providing.”
Of course, that “noise,” still remains an issue. The technology that allows for the dissemination of news to vast audiences is the same tech allowing fake news to spread fast and the truth to be suppressed in oppressive regimes.
“With technology, this is a difficult problem,” Stewart said. “However, we’re not afraid of it. We are tackling that in terms of making sure that we are focused on quality journalism and making sure that we’re not spreading this [false] information…we are absolutely focused on this, but sometimes, it does become, what we call in the U.S., whack-a-mole, because of the technology that we might have one, and we think we’ve tackled it, and we have to go to another. But we will continue to use technology to actually combat the situation, but it is a difficult one.”
“I think that for publishers like the Washington Post, and I believe I speak for others in saying this too, remaining true to our mission of being focused on investigative journalism, being focused on continuing to ask the hard questions and get to the facts has never been more important,” Toliver King added. “I can tell you that we are doubling down and investing in our newsroom. I know that there are other reputable publishers that are doing the same. I still believe in the ability and the intellect of our audience to be able to sit through some of that.”
And according to both Toliver King and Stewart, understanding the consumer on a deep level is the key to a successful future in the media industry.
“Having that [in-depth] level of detail on the data related to our audience has been immensely helpful,” Toliver King said. “One of the major innovations that we made this year was really the full adoption of Google Analytics. I mean, that has been transformative for the Washington Post because while we have for some time been, I would say, data-focused, the level of insight that we have been able to gain through having this, the interface that we have through Google Analytics has just been incredibly eye-opening. It has also led us to a number of other studies that we’ve been able to do, even qualitatively, about our subscribers and our readers…we have really made an organizational shift toward being focused on our consumer and audience data.”
“I think planning now, and that’s one of the things we encourage our partners to do, is participate in data so to actually anticipate the future,” Stewart concluded. “So, I do think that audio will be important. I also believe there is going, in addition to the revenue diversification, there will be more of an integrated platform that is data-driven. The platform of the future will be automated, and it will be highly integrated in terms of how all of it works together. It must be seamless. I am absolutely hopeful, because the information that comes from our publishers and the quality journalism, the fact that right now, the information is important and it will always be important.”