In relation to World Publishing Expo ,Visiolink asks a number of media people about their views on newspapers' digital future. As digital director of JP/Politikens Hus, Søren Svendsen has clear positions on the transformation his industry is undergoing. But new digital ventures do not spell goodbye to almost 150 years of accumulated print history.
"The media are more fragmented, with new players and new opportunities. You can challenge whether there is something called mass media in the future. We have three major nationwide titles with a previously unheard number of readers and users across print and online. It is the business model that challenges us.
Digital interfaces are the medias access to a significantly larger readership than anyone could have dreamed of in the print edition heyday. But new mobile usage patterns and the increasing global competition draws the readers' attention. Today’s distribution channels are controlled by large international players like Facebook, Google and Apple. Advertising is especially affected.
Services based on personalization, data and algorithms for handling news flow are among the technologies that media lean on to keep up with changes. "Data and personalization become more important in our development. We are partly inspired by international players like Huffington Post and BuzzFeed, although we are far from maintaining the same massive amount of information from social media and blogs as they do."
The future extent of automation is difficult to predict. Algorithms are good at prioritizing based on fixed criteria, while other priorities require the involvement of people, Søren Svendsen believes. “Our task is to choose the best among our options at hand. This undoubtedly means that our newsroom of the future will utilize machine learning and artificial intelligence, but it will probably not replace human eyes on what we are presenting.”
The attitude may seem slightly reactive to certain digital evangelists who advocates much bigger digital presence across channels. But for JP/Politiken Hus it is important not to end up in an unbalanced dependency.
“When we look at some US media, they are almost 100% dependent on social media and traffic from search engines. We take care of our brands, and are concerned with how large a share of our traffic we funnel to them from Facebook and Google. When working with global players, you have to know what you want and focus on, and what value you get out of using them as distribution channels”, says Søren Svendsen, adding: “We have our own channels, and we critically and constructively use other channels such as social media to the extent that they create value for us.”
Social media is a main driver in the disruption that the media industry is undergoing. The effects of spreading content via Facebook and Google are supposedly huge, but many media have yet to see the actual value.
“Facebook's Instant Articles and Google's Accelerated Mobile Pages are inspiring and important initiatives. Jyllands-Posten has experimented with their proprietary Quick View, which delivers articles instantly. On mobile speed is everything. Otherwise readers will go on to something else. But it is not obvious to us, how these new distribution channels translate to money in the bank. They can get us quickly to new users. But whether the people remain loyal to our product, is another matter. We do not want to become too dependent on global players, which on the one hand creates opportunities and on the other hand means a loss of control.
The average European newspaper reader is approaching 60. So when newspapers printed editions, including the digital ePaper, typically have very loyal readers, it reflects mainly a longstanding relationship, which younger readers might not have. On the web loyalty is harder to track.“With social media, we often encounter segments that are too young to properly use the news media. Historically people were raised with a specific newspaper at home. Most people are between 25-30 years before they feel the need to stay updated via news sources. We tend to forget this when we are blown away by how effective social media is”, says Søren Svendsen.
“On our online media, we don’t experience loyalty to the same extent as in print. It's fast and free for readers to surf across media brands. Therefore, we look at the frequency of visits as a measure of loyalty. As news media we fare quite well when compared to other services on the web.”
Earnings and reader loyalty are under pressure on the web. But does the print paper, and thus the ePaper, have any future at all? Søren Svendsen replies with a solid yes, before he elaborates. “The in-depth news, our editorial prioritizing and the format itself has a future. There are lots of things we need to learn. Print newspaper, as we know them, are changing. Until now they have proved quite viable and adaptable, transforming to other surfaces. We're not talking about the newspaper dying at some point. Our concern is how we continue to make high-quality journalism, and bring it on all relevant platforms”.
The digital transformation is in motion, even if the business model is not matured. Many media are experimenting in different directions, and the inspiration is not exclusively drawn from major international players. Although the New York Times, Washington Post and The Guardian are successful in providing pure digital subscriptions, their experiences are not necessarily useful on a national scale in a country like Denmark. Consequently, JP/Politikens Hus cooperate and share knowledge with comparable media in Germany, Sweden and Norway.
“We are faced with the same issues about digital subscriptions. There is a positive dialogue across borders, about what works and how to run the various processes. We're not used to inviting completely new professions in, but it's very inspiring how some media uses statisticians to minimize churn and others pull programmers into the newsroom.”
Søren Svendsen feels pretty safe about the future. Despite cuts across the industry, and in his own organization, he is certain journalistic media has a place and relevance.
“Many will say that journalism is in dire straits, and are fiercely challenged. That is basically true, because we are in the midst of a tremendous transformation. But it does not change the fact that we earn a living by creating good journalistic content. Basically we’re working with the same criteria as we have been historically. It's all about making proper journalism. That's what works - also in the future.”
Søren Svendsen is digital director of JP/Politikens Hus, and focuses on growth through digital transformation. IT and corporate data lies in Søren’s auspices and his daily job is a close cooperation with the digital directors of JP, Politiken and Ekstra Bladet, as well as publishers and local newspapers.