News Sustainability Report: Panel Discussion

Commissioned by The Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA), supported by the Google News Initiative, and prepared by Economist Impact, the ‘News Sustainability: Investing in the Future of Asia-Pacific’s Info-Ecosystem’ report has been launched last Tuesday – July 19, 2022.

The Key Report Insights were presented by Naka Kondo from Economist Impact.

READ: News Sustainability Report Key Insights Presentation here

A comprehensive panel discussion followed shortly after. The panel includes Joey Chung of News Lens, Ritu Kapur of The Quint, and Ross Settles of Journalism and Media Studies Centre – The University of Hong Kong. The Launch Event was moderated by Sharanjit Leyl of Redhill.

Watch the full Panel Discussion ⬇️

SHARANJIT: 82% who were surveyed are bullish about the [news media] industry. What do you make of the conclusions? Does anything surprise you?

RITU: What I think what we’re grappling with — which might not have been the case at the time of the survey — is people returning back to work. Therefore, there’s a drop of consumption of news online. Where that is going to balance out, we’ll really know again as this year proceeds. As a lot of people goes back to work, a lot of people re-establishing their businesses, there’s a lot of distraction which maybe taking away from news.

The other thing that came out, also in the Reuters digital report, is the huge concern that we’re dealing now with news avoidance. I think we need a lot of innovation and communication to get people to understand why news is more important today than ever before. From where I am, it’s now important to tell consumers of news what goes into news creation, where journalists put themselves out and their lives at risk, and why that deserves reader revenue to support news.

JOEY: I think all in all, not at all surprising. An opportunity that surfaced because of the pandemic was it did force us to quickly transition to fully digital. All the initiatives that we’re talking about over the past few years — I think [the pandemic] offered clarity which is why as the pandemic goes on its third year, people may think, “Maybe, we’re used to this by now.” It doesn’t necessarily mean that the overall situation is better, it just means we know what needs to happen. We’re used to the pressure. We know what we need to do, at least step by step. We’re not so shocked, we’re not so surprised.

Just to give a personal example: when the pandemic started, 6 months to a year to it, one of the common conversations I would have, any business meeting that we would have, people would say: “Oh you know, I think pandemic is great for media business digitally.” 90% of anyone on the street would say that to me but it’s kind of a mix bag. Externally people could think, “Oh, this must be great for the media industry.” But at the same time, it is good with influencer traffic, but it’s bad with revenue and monetization.

From our experiences, there’s still a huge disconnect between everyone saying they agree that the media industry has huge value to their day to day decisions and day to day lives. But the irony is much less percentage actually pay for that. Asia typically might be still a few years behind in terms of that overall mindset of directly paying or supporting something you find of value. It’s still 3 to 5 years a little bit behind. As the study mentioned more and more publishers are launching paid memberships subscribers. We think, maybe gradually, step-by-step we will ge there and that something to look forward to.

ROSS: Irene introduced the report and it’s optimistic. In my experience, what you hear from a lot of media operators, media managers, and media professionals on the business side is optimism. We know the problems, we are aware of what the problems are, and we are choosing to solve the problem the best we can. It’s less dire from 4 or 5 years ago where you will go to a conference and it’s kind of a doom’s day.

The second thing I’d say is what Byron started with — it’s a very comprehensive report. I was impressed by the depths of the questioning especially in the executive side. The last thing is that I got to mention is what Allan Soon had said that these business models are complex. Understanding each of them, figuring out how they fit with your audience, how they fit with your own market, and being able to manage all of that in some way. Another is staying innovative and finding talent. I was impressed by the detail under tne report and I read bullishness as optimisim — we know the problems now and we are kind of working on them.

SHARANJIT: For Joey and Ritu, give us a sense of what your journey was like during the pandemic.

RITU: Two of the things we need to start looking at, one is Cost – we, for instance, constantly talking about reviewing the costs and where could we creatively cut-down but weren’t actually directly moving towards that because there was still some notion that ad revenue will suddenly work out. What the pandemic did for us is to seriously look at costs.

Another thing we realized is we have to move on very quickly to agile technology which was one of the outcomes of the pandemic. Because everyone, the journalists, they were reporting where they are. They do not come to the office. We do a lot of video content. We, then, looked for agile technology with a far detailed lens.

The third thing that happened, we started looking much more carefully at what people were consuming and what is it that they wanted. What became clear was people wanted information that will really help their lives through the pandemic and after. That definitely made us re-look at some of the content — for instance, FAQs and explainers became very important for us and we found that there was a huge audience for that kind of content.

Now everyone is trying to figure out what is the ideal now that the pandemic is now an endemic. What are the kind of hybrid structures? What is the kind of technology we really need to be focusing on? For example, in India, technology of transaction is glitchy to make reader revenue a smooth experience.

If you want to move to reader revenue from ad revenue: What is it that you have that people would want to pay for? Which means you need to look away from all kinds of news that’s available on aggregated platforms and finally define your value proposition — that is the process of us moving away from being everything from everyone to bring a unique offering.

JOEY: For us, the main theme for the last few years is Diversification. We were fortunate that we started to diverisify from one to multiple verticals right before pandemic [sports, lifestyle, gadgets, movies etc]. The last two and a half years just accelerated that. We’re based in Taipei and other Asian cities once they we’re going to very strict COVID lockdowns, we realized that all the solely media companies that depended on advertising saw the exact line of up and down. Whenever there’s a lockdown, advertising would drop, campaigns would drop, events or marketing projects will be delayed. That also forced us to try to complete the puzzle.

I’ll give an example, in one of the pages of the report, it mentioned the many business models that everyone wants to try – over the past two and a half years, we diversified into each of them. Because we realized if we continue acquiring and growing just as a media company, that line will look exactly the same. Only the lows and high will gets worse and worse because we’re all dependent on adveritising. Whenever there’s an issue, a lockdown or another outbreak, the entire company will suffer more because 90% is dependent on one revenue stream. The game becomes how do we look for other partners, how do we look for the next acquisition target that is 90% subscriptions, 90% e-commerce, 90% tech or data exchanges. We’re trying to flatten the line as such as it’s not high and low – not wave by wave – instead it looks like a very flat line.

I firmly believe by now that media companies of the future, not only technology will be an impotant pillar, but they have to even be 50% technology company. Because you need the technology part of the business to diverisfy revenue. It’s not just the media part of the business, we need to flatten out the line and that is depedent on other technology services to roll out new products. How do we generate other revenues outside of media that kind of surrounds, protects, but also supplements media in terms of monetizing the data that we collect? We have to make the profits that will allow us to protect and re-invest in better quality journalism so that it creates that positive cycle, that positive loop.

The final point I will add, because of COVID, because of the pandemic, , it’s interestingly a good moment to do consolidation. A lot of smaller verticals, a lot of smaller companies are facing the exact same chllanges. Maybe 5 or 10 years ago, one market can sustain 10 different media verticals or 10 different companies — but because of pandemic and lockdowns, the market is shrinking, maybe the market can only now sustain 5. We have to consolidate together so everyone can survive in the long term.

SHARANJIT: Ross, I’m keen to hear your perspective as an academic, somebody who’s watching kind of how the industry evolve with all of these challenges that it faces. Obviously keeping up the business side of things as well as maintaining the integrity of news side of things. How do news organizations maintain this balance?

ROSS: How to maintain agility? How to maintain balance? It requires scale to be agile.

I can look at the business in three pieces:

◾ Content – how content is evolving from all these platforms

◾ Distribution – all of these platforms

◾ Revenue – where does the money come to support that

You can look at the people who will work on all three but that is a huge task. One of the ways to do it is to scale, another is investment. The other way of balancing this, for me, is gonna be people. Finding those people that are committed to the journalistic values, the news values, the storytelling values that are also smart enough to do the AI work or the blockchain work or whatever your technology platform is. It is hard. You need those people and you need that committment.

SHARANJIT: Social media amplifies the distribution of fake news and misinformation. How can news outlets drive positive change?

JOEY: There’s a more passive-defensive angle and there’s a more agressive-taking-initiative angle. 

I would think for a strategic picture, the long-term end for publishers or media companies, eventually I think the answer is simply: be at an arm’s length and be less and less dependent on third-party social media platforms when you diverisfy. It’s fine to put content and use social media but understand that they are third party. At a whim, they can change their algorithm, they are not dependable. Their original DNA is not media, they are not journalists. Their intention is to have more and more users on their platform. We can use them at a certain extent to gain interest on our platform. But on the long-term, we must try to have our consumers to come directly to our website, our own app, our own newsletter, our own memberships.

For all publishers and media compies involved, the only long-term that is within control is to establish a direct bridge, direct first-party relationship with our readers — gain their trust, create better content, create positive cycle, and not rely on third party platforms.

RITU: I completey agree with Joey that eventually, for various reasons including tackling misinformation, you need to get your audiences in your own operated platform. But having said that, I think there has to be an interim period because you have to be in the same spaces where misinformation, disinformation, malinformation is spreading. From a social responsiblity of news point of view — I don’t think this is the time to vacate social media because the misinformation right now is so polarizing and so dangerous. It’s not the time to vacate social media right now, we need to put out as much as fact-check content so that the fact-check content is be as viral as the misinformation. If you vacate the social media space or the big tech platforms right now, you may just give a free play for more misinformation to spread.

If TikTok is going to change consumer behavior into short format and video format and reels format, I think your fact-check content has to be as attractive on these platforms to combat fake news. I think that is the way you build trust with your audience. Use your fact-checking and your quality journalism to be out there and to constantly build trust and relationship to your audience. And somehow bring that trust to your own operated site.

The other thing that, I think, collectively the news industry needs to do is engage in media literacy — making audiences aware of how to distinguish fact from fake. We really have to go beyond our conventional roles as journalists or news media because of the landscape being what it is.

SHARANJIT: How do media companies’ talents monetize their duty to present factful information to the masses, putting important verified information behind paywalls limits the reach and leaves an information gap that invariably gets filled by less credible sources?

ROSS: I did a separate research recently of this in Bangladesh where we were looking specifically into this question.

I think we underestimate how literate people are. Especially people who are facing complicated media environment with different levels of control and censorship. People are quite sophisticated in how they use different things. I think one of the challenges, the assumption that if I put out the truth, everyone’s gonna find it is wrong. People tend to gravitate to things that they tend to believe, that they want to believe. 

I guess if I were to be as an observer, a critic of the news industry – the journalism profession, we tend to have a lot of confidence that if I tell the truth, everyone’s going to believe it. I think where we fail, where the industry fails is not understanding the emotional inclination that people have to believe what they wanted to believe. Finding ways of telling the story, presenting it in a different way. Sometimes it needs to present in a way that’s more emotional or more fun or more playful that isn’t always in the DNA of traditional newsroom.

It’s very easy if you come from journalistic background. It’s very easy to believe that truth is quality. But that’s not necessary what the audience believes. The audience believes that truth is what I wanted to be, often cases. 

It’s more than just truth is right and truth is what quality is and that is what people would want. I just don’t see any behavioral information that that is true.

SHARANJIT: What do you see as the return on investment in putting out supplementary content on instagram stories, tiktok, twitter spaces, and the like — is that changing as you noted 2022 is somewhat pandemic-agnostic year when news in all its forms face more competition in the attention economy?

JOEY: Initially, social media is very effective to put your brand out there when no one knows who you are. But it’s dangerous 5 or 10 years down the road, for that same brand it’s still 80% coming from social media. That means over 5 years we failed to establish a direct relationship with our readers which will allows us to safely kind of diverse or fly away from 3rd party platforms and control our own fates when it comes to influence and direct trust of our readers and monetization.

Initially, when we have no leverage, when we have no brand equity or power or trust to our readers, social media is there. It’s impossible if we cut off social media. The overarching plan should be keeping it at an arm’s distance where they need us for content and we need them for eyeballs but understand that that relationship will not be the same forever. We need to gradually diversify away and take control in our own hands. 

The overarching policy is we’re open and we use different social media for different verticals. Example: serious news might work best on Facebook or Twitter, Lifestyle news might work better on Instagram or YouTube. It’s definitely not one social media policy for one media publisher, it’s all customized. 

RITU: I wish I could say that we can lean less and less on social media, but for instance, India stats show that a large chunk of consumption is video. The kind of tech that Youtube has is very difficult for newsrooms like us to have that tech. I think we need to focus on tech and innovation. I don’t have quick and easy answers on how to do that. Unfortunately, It’s not just as simple as putting quality content and not sharing it on social media and expecting audiences to come there. 

There has to be a working relationship with the big platforms, with the big tech, to work in partnership with them because I don’t think you can just push them away. They have such a lead on just on the technology of the digital. While all of us continue to focus only on content, they focus on technology, there’s such a deep relationship with technology and audience traffic fortunately and unfortunately.

It’s a work in progress. I think we need to constantly keep our eyes on innovation to make that happen. Keep looking for what the audience need that is not being fulfilled that you are fulfilling that will drive audiences to your site.

SHARANTIJ: Where does education come in strengthening the news industry? You talk about talent, how does the news industry address this as a whole?

ROSS: As an industry, I find that that has kind of gone dormant. At one point in time, there was a lot of energy between technology and journalists. That spontaneous energy to solve a problem, a lot of that was supported by big newsrooms. One of the things newsrooms can do is to realize it’s not all about them, it’s about the industry. 

For journalists to understand how content is changing, they need to understand how platforms demand the change. They need to understand the metrics that are driving some of the change, and they need to understand the revenue pieces of that. 

As a part of the pandemic, there been a lot of activities around experimenting with some of the more rarified elements of blockchain, solutions to either revenue problems or moentizing the archive, those are often spontatenous. They just happen to be togehter in a starbucks. 

There is an energy between content and product and business and finding ways to encourage that. Some people would be critical of that kind of break down the church and state. Part of the reason we are reliant on the platform is that that’s where the venue where church and state broke down. They’ve solved things that we didn’t solve because we never got together to solve them — whether it’s user behavior on a social network, how content was shared, or how metric was generated.

SHARANTIJ: Final Thoughts | Do you think news can be sustained and how do you see the news industry evolving particulary in Asia Pacific in the next 5 years? If you all going to look into the future and you have one prediction to make, what would it be?

JOEY: There will be a lot of geopolitical pressure in Asia, a lot of tension, but at the same time it will create a lot of demand. It will be a hard time, it will be a challenging time, but it will also be an exciting time. For all digital media companies of the future, 50% of them would have to be a tech companies. It’s impossible, in the foreseeable future, where we are just journalists. We create the content but we have to understand the distribution, we have to understand the product, and we have to understand the monetization as well. It’s gonna become much more challenging but at the same time much more diverse and much more exciting in the sense that we gonna be all journalists, and specialists across all the tech, data, services, and content fields.

ROSS: I’m encouraged by some of the long-form storytelling. A lot of the elements of the news industry are because of the nature of news content. It’s very short, it’s very fast, it has – what we call in the academic – a very short half-life. The value of the story today may be whatever advertising generates, the value of the story five days from now is zero generally. There’s a fundamental problem in breaking high-velocity news coverage and it’s high cost often to do.

But I’m encouraged to look at things that are – for lack of a better word – slower, longer, higher costs, higher investments, long-form documentaries. On the mainland, we have young people telling long stories either in short live items or in a long-going TikTok but they are serialized. I’m encouraged by young people embracing platforms to tell significant stories. The news itself will continue. The demand for the news in the region will skyrocket, if it hasn’t already started, in the next two years or so. But I’m encouraged in the long form.

RITU: I think the future will be far more visual. I think consumer-format behavior will be dictated by big platforms and social media and news will have to adapt to that. We have to work very closely with technology to be able eventually to get audiences to your side. There has to be so much more unique ground reporting — getting stories that nobody else is getting. I think It’s gonna be visual. It’s gonna be shorter contrarian to what Ross has to say. 

It’ll have to be a participative process with audiences rather than have to be truth holders. We have to become truth seekers in partnership with our audiences.

BYRON: Two data points that stuck out to me: 82% of consumers believe that news is essential to a functional society, and 76% of consumers were worried about misinformation. Normal people value news. Normal people are very aware of the problem of misinformation. That gives me hope for the future of news in this region.

We may be at the peak of the influence of big tech companies on news. Regulation is happening across the world. User habits are changing, we saw a decrease in user numbers on Facebook. My hope and belief are that the market power of big tech platforms because it is at its peak, would be at the benefit of the media industry.

NAKA: Some of the interesting stories I heard in the course of conducting the interview: To catch the big wave of change you have to be aware of the small waves that are happening. These could be very small changes that won’t get picked up.

We all know that tech is going to be a key component of the industry moving forward. Journalists or anybody who’s working in the media industry need to realize that “How do we start thinking fully digitally to make this pivot fully that has been accelerated during the pandemic?” Anybody could be thinking that way. We can start making changes at any level.