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How to survive the challenge of digital publishing change

Let’s face it; UK publishers have had a challenging four years. What can publishers do to improve their chances in a multi-media world? Invest in training to give their journalists the tools they need to become their strongest brand ambassadors, writes Riva Elliott.

By Riva Elliott

Advertising revenues have fallen. Circulations have collapsed. Investment has stalled. Digital technology has threatened to annihilate the industry. New inventions coming out of left field threaten to change the landscape. And, thanks to the BBC, news is free and everywhere.

Is there a plus side in this gloomy scenario? Well, mobile uptake is gaining ground. But are publishers really ready to make the most of this opportunity? Smarter ones have already identified which brands have readers likely to embrace interactive mobile technology. Some are even making modest revenues from this. But all too many don’t have a clue where to start.

Money has been tight. That hasn’t been a huge problem in recessions before. Experience has told us that if we battened down the hatches, we’ll come out the other end. But this recession has thrown a digital spanner into the works. A vast change has taken place over the past four years. Understanding that change has been essential, but most of the money available for investment seems to have gone into experiments with app-creation and getting sales staff to learn how to sell cross-platform.

(Pictured above, from left: Dominic Mills and Jim Foster.)

Readers are swamped by information overload, so they quickly start to filter what’s useful, topical, readable and entertaining and scrap the rest. Raising your offering above the spam-filter level is essential.

This is where journalists are your best communicators. They know how to interact with readers. They know their readers, and want to know more about them. They are also keen to help you get more and perhaps different sorts of readers into an online community. So it’s vital they have the core digital skills at their fingertips. But how many do?

A false economy

Most publishers haven’t handled things very well. The very people who can make a difference are told to watch Google demos on how to use analytics, or play with online courses (usually written for the US press) that are always behind the curve and don’t answer your questions. It’s a false economy. No wonder journalists are feeling demotivated. They have to work harder and harder with fewer staff and resources, while lacking the essential technical knowledge.

Dominic Mills, an editorial consultant and former editorial director at Haymarket, observes: “The problem that publishers have is paying for training in the first place, let alone enough or focusing on the right type. 

“In the current climate, when salaries are under real pressure, you'd like to see publishers investing in training. A lot of journalists might think: 'They may be squeezing pay, but at least they're investing in my training.’ If they do neither, particularly at a time of such rapid change, there's a danger that journalists feel unloved, just left to fend for themselves.” 

To win in this multi-media world, you need to attract and retain a loyal audience. That means offering exclusive and vital information, curated by an expert from a leading title. Publishers should celebrate the talent they have nurtured, rather than treating editorial as a necessary evil. It’s time to put investment into journalists, so they have the skills to communicate clearly across all platforms.

Even publishers and editors who engage with their readers over social media are often failing to spread the word through their brand ambassadors and columnists. How many can shoot and edit professional-standard videos and podcasts to upload to their websites and mobile apps? (I’m not talking about holiday-snap stuff here.) This skill alone saves thousands of pounds in outsourcing costs. It offers significant time-saving and benefits the bottom line by attracting potential subscribers. And journalists enjoy learning how to do this. It’s a new, complementary skill.

One clear opportunity for publishers is to make more use of the creative talent they have in-house. Publishers like Bauer are already offering advertisers the chance to collaborate on creating copy, video and podcasts designed for their titles. Jim Foster, digital editorial director at Bauer, says: “I’ve been both an editor and a publisher in my career, so I can see answers from each perspective. But making digital content pay is not easy.”

More commercially minded

Editorial staff are more commercially minded than a decade ago. Editors should be working with their publishers on improving profitability by collaborating with advertisers. The jump from writing clean copy to creating tweets that grab attention can be further developed into copywriting for clients. No one knows readers better than your editorial staff. They understand what words and images their reader will react well to. And design teams, in our experience, relish the creative challenge of creating ads or shooting a 30-second video.

Jim Foster advises: “Publishers should provide clear guidance as to what is expected of their journalists in terms of content generation across platforms. Giving journalists a reasonable level of resource to achieve targets is also important, but by the same token, journalists should know that there isn’t an unlimited pot of cash to invest, and that they might have to work harder in tough times to see their titles through.

“Also, publishers shouldn’t tell journalists what to write, or fall into that trap to try to commercialise their titles more effectively. By the same token, editors should be commercially aware and support publishers by meeting key clients, explaining editorial strategy, looking at products to review, features to write and so on – as long as the reader comes first!”

Publishers should treat their titles as digital shopping portals as well as information portals. Collaborating with your advertisers to push sales through your pages will boost revenues on profit-sharing from resulting sales, as well as from designing and creating advertisements for them.

These are all huge opportunities. And let’s face it, the latest ABC and CCC (from the PPA) make dreadful reading. Even Future’s much-vaunted successes don’t stack up when you look at the audited figures.

It's easy to cut training. Why waste the money? Key staff know their jobs and what’s expected of them. They can pick up new ideas from LinkedIn message forums, online webinars and talking to colleagues at networking events — or even reading this magazine. Journalists have managed to cobble things together so far. But it’s a sticking plaster, at best, to combat this sweeping change of skills and knowledge. Dominic Mills says: “I think most journalists are up with the basics for the modern age — online writing, SEO, social media optimisation and so on. It's the newer stuff they need help with.”

The gaping holes

So what are the gaping holes in journalistic skillsets if we are to turn them into these curators of knowledge and interaction? First, skills need to be integrated into the multimedia offering. And it’s essential they learn how to use their writing skills to bring in new readers. It demands different skills, a different approach. This involves learning about integrating social media marketing with digital strategy, search engine optimisation, creating mobile apps and using interactivity to communicate with their readers to spread the word.

This has to include measuring and using real-time analytics. Shooting and editing video vox-pops and features to boost their online presence goes a long way towards making them complete multimedia journalists, equipped not just for today’s market – but ready for what technology and innovation are going to surprise us with tomorrow.

Dominic Mills advises: “I think video is an essential tool for the modern journalist, and they need help learning to storyboard, produce and especially edit short films. Nor do I think this should be the preserve of video specialists: everyone should be able to produce short videos. 

“Other areas that journalists need training in include data analysis and presentation for editorial. There's tons of data available out there, but making the most of it online is a real art, and just too difficult for most journalists at the moment. There are also lots of fun things you can do with mash-ups, and I think journalists need both inspiration and some understanding of how to produce this sort of hybrid content.

“The other sort of data training that journalists need is in analytics: in other words, looking at the traffic figures on their sites on an hourly or daily basis and using those to decide what to do editorially about story x or story y in the next 10 minutes or half an hour.”

Check out this checklist of NEW skills:

1. Designing for mobile apps — with some HTML knowledge

2. Writing for the web and mobile

3. Editing on the web and mobile

4. Shooting and editing video for the web

5. Recording and editing podcasts

6. Infographics

7. Data journalism to find stories

8. Analysing analytics to improve circulation

9. Social media marketing

10. Using Twitter and LinkedIn for your business

11. Digital publishing strategy

12. Facebook and Pinterest marketing

13. Media law for print and online

14. Appearing on TV and radio

15. Boosting subscriptions through mobile apps

As Jim Foster observes: “To get more out of your journalists, they need training, support, guidance, clear communication of performance expectations. A training budget is never wasted as long as courses are relevant to the delegates and well-structured. Right now, many journalists are crying out for digital skills – to understand tablet publishing, writing for the web, social media. Investment in training is just that: investment – especially in digital.”

Too many publishers are holding back from digital change and investment in skills. They risk losing out to start-ups with online and mobile app skills, greater flexibility and lower overheads. We may see a rash of management buy-outs for smaller specialist titles. This is already happening, as some of the larger publishers shed non-core titles, like Hearst and its wedding titles.

Other publishers, like Bauer and Future, are building their own app-creation software. They are doing deals with other publishers to license this software and recoup their investment.

Who knows what the next five years will bring? One thing is for sure: publishers can’t afford to do nothing. And there are new opportunities to monetise your brands using the creative talent embedded in your organisations. You just have to plan on boosting the skills of your over-burdened and under-qualified (for today’s market) creative staff, to turn your journalists into brand content creators and curators.

Jim Foster concludes: “It’s not just about writing any more. It’s about gathering a broad spectrum of content ideal for different platforms that could include video and audio, presenting and interviewing in front of a camera. It’s about knowing how to flatplan for tablet-specific editions as opposed to print.

“It’s about getting your content on social platforms and knowing how to interact with readers. It’s about knowing the capabilities of the technology your content will now be published on – what can we achieve on the iPad, a Nexus or a Nook? How can I work with a designer to achieve a brilliant user experience within my tablet edition that suits my title?”

He added: “There are huge opportunities out there right now, if you want to grasp them.”