Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Editor update: Time for a commercial break

Bottom line and audience

Newspapers have long had editorial staff whose role is to service commercial interests. Titles ranging from ‘commercial editor’ to ‘special projects editor’ and the more straightforward ‘advertising writer’, but now there is an expectation that the traditional editorial leader will take a much more significant stance in the commercial wellbeing of the title and business.

“Editors do need to be more commercially savvy,” says Ian Carter, Editorial Director of Iliffe Media. He recalled a meeting he had with a group of editors:

“I was saying to them that they have to be aware that now more so than ever that increasing your web audience has a direct impact on the bottom line.  I was saying to them if you increase your digital audience three-fold, which is quite easy from where they are now, that means £400,000 to the bottom line, just through increased revenue. They have to understand that and they can’t operate in isolation.” 

Editors have always been commercial, maintains Joy Yates, Editorial Director of JPIMedia in the North East who says they understand private sector businesses and the need to make the bottom line. However, to attract the commercial revenues “more and more we’re finding that it’s the editorial route into some of these big players that really works, so it’s all about collaboration”. And that ‘collaboration’ can take different forms, as she explains:

“It’s not every customer that is suited to a 15 x 4 [a quarter page display advertisement] but they might be suited to an online piece of content which a reader is not thinking is an advert. It’s just more interesting …so its constantly going back to content being key and that’s one of the drivers that we find. So, it’s working closer with our commercial friends but understanding our place in it.” 

Jeremy Clifford, Editor-in-Chief of JPIMedia, acknowledges there is pressure to create content that’s going to attract advertising but maintains it can be done in a positive way, explaining:

“If you write a story which attracts a page view for you then that’s got a commercial pressure with it, because then you’re going to be directed to say ‘right I want more of that content over there’ because I’m going to get more page views which generate more revenue as a result of that. So that’s one of the financial pressures which is a good pressure because you listen to your audience and you monetise it that way.”

Marc Reeves, Marketplace publisher, Midlands & Wales for Reach plc. says that the ultimate direct lever pulled to influence the commercial success of the business is the scale of the audience generated. Instant, contemporaneous metrics are available showing audience engagement online and Reeves admits: “I’m held to account on those numbers every single day, so that’s a new thing.” He further reflects:

“You could say ‘well, that just replaces the old focus on circulation’. It does, it’s really the same thing in a different guise with different economics beneath it and I think on the journey to those editor/publisher roles, I think a more sophisticated understanding of the commercial levers that everyone pulls is probably more necessary.”


The rise of native advertising
Clifford agrees there is commercial pressure in terms of sponsored content and invokes the ‘church and state’ concept too. “I think we’ve got to be really careful and aware of those pressures and we need to still be cognisant of the church and state so that we write content which is there because of journalistic reasons.  That said, I do think there is relationship with commercial organisations that you have as long as you clearly label it, I think that’s also okay as well,” he says.
Reeves thinks it’s important that journalists understand how the economics work. “For too long we had that church and state where editorial just wrote the stories and was quite antipathetic to the commercial side of things, which sort of worked when we were a monopoly and the money was being delivered in lorries every day,” he says.
There is an acknowledgment from Carter that they are quite far into the world of native advertising which brings all kind of commercial awareness and sensitivities. “They [editors] need to wear two hats, they need to be able to wear a commercial hat but also know when to put those Chinese walls up and say, just because my website is carrying a piece of promoted content about your double glazing company we’re still going to be covering you when a house that you’re working on burns down.”
But he denies the accusation ‘why are you doing disguised adverts editorially?’. “We’re not. We have run editorials about local chip shop week since the dawn of time and it’s just a new twist on that really.”

Yates recalls that when she first started in the industry 30 years ago “it was commercial and editorial and never the twain meet. That just can’t happen any more”.


Into the future
Helen Dalby, Audience & Content Director for Reach in the North East thinks the commercial collaboration undertaken by newsroom leaders will develop further in future. She says that it will become increasingly important strategically that the focus as editors is on growing and developing audiences in the ways that they can control. Expanding in her theme, she said:

“We need to use loyalty services such as apps and email newsletters and via a total commitment to a good user experience online and to driving up engagement. The rigours of search engine optimisation have meant that we’ve had to become very disciplined at managing detailed seasonal publishing and republishing. Our increasing commercial collaboration also means it’s important that we as a newsroom are well planned, as good planning and communication gives our colleagues in advertising departments the time they need to monetise the audience opportunities we’re delivering.”

Reeves reflects on the changes of the scale of the newspaper business, where numbers have shrunk from 500 people in an organisation. “We are now down to a newsroom out there with 50 people in it and that includes some commercial people so you can’t have that demarcation anymore. Therefore, the better informed and equipped people are to them make those decisions around the whole of the business the better decisions those will be.”

There is also a concern about the proliferation of primarily internet-based competition. Yates describes the advent of the ‘bedroom journalist’:

“Everybody can create content; everybody can pick up a smartphone and take video and post it on any channels they want to or and anybody is a bedroom journalist. We can all post every day on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat. By doing that you’re creating content so competition is really, really everywhere.”

One of the direct consequences of the drive to become more commercially aware has been the transformation of straightforward ‘editor’ roles into ‘creative content director’, ‘brand editor’ and ‘audience editor’. Whether the world outside the media business has any appreciation of the subtleties of these naming conventions is debateable, but the biggest impact is the message sent to journalists that their vision and scope has to be extended to appreciate that they work for a business that needs to demonstrate it is receptive to commercial concerns.

The multiple channels of the delivery, as outlined by Yates above, also make it important that editorial leaders have a working knowledge of how these applications operate and the advantages they bring to their business as well as the beneficial impact for rival competitors.

Editorial leaders tend, almost by definition, to be a confident breed. The individuals in this study are no exception and by the very nature of their survival in tough times have shown themselves to be astute and commercially aware, although Carter is grateful for what he calls ‘the great stock in editorial freedom’ placed by his company. “I suspect that may not be the case at some other companies where we have seen very good, probably difficult, truculent editors leaving and possibly, and I’m making big assumptions here, slightly more malleable people are in key positions in some companies,” he said.

There is no suggestion that editorial leaders today need to be ‘malleable’ but they do need to be probably more commercially aware than their predecessors.