LSE professor: 'Newsbrands yet to grasp how much they need to change'

11 Jul 2017  |  Ellen Hammett 
LSE professor: 'Newsbrands yet to grasp how much they need to change'

As challenges around fake news, declining ad revenues and the dominance of the Facebook and Google duopoly continue to grow, Charlie Beckett, a media professor at the London School of Economics, has warned that news publishers need to change radically if they are to pave the way for a bright future online.

Speaking at an IAB and Debating Group debate at the House of Commons on Monday (10 July), chaired by former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, Beckett said news publishers need to "get it into their heads" that they do not have a right to exist and advertisers have a right to go elsewhere.

"There is still a fundamental problem with the news media in that it still hasn’t grasped quite how radically things have got to change," Beckett said.

"The infrastructure has changed dramatically [and] there is no going back. There's a danger that the newspapers have now got it in for Google and Facebook and it would be nice if those lovely people returned some money and nurtured publishers a bit more - it sounds like they are going to - but that advertising money isn’t the news media’s by right. Advertisers have got a right to go somewhere else."

Beckett, who is also a special adviser on broadcasting for the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, said trust remains a key challenge for UK newsbrands.

"Trust in the news media is at an all-time low in this country and trust in online news media is even lower," he said.

"The trouble with that is that if people don’t trust you, they’re not going to value your work and they’re certainly not going to pay for it."

Indeed, the number of people in the UK saying they trusted the media fell from 36% in 2016 to 24% this year, according to Edelman's 2017 annual trust survey - now lower than the British government (26%).

Another challenge, Beckett said, is that there has been a distinct shift online towards people wanting more personable and emotional content.

"Too often I see cheap, identity-values kind of journalism that panders to people’s prejudices and biases and is very happy to keep them in their filter bubbles," he said.

"That may be a great way to get traffic but is that a great way to promote quality journalism? And in the end, that kind of content, that kind of quality, is going to be what keeps people coming back for a longer period than just the recent Trump bump, the Brexit bump...when people suddenly realise how important journalism was."

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NickDrew, CEO, Fuse Insights on 14 Jul 2017
“A genuinely interesting discussion that moves beyond the usual "newsbrands deserve protection because they're special". There's no doubt that publishers have made operational mistakes over the last few years - buying wholesale into the promise of programmatic being one of them. And underlying their decline is of course the shift to impression-based revenue, with the commensurate decrease in editorial quality, favouring quantity (of clicks, impressions) over the previously sacrosanct principle of quality (of content, engagement, audience).
Ultimately, the future of news publishers and legacy newspaper brands does come down to being able to ask, and answer, "but why?". We keep hearing that news brands are special - why? In a world where the Telegraph excels in 100-page galleries of spurious football transfer rumours, the Daily Mail tells me in gory detail about how Kate Middleton definitely won't be invited to Meghan Markle's wedding, and The Guardian devotes an entire article to something that happened on social media (with all sources being tweets), what separates the supposedly "proper" news media from the thousands of other sites that will churn out the same content?
Newspapers used to set themselves apart - by their environment, their editorial, their investigative writing. That distinction no longer exists - so *why* are they special, and *why* do they feel they're entitled to advertisers' budgets?”
RickWaghorn, Ceo, Addiply on 12 Jul 2017
“Just to drill a little further down into Vanessa's impassioned defence of the hardpressed newsbrands... the point remains that when it comes to building the advertising technology 'stacks' upon which news brands future online and mobile prosperity will come to rest, they are wholly complicit in their own misfortune.

They have embraced - and embraced again - global facing ad tech in the vain belief that volume ad sales driven through vast programmatic ad exchanges will be their saviour.

Hence the likes of Johnston Press sign everyone up to 1XL only to then recruit Rubicon Project out of the US because 1XL isn't complex enough to deliver the latest in server to server header bidding.

This is the same Rubicon Project that the Guardian are now suing over their lack of transparency with regard to fees - which, presumably, helps explain why they are now only seeing 30% of their intended ad revenue wind it's way into their coffers via the programmatic ad exchanges they have built and partnered with over the last 5-7 years.

Google and Facebooks dominance in the ad revenue space isn't all of their making... successive commercial departments at every major news brand and provincial news company in the UK have chased and chased complexity in their search for a sustainable online/mobile business model - and they are falling short.

Through their own ineptitude. No-one elses.

Guardian had a sustainable local model in 2010-11. I should know. Our nascent simple adtech platform was wired into their GuardianLocal platforms for Leeds, Edinburgh and Cardiff.

It was the Guardian's decision to shutter those sites and chase the global ad tech dollar via Guardian US and the 'Pangaea Alliance' - whatever/wherever that is now.

And is there in any hint of contrition or humility in Vanessa's pushback? No...

But there should be. You only have yourselves to blame.”
VanessaClifford, CEO, Newsworks on 11 Jul 2017
“Oh, so much to say in response to this...

It’s very easy for Charlie Beckett to make sweeping statement like news media “still hasn’t grasped quite how radically things have got to change”, without providing any of the details as to what needs to change and how. If anyone knows that there is “no going back”, it’s the newsbrands themselves.

Across the board, they have embraced every platform that has come along. From The Sun’s pioneering use of Snapchat to the Guardian’s cutting-edge innovation with VR projects, newsbrands are grasping the opportunities change offers with an agility that outstrips many other media.

When it comes to Beckett’s view that advertisers have a right to go elsewhere other than newsbrands – of course they do! Advertisers also have the right for their ads appear in a safe environment. They have a right for those ads to be seen. They have a right to complete transparency around metrics, which have been verified by a third-party. It cuts both ways.

By starting that newspapers “have now got it in for Google and Facebook”, Beckett is of course referring to newspapers’ revelations about YouTube ad placement and Facebook’s regulation. These are stories that need to be bought to our attention. It’s not a case of “having it in” for a particular platform. It’s about holding them to account, just as newsbrands would, and do, for many other bodies of authority.

Moving on to the issue of trust. We know that trust is by no means linear, but complex and multi-layered. Crucially, asking someone whether they trust their particular newsbrand(s) of choice elicits a much more positive response than asking them about newsbrands in general.

The recent Reuters Digital News Report backs this up, while also finding that people are over twice as likely to trust news media over social media to separate fact from fiction. So yes, trust is obviously an issue that needs to be addressed, but the reality isn’t as straightforward as mapping trust’s linear decline. To get a handle on trust levels you need to get under the skin of people’s relationship with their particular titles and what they are trusting them for.

Finally, to the point about filter bubbles and newsbrands “pandering to people’s prejudices and biases”. By their partisan, opinionated nature, newsbrands have always been large filter bubbles. They provide a lens on the world that both informs and is informed by their readers’ views. This role is exaggerated by the hyper-targeting of social media, but I don’t agree that this is damaging the quality of journalism being produced, evidenced by the fact that newsbrands’ readership is higher than ever and growing. There doesn’t appear to be an issue with getting people to come back for more.”

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24 Jul 2017 

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