News media companies are facing cultural questions about how to modernise and move from a legacy newsroom approach to a more data-led or data-influenced organisation. Part of knowing the answers comes from understanding the culture of each newsroom and how they can become more adaptable.
Tom Standage, deputy editor at The Economist, talked with Initiative Lead Peter Bale about the unique approach the company has taken toward adopting digital strategies, providing insights into how those strategies have worked for them.
“I think it’s a huge area here for newsroom leaders to be able to influence their organisations,” he said. But it’s something that no longer can be done in a silo: “Great journalism needs great product and engineering teams, and they need to work with each other. And there are no excuses anymore for any digital products to be less than perfect.”
He emphasised that the long-standing culture of The Economist guided its push into digital, and that audio and influenced its strategy. And Standage has been at the helm as the company navigated those changes.
Entering the digital frontier
Since joining The Economist in 1998, Standage has been on the front lines in the transition from print to digital. The Economist had taken a different approach to the Web than most publications, and he believes it was the right approach.
“One of the potholes we didn’t fall into is we didn’t build a separate digital newsroom with much younger, much less experienced, much cheaper journalists — and then have the inevitable reckoning where … [companies have] one digital newsroom and then they’ve got an older, much more expensive, much more experienced print newsroom.”
Instead of creating a siloed digital news operation, The Economist simply put its publication on the Web every week and charged readers to access it: “We always had a paywall. We never had a ‘Let's give it all away and see what happens’ model.”
Instead, it experimented with different paywall models that have changed dramatically over the years, but readers never expected the content to be free. That avoided a hurdle many publishers faced as they tried to shift readers toward a paid model.
But the big change in company-wide thinking at The Economist came with the appointment of CEO Lara Boro in 2019. She saw the importance of investing in digital, and Standage said that has created “a complete change in the staffing and the approach to digital on the commercial side of the business.” It has a much bigger team, and he said that team “feels that we’re sort of pulling in the same direction now.”
A bold revenue strategy
Because The Economist has never been advertising-driven, it has weathered recent changes differently than many publications. Standage acknowledged that the subscription price is high, which has allowed its print product to continue longer than others.
“I expect us to be one of the last print editions standing, just because we can afford to put prices up in a way that other publications probably can’t,” he said.
When advertising was going strong, rates at The Economist were high. But even when advertising began to dry up for newspapers, it was able to continue publishing because that was never central to its model.
“Our model is: Our readers give us money to save them time. It’s as simple as that; they pay us for the content. And we think that reading words on a page or on a screen is the fastest way to get up to speed with what’s going on in the world. And that’s the service we provide to our reader.”
The Economist helps busy readers navigate an increasingly cluttered news landscape: “There is this sense that the news environment is getting noisier and noisier and, in fact, more polluted as well,” Standage said. “You’ve got fake news and lower quality news sources and so forth. And so what The Economist does is it helps you navigate that by saying, look, here’s a source you can trust.”
Talking about audio
Podcasts and other forms of audio have become part of the digital format for many newspapers, and Standage discussed The Economist’s entry into the audio format. It was one of the early podcast creators, starting in 2006 when Apple began selling iPods.
At that time, podcasting was so new that people didn’t understand what a podcast was, and Apple stores featured The Economist podcast to demonstrate the nascent format. It launched an audio edition of The Economist in 2007, where news readers read out every story in the weekly edition. The company recognised early on the benefits of audio.
“[Our readers] are very busy people and they don’t have a lot of time,” he said. “It allows them to listen to The Economist when they’re doing something else, whether it’s working out or commuting or gardening, or whatever it is they’re doing. And it has a very dedicated hard core of users for whom that’s the main way they consume The Economist.”
The audio edition has always been a subscriber-only feature, but podcasts represent a new opportunity. Standage said he sees podcasts as the greatest opportunity to grow its subscriber base.
“People who listen to podcasts are, on average, more highly educated. They’re more interested in news. And they’re more likely to have a kind of a sort of curious global outlook,” he said, pointing out that they are exactly the kinds of people that would be attracted to The Economist. “We think they’re the ideal future Economist subscribers. So podcasts are a very obvious way for us to essentially put our brand in front of people who might not be aware of us and what we do.”
Although the strategy has been to use podcasting as a tool for building brand awareness, its podcasts have become so popular that they are generating a significant amount of advertising revenue. “So, weirdly, it’s a kind of content marketing that is profitable, but also drives subscriptions.”
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