'Digital first' becomes a rallying cry for an industry in transition
Publishers have been talking about “digital first” strategies for years. In 2011, we began to see some tangible evidence that a digital-first mindset was taking hold across the industry.
The leader of this movement is John Paton, whom the New York Times in November dubbed “newspapers’ digital apostle.” Paton (pictured) began the year as head of the Journal Register Co. and ended it as CEO of Digital First, a management company overseeing the Journal Register and MediaNews Group. So how does Paton define “digital first”?
"We say digital first and print last not because we're dismissing print, but because it actually comes last in the cycle,” Paton said in February. "Long before that we are using social media, we're using video, we're using mobile and we're using web and widgets to get that news out there before we do the actual print product."
Others have picked up the phrase and run with it. In June, the UK’s Guardian News & Media announced it would become a “digital-first organization,” which it defined in part as “placing open journalism at the heart of its strategy.”
Prioritizing digital business at The Atlantic led to the magazine’s first profit in decades. In October, the company announced another milestone in its efforts: digital advertising revenue exceeded print ad sales for the first time.
Some publishers have gone one step further by going “digital only” – abandoning print altogether. In October, Ziff-Davis Enterprise announced that its technology trade titles would go paperless in January as the company focuses on an “omnidigital” strategy built around its websites and mobile products.
Challenges remain. Affinity’s American Magazine Study, released in December, found that more than half of the total audience of 12 large consumer publishers consists of print-only readers – meaning that the majority of the audience says they don’t access any content on the magazines’ websites, social media pages or mobile apps.
In practice, a digital-first strategy requires significant changes to three core elements of a publisher’s business: operations, products and culture. Revenue models under this approach won’t come from one digital source, but from several. “The Internet is about stacking dimes,” a publishing executive told eMediaVitals in August. “You need 20 to 30 revenue streams, and you have to adjust quickly based on what’s working and what’s not.”
Publishers experimented with many such streams this year – some of which turned into viable businesses. E-singles became popular among publishers ranging from ProPublica to Rodale to String Letter Publishing.
Other lines were blurring between publishers and agencies, as media companies launched a variety of marketing services. In May, Conde Nast launched a marketing services division to focus on app development, video, web design and social media.
Marketing services make up an increasingly larger share of ad-driven revenues at UBM TechWeb. In September, IDG extended its budding marketing services business into mobile with a new program designed to help tech marketers reach audiences on smartphones and tablets.
Some publishers, however, remain cautious about the perils of competing with agencies and reducing their margins. Some prefer more traditional methods for diversifying their revenue streams. Vogue and the New Yorker, for example, are selling access to their extensive content archives. Content licensing across mobile devices is another option.
Expect more of these initiatives as the “digital first” buzz grows louder.
Back to 2011: 5 game-changing trends