Opinion

Global publisher association boss: traditional and new media are two ends of a burning rope

Earl WilkinsonThis week more than 500 of world’s top newspaper executives converged- in New York for the International News Media Association (INMA) World Congress. Nic Christensen sat down with executive director Earl Wilkinson to talk about the organisation and the challenges facing his members globally. 

You mentioned in your statements to the World Congress that paywalls are a decreasing priority for your members, branded content has been a big focus of the 2015 Congress – from your perspective what is top of the agenda for publishers when it comes to revenue question? 

That’s a big question. I’ve been doing this for 25 years and when I first started this you could not get executives from 45 countries on to common ground to talk about issues – advertising was different, maybe you could talk about strategy, maybe marketing but it was really hard to do.

What is interesting is that in this global village – this digital village that we have now – from Pakistan, to Sweden, to Silicon Valley everyone is on the same page. They realise they may be at different points  in the evolution of media but we know we’re going the same direction from print to multimedia. If you believe Ross (Dawson) maybe digital only at some point.

I think that is what is interesting. I mentioned this morning about two ends of a burning rope and its that one end of the burning rope (digital players) that is interesting we are trying to figure out how do we build digital audiences, how do we monetise them.

And by the way I visited Vox and Vice and Business Insider and Complex Media – they know how to build an (online) audience but they don’t have any secret sauce to monetisation anymore than we do. Do you want to be the one billion dollar company that is creating value every day and trying to figure it out? Or do you want to be the $50m organisation who I think is doing really good work but is surfing venture capital cash, to venture capital cash.

I think we lose of that fact. I lose sight of that fact.

You describe traditional publishers and digital publishers as two ends of a rope burning towards each other. You had a “Disruption Tour” last week with the likes of Vice, Vox etc. What were the lessons out of that for you? 

We believe that with the legacy part of the business a lot of us are gut people becoming data people, but they are data people who are becoming gut people.

At the end of the day I think the likes of Buzzfeed – we didn’t visit them – but I think they realise that they need to be involved with quality editorial environments if they are going to command higher CPMs in the future. And they can’t do that with an algorithm and they can’t do that with click bait.

I think they are doing a fantastic job of injecting quality story telling into what they do. From our side of the road we need to probably bring the voice of the reader into this a little more than we have.

Ross Dawson mentioned some controversial things in his keynote – not just the possible end of print newspapers – but the need to better crowd source and involve the audience. What do you make of these ideas about the relationship between publishers and their audiences? 

I will say this – I think digital companies do a much better job of recognising the power of the audience, the power of the demographics and leveraging that. We on the legacy side believe we are doing god’s work but there’s a middle to that rope that are going to cross in the next three years and they are going to become more less us and we are going to become more like them.

So you don’t see new digital players as a threat? 

Let me give you an example – about 20 years ago Metro International launches in the subways of Stockholm. Free commuter newspaper, good god we hear ‘they are enemy’, ‘they are taking everything’, ‘they are clearly not quality’ and they were just another company that was slicing the market, creating an audience, pulling advertising and there was a role for free commuter newspapers.

We welcomed them into the our association when no one else did. I would say the same thing about these new digital companies we want to learn from them.

Its been a number of years since INMA changed its name and took the word ‘newspaper’ out its title but how are you going in broadening that membership beyond the legacy publishers? 

I don’t think we are any danger of survival or not survival we have a big association but yeah right now they are all legacy publishers reinventing themselves for the digital age. They don’t view themselves as newspapers they view themselves as news media companies.

We didn’t change our name in the last couple of years for any strategic reason – because we were going to get CNN, or Vox as a member – its just our existing members didn’t view themselves as newspapers anymore.

Now having made the transition it is a logical thing to deduce that we would love to welcome them into our tent.

We would love to learn from them maybe they could learn from us? I think the things that divide us are going to go away in the next few years.

  • Nic Christensen is deputy editor of Mumbrella, and has been in New York covering the INMA conference
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