Traditional Media is far from doomed, but only if product and editorial start having lunch together

Rishabh Srivastava
May 6, 2016 · 5 min read

This article is the first in a 3-part series that outlines technology solutions to the big challenges that traditional media companies (particularly those in Asia) currently face. I draw from my experience in developing products for journalists, so parts of this series might be somewhat self-promotional.

The internet is rife with troubles in the media business. After all, how can traditional media companies, who built their reputations doing serious long-form journalism, compete with cat pictures and exploding watermelon videos that dominate the web? When ad-revenue is the tail wagging the content dog, and an article about Kim Kardashian’s latest tweet is worth the same per pageview as a long-form article about the Syrian refugee crisis, are traditional companies — with their “bloated” cost structure — not bound to fail?

My experience in consulting for media clients has convinced me that while the challenges that traditional media faces are real, the rumors of its demise are greatly exaggerated. The greatest threat that a traditional media behemoth faces is itself, not BuzzFeed or Scoopwhoop.

Firstly, platforms are catching up to the game. Facebook recently announced changes in its newsfeed algorithm that will give more preference to engaging journalism, as opposed to low-effort, clickbait articles that users don’t spend much time on. This means that, other things being equal, you are now more likely to see a longform article about the refugee crisis on your newsfeed than an article titled “OMG! Can you guess what Beyonce wore last night?”. Users that visit the former are likely to be engaged for a substantial amount of time, while users that visit the latter are likely to leave as soon as they check out what Beyonce wore last night.

Secondly, advertisers are not beginning to move away from the pageview as a unit of digital ad-currency. While a lot of infrastructure has been built using the pageviews as the advertising metric, and inertia dictates that the pageview will be a mainstay for a while, alternative, time-based metrics are beginning to gain steam. Already, Upworthy primarily uses active time-spent as its key metric, while BuzzFeed, New York Times and the Financial Times are beginning to develop composite metrics that include pageviews, time spent, scroll depth and social shares, along with other components. Moreover, research indicates time spent is a better indicator of ad effectiveness than pixels viewed. As advertisers begin to shift their advertising dollars more intelligently into ad-products that incorporate time spent, expect engaging journalism to mount a comeback.

Thirdly, and most importantly, traditional media companies still have drastically more resources than new media companies. They have an army of reporters and years-long relationships with politicians, business-people and folks in the entertainment industry. With the right mindset and technological tools, they can far surpass digital offshoots. As someone who has developed tools for large media companies, I have seen first-hand how the right mixture of analytics, content strategy and automated research can do wonders for both web-performance and staff motivation.

Writers’ perception needs to be more aligned with reality

To do this, however, companies need to start understanding the mindset of the web-consumer, and break down the walls that exist between editorial and technology teams. It is impossible to be an effective web-publication without having a deep-rooted integration of content and analytics.

Over the last year, I have been astounded at how little content-creators know about the performance of their work. While (almost) all journalists know how many pageviews they received, few know how far readers scrolled down on their article, how long readers spent actively engaging with the article, whether or not readers read other articles after finishing the one they were currently on, and how an article performed on social media. Journalists also do not know the click through rate of their headlines on social media, and are rarely given directions on how to write headlines and content that perform well on social media. The result is that journalists’ perception of how users consume their articles is often divorced from reality, which can be disastrous for content companies.

Moreover, journalists lack the technical skills to create interactives (like quizzes, or queryable widgets) that fully leverage the power of the web to engage users. While successful companies in the west (like BuzzFeed and the New York Times) have empowered journalists by investing in custom CMSes that enable them to create interactives without touching a line of code, Asian companies have yet to follow suit. Indeed, journalists have to talk to tech team to build custom products when they get ideas for creating interactives, and because tech and content speak different languages, budding ideas are often abandoned. This is terrible for innovation, because journalists with great, creative ideas about how to create content on the web often feel discouraged after their ideas fail to make it to the website (or do so in a terribly botched manner).

Lastly, large media companies do themselves a huge disservice by not investing in good, personalized recommendation systems. These companies have years of great content that readers would love reading, but are unable to show them effectively. While companies like the New York Times have an excellent recommendation system, “recommendations” on most media sites are limited to either articles that were popular recently, or recent articles that belong to the same ‘category’ (politics, economy, entertainment) that the reader is currently reading. Truly personalized recommendations, that take into account the user’s past browsing history, patterns in reading fatigue about individual topics, and contextual demographic information can significantly boost user engagement and turn them into rabid fans of your site. I, for one, would make sure to evangelize an Indian site that shows be news about the topics I am interested in (Economy, Politics, and Culture) instead of inundating me with photos of bollywood celebrities and crickets stars (which most sites have the unfortunate tendency of doing).

What I describe above is not an easy undertaking. It requires significant technology investments. But these investments are inevitable for traditional media companies if they hope to stay relevant. And for these to become reality, editorial and technology need to start empathizing with each other.

In the next two posts, I provide concrete examples of how effective technology solutions can provide concrete value to media sites. If you found this post useful (or — and particularly if — it made you think that I’m an absolute idiot), please do write in at rishabhsriv@gmail.com. Would love to hear your perspective!


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