Publish Asia: No shortage of optimism in 'trying times'

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There was a lot of optimism in the room today for what Publish Asia 'opener' Patrick Daniel called "trying times".

Right from the start of the Kuala conference, a case history of the Philippines Daily Inquirer's five-platform redesign was both inspiring and cause for thought. The traditional focus on "balanced news, fearless news" was being presented in new ways, thanks to the involvement of international designer Mario Garcia.

And a range of digital products were being brought to the attention of readers, many of whom thought of the daily only as a print edition with a heapo of hardcore news content. How would those readers take to Garcia's elegant page design, I wondered.

It seems there might be two answers: Through the mass circulation daily the Inquirer group also owns - which having been shorn of sex and violence, still offers "love advice" to its readers, for one.

And perhaps the endearment earned with advertisers might be worth the upset.

Presenting the case, chief marketing officer Charmaine Bautista-Parmintuan made it clear that the 14-month project was a way of showing readers (and non-readers) how to "experience the Inquirer in a new way", a message it promoted with outdoor advertising and celebrity endorsements.

And to "re-excite our advertisers," she said.

A trade partners launch was well received and social media comment was mostly favourable, and Bautista-Parmintuan says subscriptions have risen and new advertisers have been signed. Content remains the paper's "heart and soul".

All of which met with the approval of Innovation partner Juan Senor, who stressed the value of scarcity in his following address.

Before asking how they might migrate from advertising revenue to reader revenue, publishers needed to question whether they had anything worth paying for. "People will not pay for usefulness, relevance or value unless it is scarce," he said. Moving "from volume to value" was the responsibility of publishers, "and we have completely devalued it".

That mantra was being recognized in the US, where he says more than 300 newspapers will be charging for content by the end of this year, a contrast with "practically none" five years ago. And not just for views: Senor says there is a need to move "from clicks to clocks" and lauded the Financial Times initiative in selling "cost per hour" on ft.com, instead of CPM.

He also warned of the dangers of succumbing to the "charm offensive" of Google and Facebook. "The money is made where the content is viewed," he said, asking if we give away the readers and the pricing, "what's left".

At the UK Guardian, VR executive editor Francesca Panetti had a mandate to experiment, the publisher hoping that a business case will follow. Outstanding virtual reality presentations including one set in London's Victorian sewers and another in a 6x9 solitary confinement cell promise a financial outcome, thanks to recognition from public and industry. "For us as journalists, it's an amazing opportunity," she said.

So far support has come from the likes of Google News Labs (!) and Tribeca, but a current project has the support of a commercial client. The unit is working with ad brands, and also hopes for "philanthropic and tech-funded" support.

An overnight transformation had taken place at the Times of Oman under the editorship of Scott Armstrong and with a decision to run local rather than agency news. Growth stats for the three years following are "staggering", he says, with financial returns following. "Believing in ourselves" had brought better outcomes with fewer discounts and returning advertisers. One decision had been to bar Google advertising, leading to a 1000 per cent increase in digital revenue.

And so it was: The contrast between "succumbing to the charm offensive" - represented in a presentation on Google's cloud-based wonders from Inam Hussein and a workshops with the search giant's Irene Jay Liu on VR, and Facebook's Ken The on its 'journalism project" - or not doing so.

Over coffee, I heard more about the moves WAN-Ifra's World Editors Forum is making with the UN to tackle these giants' impact on journalism, but the controversy hasn't been mentioned in the conference so far.

The afternoon brought discussion - albeit with a smaller audience - on the economics of printing newspapers, and another on pricing and marketing with Tonton's Loh Ben Jerm and Mather Economics' Shawn de Weese. You could almost see the latter sizing up the former as a potential client, but of the panel contributions were illuminating. Jerm runs a movies-and-TV site owned by local giant Media Prima, but the considerations of premiums and packaging were familiar to newspaper publishers; De Weese's focus is in making sure that "money isn't left on the table" when deciding what a print or digital subscriber would be willing to pay.

Earlier, Matthias Tietz of Rheinische-Bergishe Druckerie had travelled from Düsseldorf in Germany, and Fairfax Media's Jon Clarke from Canberra, Australia, to talk about ways of dealing with reduced demand for printed matter. Tietz' optimisim was to respond to "slow but steady" decline in demand for print by finding new non-newspaper customers - and still closing one of its plants - while Clarke told the positive story of Fairfax's closure of "dinosaur" print centres in Sydney and Melbourne, replacing them with upgraded regional capacity, and getting an 11-month return on the $42-45 million investment (excluding the proceeds from selling the real estate).

Clarke is hopeful the industry will still give him another 20 years; it's hard to say whether the same is true in Düsseldorf, but Tietz - with his modern waterless press capacity - is optimistic.

Peter Coleman

Publish Asia continues tomorrow at Le Meridien in Kuala Lumpur. The Asia Media Awards are being presented tonight at a dinner at which the prime minister of Malaysia, Dato Sri Haji Mohammad Najib bin Tun Haji Abdul Razak will be guest of honour and a speaker.

Pictured: Fairfax Media's Jon Clarke

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