Publish Asia: Where the 'elephants' are friendly

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Elephants live a charmed life in Bangkok, but it was the 'elephant in the room', not the ones which occasionally stray into shopping centres, which was concentrating the minds of Publish Asia delegates in the city this week (writes Peter Coleman).

A day after buying peace in Europe, the Google giant was the wannabe partner of news publishers from the region, gathered for the three-day event. Or not, magnanimous enough to suggest that there were other demand sources' publishers might choose to work with.

If reports that they're taking half the digital dollars going are correct, they can afford to be.

During the day, the search giant had hosted a session with southeast Asia and India head of partnerships Dushyant Khare and former Denver Post chief executive Kirk MacDonald (left) - who now runs US parent Digital First Media's AdTaxi business, a Google reseller - and two more from Asia Pacific communications manager Robin Moroney updating ad staff on the growth of mobile in the region and showing editorial people how to Google tools to hunt for data.

Khare is eloquent and informed, sharing data and advice about a unique (and very positive) regional market in which the long mobile attention span and willingness to buy from mobile apps confounds experience in other parts of the world.

"It's about how you present content - with a need for a balance of text and visual - and the ability to share at the touch of a button," he says.

Asia has a high proportion of mobile-only users but these are very different to those using multiple screens: "If you have to prioritise, focus on the mobile web, cater for those with patchy network coverage, and deliver a rich experience."

And partnerships, partnerships, partnerships... not just with Google and its PSPs, but also on content sharing, news aggregation, video and the likes of YouChat.

From MacDonald - whose clients in a "nine-figure business" include News Corp Australia - the message was that if you think there's no money in digital media, "you haven't been selling it long enough".

A comment that Google is "not concerned about competitors" but about the satisfaction of its customers prompted a lively dialogue with consultant eamonn Byrne, who was moderating the session: "If they destroy a competitor, that's incidental, then," he asked. MacDonald thought that "a bit strong" and claimed Google growth was slowing, and that there was "plenty of money out there".

There's hope, however: "All the smartest AdTaxi customers have a print background," he says.

With reports of the death of printed newspapers if not exaggerated, then premature, digital TV was one of the diversification options being canvassed by today's speakers.

Nation Multimedia's group editor-in-chief Thepchai Yong was frank enough to admit that moving into broadcast was a matter of survival. But there's no easy money. The advent of digital TV was initially greeted as "one of the best pieces of news for years" - and may yet prove so - but sudden growth from eight to 24 stations was tough for operators, especially newcomers, and created an ad buyers' market.

Internally, the biggest challenge - cultural change - had been partially addressed by the introduction of a convergent newsroom. A 'Revolution' campaign started at the top and involved and informed all employees.

Grandson of the top-selling paper's founder, Vachara Vacharaphol (left) told how Thairath had invested more than six billion baht ($230 million) on its entry into digital TV - more than half for the 15-year licence and the balance shared on content and infrastructure.

They're not seeing it back any time soon: Losses are coming down - from US$150 million the first year to an expected $50 million this and if breakeven is achieved in a couple of years, it will be ahead of the "seven years of pain" to which the publisher committed.

Rewards from the decision to differentiate with a programme split equally between news and entertainment from have included a top-five ranking, and strong ratings performance for its prime time news show.

While the two Thai publishers struggle with an oversupplied market - and laugh at the conference over "poached" staff - JMnet chief executive Jeongdo Hong reported that things were easier in South Korea, where there the only regrets about enter high-end broadcasting were not having done it earlier. "We hesitated for a year, which cost us $130 million.

"We looked at a focus on what we're good at, which is news and documentaries, but the marketing dollars are in entertainment, so we became the only new entrant to move into the risky 'general TV' category," he says.

Pitching for a younger audience expanded the company's reach from its base in the conservative 50+ age group. "Now we're the only one growing, and doing OK."

By the afternoon, organisers had brought delegates from all four Publish Asia streams together and the mood was upbeat.

From Australia, Fairfax Media head of native Nada Tielu (left) told how mobile revenue was being gorn with a variety of initiatives including a new Skim iPhone app which will interact with the new Apple Watch.

Dow Jones Asia managing director Mark Pope reported on the progress from the hand-stippled illustrations of the Wall Street Journal to today's focus of digital and storytelling. 'DJ at DJ' sessions tell digital journalists and others what's possible, and "huge immersive projects" provide an opportunity to experiment and learn. In part of a focus on process, the project development team has been moved into the newsroom and given KPIs.

"These days they ask, 'what are you trying to achieve'," he says.

"We had to change the culture and give it the resources, but we've decided that if you can't do something properly, we're not going to do it."

International New York Times regional vice president Helena Phua told how the former International Herald Tribune title was marching into China, initially with a Chinese-language print edition, 20,000 copies of which will be printed for upmarket readers in Hong Kong and Macau, in addition to the much-publicised Apple watch app, a new magazine and partnerships in five Asian markets.

"It's a fascinating world we're in and we must continue to adapt while maintaining and establishing the integrity of our journalism," she says.

• Next year's Publish Asia will be in Manila, the Philippines.

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