There's a flavour of next week's World Media Leaders eSummit in the comments of news media analyst Ken Doctor in an interview with WAN-Ifra's World News Publishing Focus.
Doctor will moderate a 'Town Hall' session with Phillip Crawley, chief executive of the Globe and Mail in Canada, and Jean-Luc Breysee, deputy chief executive of Group Figaro in France, on Monday during the eSummit.
On loyalty and engagement, Doctor points to unprecedented short-term membership bumps in news subscription sales. "Technology provider Zuora has reported increased subscription growth of 110 per cent, among its clients, in the last three months, and that tracks closely what I've seen.
"Those news sources that have devoted significant resources to local COVID-19 coverage have been rewarded by their readers, with new subscriptions. In fact, they've re-proven the unique value of local reporting. Even superior national reporting can't do what the locals have done.
"The lesson: high-quality, unique local content sells."
Doctor says consolidation in the US is picking up more speed for the same reasons as pre-pandemic, but with even more urgency: "M&A is a prime strategy to reduce expenses, and cost reduction is top of mind for all publishers. With Alden Global Media closer to assuming fuller control of Tribune Publishing, and McClatchy exiting bankruptcy court, we may well see what were seven independent newspapers companies falling into three or four companies by year's end. "And they will likely be largely controlled by financial companies," he says.
With huge hits on advertising revenue, he sees experimentation on ways to maximise reader revenue, which he says is "job one" for newspaper publishers.
"We see a lot of experimentation with virtual events, mainly to replace lost sponsor revenue expected from physical events," he says.
"Those physical events were the key new alternative many publishers had turned to, so in addition to the lost ad revenue, that's been another hit to income."
He says all high-quality journalism, whether produced by for-profits or non-profits, is welcome: "At this perilous moment, we're seeing a greater shrinking of the for-profit press, with a few notable exceptions.
"Overall, the non-profit model is small, diverse and enthusiastic - but not coming close to replacing the volume of local reporting that has been lost in the great shrinkage of the press. We're seeing more serious business and tech-based thinking in some of these enterprises. That's very welcome, and needs to grow rapidly."
Doctor has announced his own experimental local news model, a hybrid as a for-profit, public benefit corporation. "I hope Lookout Local changes the conversation about what's possible and necessary in rebuilding local news in the 2020s," he says and promises more news on it soon.
"As to government support, there's a wide mix of proposals in formation. Short-term ones, such as payroll support, clearly have been helpful. There are intriguing longer-term ones that would provide both potential news company owners and/or subscribers tax benefits. We'll see how many actually get tested in North America, Europe and/or Australia.
"As critical as is the financial feeding of journalists' jobs, I believe we all need to keep a couple of arms' lengths from government influence in the essential independence of news media. That's as fundamental to our survival as is the money that supports it."
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