Inform scores Marks, but Ritson says we've (lost) it

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Nine Entertainment chief executive Hugh Marks answered questions from Ticky Fullerton and delegates
Newsworks UK chief executive Vanessa Clifford makes a point
Pauls together now: The Paul Murray Live host with Paul Whittaker
Hot and hoary topics were covered by Paul Murray and editorial panelists Paul Whittaker, Tory Maguire and (West Australian) editor Brett McCarthy
Hands up anyone whose name is Clare Robinson, founder of Clarety Inc
'Transformation and automation' panelists Peter Miller, Sophie Fletcher, (News' digital revenue managing director) Cameron King, and Clare Robinson
Sophie Fletcher says university-educated agency clerks don't want order-processing tedium... but do they?
Melbourne Business School adjunct professor Mark Ritson (pictured with NMW marketing director Charlie Murdoch) reckons we've lost it
'Hand-picked' by Jeff Bezos for an innovation role at the Washington Post, Jarrod Dicker left to found blockchain start-up
Sinead Boucher told the engaging story of the metamorphosis of Fairfax subsidiary Stuff NZ

One way or another, most speakers at Friday's Inform News Media Summit agreed that like Donald Trump, Facebook and Google were doing a great job. At marketing.

Mark Ritson - who drew titters from the audience with his expletive-laden address - put it more strongly.

While acknowledging that the newsmedia industry was in a less parlous state than when he had been scheduled to speak last year, with "genuine green shoots", he sent delegates home with the reassuring message that they'd f****d up how they presented themselves and there was no opportunity of fixing the perception. "It was a marketing game all along, and you lost it," he said. "Facebook is way better than us."

The "good news" was that there was a chance to make "incrementally more money" - through pushing longer term benefits, a nod to marketing gurus Peter Field and Les Binet - which, given the degree to which the industry had shrunk, would seem more than it was!

Earlier Newsworks UK chief executive Vanessa Clifford had told her Sydney audience how the UK publishers' group had challenged confusion and perceptions about newmedia brands by commissioning world-first research.

"We need to stop dismissing print, and stop talking about digital as if it's a form of advertising," she said.

Painfully aware of the criticism - famously leveled by Mandy Rice-Davies in the 1960s trial of Stephen Ward - that she "would say that", Clifford urged that the news brands avoided stating only facts that were in their own interest. "We need to frame the argument differently and explain how news brands fit in, and that they're not the answer to everything."

Projects which delivered thought leadership could change perceptions and provide tools which the advertising industry could use: Effectiveness - a short-cut for ROI - context and influence were the three pillars covering "everything we do," she said, adding that it was good to have some things you weren't good at, as it "built credibility".

One thing that she agrees is better, is TV, so it's good that Australia's newsmedia companies are increasingly involved in it.

In the case of Fairfax Media - publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne's The Age - it's the upcoming merger with broadcaster Nine Entertainment, whose chief executive Hugh Marks was a major draw at the conference. Answering some of the questions posed by moderator and Sky Business presenter Ticky Fullerton, he remonstrated that it was "premature" to talk about others (such as digital publishing).

What emerged was Marks the businessman, suspicious of the "over-emphasis" of print or radio media, and firm that his was an advertising business, concerned with "how we create the best platform for advertisers", how to present "what we've got that (the duopoly) don't have" and how scale might enable Nine to compete with giants such as Google and Facebook.

Marks had gone by the time the duopoly recurred in a panel discussion on editorial issues led by Sky's Paul Murray, when Fairfax national editor Tory Maguire was rounded on for her comment that she "hadn't seen" evidence that Google's algorithm was biased towards one ideology.

"Then why does it punish quality journalism," said Paul Whittaker, editor-in-chief of The Australian.

Maguire's "They don't punish us", brought the comment that "that's because you're in bed with them".

More significant was the topic of provenance, with Whittaker pointing out that while Sydney's Daily Telegraph had originated the story of (then deputy prime minister) Barnaby Joyce's affair with a staffer, only 6.66 per cent of coverage on the social media platform had been attributed to it.

"Until that algorithm is altered to benefit all publishers, I'll reserve my judgment," he added.

Hoary regulars such as the ABC's Facebook spending to build audience, and Media Watch criticism recurred, along with the issue of comment and reportage - where the problem was seen to exist in journalists' Tweets - and there was warning that Amazon's entry into the market would pose a new "gorilla".

Panelists also agreed there were huge problems with Australia's defamation laws... unlikely to be changed while "40 per cent of politicians are lawyers".

Another panel talked advertising issues, with Sophie Fletcher, convergence and operations head at Dentsu Aegis Network, raising the topic of automating print advertising bookings, something she was keen to introduce.

Would it be universally welcomed? While Fletcher said it was university-educated agency clerks who were keen to be rid of the tedium of a process currently dominated by Excel spreadsheets, Vanessa Clifford reported experience from the UK, where a platform had been developed and introduced, and was less welcomed by younger staff than senior ones.

It was a topic that fitted into the brief of leadership coach Clare Robinson who had earlier spoken on the obstacles to exploiting brain leadership and emotional intelligence. "There's quite a lot of fear in the issue, with comfort in the old behaviour," she said.

Technology gets less and less credit as an enabler, but for Tom Goodwin, the metal paint tube was the enabler for the impressionist movement while Elisha Otis' safety elevator made skyscrapers possible. And in the process upended society, putting the cool place to live up in the air instead of close to the ground.

So it is with the internet, and the man billed as LinkedIn's number one voice in marketing was at pains to present himself to Inform delegates as a "calm" voice.

"It's a great time to be alive, and we shouldn't be frightened," he assured them.

That said, the innovation head of Zenith Media USA acknowledged that clients who were positive about change were rare, and it was the "immense amount of crap" on the subject - and with which people guided their lives - which had motivated him to speak.

His brief stay in Australia had already confirmed his belief that manual jobs weren't about to disappear, reassured by a flagman near Byron Bay... and Sydney's labour-intensive tram works. "The things that stay the same are often ignored," he said. "We get blinded by distractions, while things that matter - like software - don't get noticed.

"The future will be amazing, but we need to rethink, not reuse."

He said the vicious circle of early digital production was a decline "we've never got out of".

He urged delegates to "get out of the old mould" and focus on what's possible. And while all screens will turn to digital, he reminded that the oldest forms of media were the most trusted. "We need to get mobile right and innovate around what's next". With today's equivalent of the metal paint tube, "we'll paint the best canvas we've even known".

It was a message underlying that of one of my favourite Inform speakers, Stuff New Zealand chief executive Sinead Boucher. I don't know whether she takes all the credit for the Fairfax subsidiary's metamorphosis to include internet service provider, energy retailer and video streaming businesses, but what's not to like?

With the acquisition of start-up Neighbourly - "like NextDoor and Nabo" - they even know who's moving house, and can pitch services accordingly.

One offshoot has been the Marketplace trading app, now with 1.3 million members: "It's allowed us to move into a range of services which have nothing to do with media," she says.

"Reframing" the business involved embracing risk, hyper personalisation, open ecosystems and exponential value. Print - in which the company has a 160-year tradition, and the trust which accompanies that - has been "most useful," she says, but "you need to look outside".

More food for thought came from Jarrod Dicker, who had left an innovation leadership role at the Washington Post - for which he had been "hand-picked" by Jeff Bezos - to found blockchain platform Whether a business which acknowledges the effort that goes into creating a story will actually help news publishers remains unclear.

The one-day event - attended free-of-charge by staff members of the three companies that are stakeholders in organisers NewsMediaWorks, Fairfax Media, News Corp Australia and Seven West unit West Australian Newspapers - was followed by the new-look 2018 News Media Awards which combines the former PANPA Newspaper of the Year and advertising and Marketing awards.

Many of the international speakers had been involved in other events, including News Corp's sales event on Hamilton Island where it apparently emerged that the anticipated sale of regional titles had been frozen.

Peter Coleman

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