Publish Asia: Fears, threats... and dramatic diversification

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If Wednesday was one to instill confidence, today's final day of the Publish Asia conference in Kuala Lumpur brought home all the instabilities and insecurities which had brought many delegates here in the first place.

Challenges from fake news and to media freedom... and of course, to the revenue streams which should have powered publishers out of their predicament.

One dramatic solution is Star Media's diversification into sci-fi-based VR exhibitions, a moneyspinner which has evolved incongruously from a partnership with Marvel in Las Vegas, and now New York, Paris, Singapore and shortly Sydney.

I heard criticism that some of the conference content repeated learnings which had been presented before: To integrate newsrooms, leverage audience and look for alternative sources of revenue. But if that was the case, there were still delegates needing to learn those lessons.

The Axel Springer case history is a familiar one, the German giant selling foundation assets to fund its drive into digital. As manager for previous technology projects and now senior deputy technology editor, Torsten Stolz was well placed to look back over the group's decades of change.

In a CCI-sponsored breakfast session, he covered not only the transition from the days when five newspapers each had their own editorial systems, to the current digital-first "inhouse news agency" at the heart of national daily Die Welt, its strong Sunday stablemate, and Springer's multitude of websites.

The stories have been told of a top-led excursion to gain a Silicon Valley mindset, and of how most print-related assets - including the original Hamburg daily - had been sold to buy web and classified portals and a TV station, and fund startups and an incubator unit.

Stolz told how attitude change had been forced by setting rules which excluded the daily newspaper from allocating resources and denied it the opportunity to hold its own stories back from the digital desk. "No-one works just for print, and everything is digital/mobile-first, sometimes social-first; content is never exclusive," he said.

Another publisher making that change has been South Korean giant Jeong Ang Ilbo, which is implementing a an Eye-centric newsroom devised by Innovation's Juan Senor after the "dilemma of self-denial". Chief operating officer Chang Hee Park urged delegates, "do what we should do, even though we should have done it years ago."

Two contributions about Big Data and price sensitivity complemented those on Wednesday from Loh Ben Jern, general manager of OTT provider tonton - part of NSTP parent Media Prima - and Mather Economics' Shawn deWeese.

From the Netherlands, NRC Media data intelligence manager Matthijs Van de Peppel told how the Handelsblad publisher increased margins by cutting subscription prices. Decentralised "data Rambos" set up systems to predict optimum pricing, but warned of the danger of breaking relationships with "one size fits all" policies.

The author of a book on the relationship economy, he also emphasized empathy: "It's about listening to people," he says. While a softer stance on holiday subscription breaks cost money for example, the biggest payback was a 48 per cent reduction in cancellations.

The statistical theory became yet more intense when University of NSW biophysicist Matthew Baker told of the three months he spent at Australia's Fairfax Media, embedded as a Google News Labs fellow. Projects there included writing an inhouse recommendation engine to replace the use of Outbrain, and development of data journalism on subjects such as housing inequality, antibiotics evolution and the impact of Sydney's hotel "lockout" laws.

On recommendation, he talked principal component and cluster analysis, and word vectoring... topics with which Danial Buenas of Singapore Press Holdings' group strategy and analytics division would have been right at home. His contributions covered a model to predict optimal print distribution, ensuring that retail outlets sold out as rarely as possible while keeping returns to a minimum.

After the previous night's reassurances from the prime minister about press freedom in Malaysia, Malaysiakini editor-in-chief Steven Gan had a different perspective, mentioning the 35 laws he says "directly or indirectly impinge on press freedom". The publisher has been raided "several times" in its 17 years, and regular bimonthly visits by police to "take statements" were a serious waste of time. And after a "martial arts demonstration" outside by activists, a large python had been found in their offices.

Gan says maintaining credibility depends on good journalism, and with "lots of money going into misinformation" it is even more important than ever to check facts. Connecting with readers had brought benefits, however, with supporters contributing US$500,000 for a new building, literally brick by brick.

On the same theme, Bambang Harimurti, chief executive and group editor-in-chief of Indonesia's Tempo told how the 46-year-old magazine had been banned from publishing in 1982 and 1994, the latter move resulting in its evolution into an online news site, Tempo Interaktif. After the resignation of President Soeharto, print eventually returned with a public-owned daily edition, Koran Tempo, funded through a Stock Exchange float. "We are growing, and the dream of our own modern, integrated office is almost complete," he says. "Indonesia is still lucky, with the most-trusted media and positive digital media, supported by subscriptions."

Founder of Hong Kong's quite new Factwire news agency Ng Hiu-Tung said he too dreamed of a building "with better security" but the cost of real estate there makes that prohibitive. Ng no longer takes a salary following donations of US$600,000 received from supporters, but retains his pride in an operation which keeps creating scoops and provides a service to which all HK media now subscribe.

News is about spending money, he says, but "build credibility, and business will come to you".

Contributing to the panel session via Skype from Mexico City was Jodi Rudoren, editorial director of New York Times Global, also proud to talk about fearless journalism, including the Pulitzer-winning photo essay on Philippines shootings developed by freelance Daniel Berehulak.

Delegates also wanted her views on the relationships publishers should have with giants such as Google and Facebook, a frenemy on which she said the publisher was "deeply dependent".

"We're trying to use these (partnerships) in the most strategic way possible," she added, quoting the adage about "keeping friends close and enemies closer".

Watch out for more reports online and full coverage in GXpress Magazine.

Peter Coleman

Pictured: The Korean double-act of former schoolmates chief digital officer Sirgoo Lee and Chang Hee Park

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