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Dec. 6, 2018, 9:44 a.m.

Digital-native publishers settle in to face legacy constraints, with a side of reader revenue

“It’s like we’re farmers…that’s not a scalable start-up business, but it’s a very steady, very sustainable, and very honest business based on relationships.”

“It was around this time last year that things were starting to look a little dicey for the media industry’s once breathlessly-hyped digital unicorns,” Joe Pompeo wrote for Vanity Fair this week. BuzzFeed, Vice, Mashable, and Vox, “which once heralded the dawn of a new media age — replete with massive valuations, large fund-raising hauls, and millennial sex appeal — now appeared to exhibit some traits of the brands that they once attempted to disrupt.”

A new report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, three years in the making, echoes some of Pompeo’s take on digital natives’ upcoming “frigid winter,” this time for European publishers. Researchers Tom Nicholls, Nabeelah Shabbir, Lucas Graves, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen interviewed leaders from 13 digital native media outlets in France, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom in a repeat of their 2016 study, which suggested the European digital-born organizations were more pragmatic than innovative.

Their top findings from this round:

  • Advertising is still a vital source of revenue for digital-born outlets, and it hasn’t failed for everyone;
  • The digital-born outlets have become well-established members of today’s media landscape — which also means facing the same pressures legacy organizations are;
  • Being one with the internet and all, these organizations carry on partnerships with platforms like Facebook an Google, albeit with more focus on direct traffic and independence instead of overdependence;
  • The newer organizations are tending toward quality over quantity, prompted by their attempts to build a news organization worthy of paying audiences.

The media executives interviewed were frank in assessing their potential:

“It’s like we’re farmers. We have to produce stuff every day, go to the marketplace every day, and attract people with good stories. So that’s not a scalable start-up business, but it’s a very steady, very sustainable, and very honest business based on relationships. And that’s a lot of fun,” said Krautreporter’s publisher, Sebastian Esser.

“Every year we ask ourselves: ‘Will we grow again by 10,000 subscribers next year, and then the following year again?’ Trees do not rise to heaven,” said Mediapart’s cofounders, Edwy Plenel and Marie-Hélène Smiejan-Wanneroy.

“If you decide to make people pay for your content, you’re losing that kind of ideal world in which El Confidencial contributes to a better society. You’re losing by making people pay,” said Alberto Atero, El Confidencial’s executive director. (The whole paying-for-news thing is still catching on in Spain.)

The transition of asking readers for money was a particular pain point in this report. In 2016 very few digital native news outlets were using reader revenue via subscription or membership, but six of the 13 organizations studied here are relying quite heavily on it.

The publishers have also taken broad hits from Facebook’s algorithm change. The Spanish sites, in particular, have been hit hard, with El Español and El HuffPost losing 50 percent of their traffic.

Brut’s editor-in-chief, Laurent Lucas, frames it well: “Platforms have evolved — and we evolve with platforms.”

Here are the organizations analyzed in this report and their funding models:

Read the full report here.

Image of El Español on mobile phones by Nacho Gómez used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Dec. 6, 2018, 9:44 a.m.
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