World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers

Paid content 2.0 affects more than just editorial strategy

World News Publishing Focus

World News Publishing Focus
Your Guide to the Changing Media Landscape

Paid content 2.0 affects more than just editorial strategy

WAN-IFRA Global Advisory consultant Steffen Damborg, formerly Digital Director and Chief Development Officer at JP/Politikens Hus in Denmark, focuses much of his research and energy on the larger topic of digital transformation for media organisations. We talked to him about some of the newsroom questions troubling editors.

WAN-IFRA: In the newsrooms that you visit or editors you have spoken with, what are some of the major burning issues they are debating today?

Steffen Damborg: The topics vary a great deal. But the more mature the newspaper market, the more focus there is on digital paid content business models. And we often discuss how to re-invent the business model online – paid content version 2.0, so to speak.

Most western media have gone from a print-only bundling business model to a mixed online and print business model where the print business still delivers most of the revenues and earnings.

The more unbundled online offering has gone from advertisement-based to a mixed model charging for content. In the paid digital content 1.0 era, most publishers chose between the metered and the freemium model.

What we see now are more complex models mixing metering and freemium, niche verticals, and newsletter businesses extending the brand and harvesting more intensively in the segments of the most loyal readers/users.

Most publishers are now aware that more frequent online users show more willingness to pay for content consumption. Hence, you should meet the demand of this particularly loyal audience segment and stop chasing random clicks from social fly-bys.

"It is really the time to revisit paid content. The rethinking of the revenue strategy online is a huge topic for WAN-IFRA." – Steffen Damborg

We're constantly observing current trends, results, and benchmarks regarding online paid content business models with a special focus on digital subscriptions.

Increasingly, the discussion leads to such topics as AI, naturally big data, and machine learning algorithms and how they might play a role in newsrooms. Will man or machine do the writing, curation, and space management in the long run?

Where would the issue of “Doing more with less” rank in their priority agendas or challenges, and why? Or is it more about “Doing better with less”?

We see a great shift focusing more on quality and less on quantity when looking at the publisher that is really focusing on paid content strategies.

As newsrooms become more market-driven, customer-focused and metrics-centric, it becomes evident that high-quality journalism, which is closest to an individual publisher’s DNA, converts the most paying online customers and maximises the net promoter score or equivalent measures of customer satisfaction.

For those newsrooms that have indeed implemented a decent paid-content strategy, what are some of the discernible ways that has affected, not just their content strategy, but also their workflow and organisation?

Going from free to paid online makes a huge difference. Adding the reader revenue stream to the business model increases the ROI on the high-quality content units since they are converting free users to paying customers, and at the same time increasing the subscribers’ retention rate.

"With the change of business models, we have seen a shift from the more silo-based separation of print and online news orgs into an integrated newsroom where free vs. paid content (at least for the publishers going with the freemium model) seems to define the roles." – Steffen Damborg

On the rise we see roles such as Head of Content, Head of Premium Content, Head of Editorial Development, Head of Editorial Marketing emerging…

These new roles signal a change from a product-oriented newsroom organisation to a more market-driven content orientation.

Also, we see changes in the space management of the webpage, A/B testing stories and headlines, conversion rates of news stories effecting the traditional prioritisations of content in the newsroom, and a shift from page impressions and clicks to more refined engagement measures.

We are seeing more deliberate planning on how to maximise reach and audience interaction with the most important news stories throughout the day and week on various platforms, using different formats and even different story angles. (Editor's note: see also our blog post "How newsrooms can apply big data.")

Has the re-engineering of newsrooms around paid content taken on the scale of what may have happened around social, video or mobile? 

Actually, the changes are not as visible as they were introducing social and video specialists in the newsroom.

I think this is partly because the paid dailies have always produced paid content. This is at the core of the news­paper business. 

So what we see is more the print newsroom taking over from the web journalist producing the premium content – but in a coordinated effort with editors, researchers, multimedia producers and video journalists.

This is particularly visible for European publishers choosing mostly the premium model. Here, you often see light news and breaking news mixed with paywalled premium content on the homepage.

How has it introduced or changed newsroom/journalist KPIs?

Because of new digital business models and KPIs, we have seen great changes in the newsroom. In the old days, a newspaper was produced and prioritised according to the news criteria and the gut feeling of a group of senior editors.

"Nowadays, we see a set of competing criteria based on metrics blended in to the newsroom process. This alters the newsworthiness of each story." – Steffen Damborg

And hence, again we are seeing changes in the space management of the webpage based on the A/B testing of stories and headlines, conversion rates of news stories and longer formats – these are all effecting the traditional prioritisations of content in the newsroom.

By the same token, we see a shift from page impressions (PI) and clicks (CTR) to more refined engagement measures involving parameters such as, for instance, scroll depth, social sharing rate, comment rate, opt-in rate for newsletters and free trials.

How cross-departmental has some of this planning and execution developed around paid content?

This is a very sensitive question. Today you see publishers at both ends of the continuum, from watertight bulkheads between commercial and editorial departments at the one end to commercial departments having the ultimate say at the other end.

Most classic news outlets are defending the autonomy of the newsroom, whereas you see digital newcomers testing boundaries more often. Between those two extremes, we see a lot of good examples of how increased interdepartmental cooperation can really push the news outlet forward and accelerate the digital transformation needed.

In the newsroom, what are some of the challenges around technology today, in terms of embracing/ integrating analytics into everyday reporting/ business? It would seem essential, of course, when working on a paid content strategy…

As I mentioned before, we now see publishers working with big data, artificial intelligence, and machine learning in their quest to maximise paid-content revenues. But if you let your algorithms decide what your readers shall digest, obviously it comes with a risk.

As with clickbait mania, the risk of killing the creative and innovative processes in the newsroom is present. There are numerous consumer behaviour studies stressing that willingness to pay for editorial content goes hand in hand with the news outlet’s ability to present content that continuously gives the news consumer unexpected delight.

"People paying for content have high expectations. People value the creative story they did not expect and that exceeds their anticipated satisfaction consuming the product." – Steffen Damborg

If we just give the customers more of the kind of content that converted free readers yesterday, we jeopardise the core DNA of the newsroom and the offering it produces and what customers are willing to pay for.

That is good news for all talented people working in newsrooms. Also in the future, there will be a high demand for talent delivering extraordinary content across platforms using the classic journalist skillset in combination with the editorial toolbox at hand in today’s digital publishing environment.

What level of sophistication have newsrooms reached in terms of practically utilising useful data to shape their editorial strategy, particularly on the paid-content side?

Some of the largest publishing groups have a high degree of sophistication in their usage of data to convert free users to subscribers. But most newsrooms are still using pageviews and clicks as central metrics for editorial performance. 

We need to build more refined measures for audience engagement and start using machine learning algorithms to optimise conversion, upsell and retention. There is still a huge potential waiting to be harvested.

This interview first appeared in print in the September/October 2017 issue of WAN-IFRA's World News Publishing Focus (also available in ePaper form, free of charge).

During World Publishing Expo, 10-12 October in Berlin, there will be a number of presentations during the Digital Media World conference dedicated to editorial and paid content strategies.


Dean Roper's picture

Dean Roper


2017-09-07 16:06

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The World Editors Forum is the organisation within the World Association of Newspapers devoted to newspaper editors worldwide. The Editors Weblog (, launched in January 2004, is a WEF initiative designed to facilitate the diffusion of information relevant to newspapers and their editors.

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