Agile content

If you are not familiar with the media space you may have the general perception that there is a battle taking place between traditional publishers and some upstart, pure digital, over valued start-ups. The reality is that various organisations are experimenting with how best to monetise content on digital platforms. The idea that there is one methodology for the monetisation of digital content is looking rather unlikely.

The monetisation of content quickly becomes a battle for eyeballs; where those eyeballs are flitting between newspapers, TVs, tablets, mobile phones and social networks. It’s natural that the companies involved would want to be heard at the premier digital event South by Southwest (SxSw).

[SxSw 2015] ( was the first time that Content & Journalism essentially had it’s own session track, with the Washington Post and New York Times running a number of sessions and the pure digital publishers Buzzfeed, Mashable, Refinery29 and others either presenting or running a number of panels.

First up is the Washington Post who hosted a session titled ‘Editors & Engineers’. CIO Shailesh Prakash and Executive Editor Martin Baron highlighted a number of changes following Jeff Bezos personal $250M purchase:

  • embedding digital engineers within the newsroom. In 2011 there were 4 software engineers within the newsroom, the ambition is that there will be 47 by the end of 2015. Note that it’s not just a case of sitting down in the same room. The aim is to mix engineers and editorial teams into self contained cells that can generate high quality content and a high quality digital experience.
  • they talked about the creation of their new tablet product as part two of the transformation process known as [Project Rainbow] (
  • Martin Baron spent some time explaining their increased use of video to explore subjects like racism within the US
  • total clarity on digital metrics, both predictive and lag. As they are moving to self contained cells, each cell can be measured. Ultimately, each cell is required to obtain a certain number of page impressions. The Washington Post talked about how they’ve increased impressions on their website but there was very little on the number of paying digital subscribers.

It was nice to see that the Washington Post had also brought along their development team to attend SxSw. The WP came across as being more entrepreneurial and willing to experiment in a controlled manner. In that they are looking to license the tools that they’ve invested in e.g. their CMS is seen as a point of differentiation and can be licensed.

The New York Times took a slightly different approach at SxSw, by explaining the journey they’ve been on when it comes to displaying data and graphical content on the web. The journey kicked off in 2012 as weeks of effort were put into items like this Snow Fall article

A classical translation of print to digital.

More recently they’ve been striving for a more efficient approach to enrich digital content. For example, this Ted Ligety piece that revolves around video content.

Finally NYT took on the most boring element of any article; bar charts. In one year NYT may present in excess of 400 bar charts. The team at NYT set out to re-imagine how to present data in a more engaging and interactive manner which led to pieces like this

In terms of organisation the NYT look to have made limited changes. Within the Graphics team they now have a small number of very skilled Javascript developers (who are co-credited on articles). The team then tries to construct re-usable elements, rather than the old days of hand crafting every digital experience. This allows the NYT to produce approximately 120 visually rich and deep pieces of digital content per year. One potential flaw is that the NYT appear to be fixated by their website and then try to force richer content into their mobile experience. It’s not clear how successful the NYT’s various attempts at mobile have actually been.

As you can see it’s primarily the broadsheets that are turning up at SxSw and presenting how they are beginning to change.

Now compare the print to digital transition with the pure digital players.

SxSw is large enough to attract demonstrations and protests. To be honest, I was rather excited when I stumbled into an Anti Robot / Anti AI protest (and they had really cool T-shirts). Thus I snapped a photo and posted it on my [Twitter account] ( Within a couple of minutes I was approached by [Fresco News License] (, whose automated software had picked up on the fact that I’d published an image with the word ‘protest’ within the description. A couple of clicks later I had authorised them to distribute my image to their affiliated sites.

It would be fascinating to compare the operational efficiencies gained by this approach with the revenue that is actually generated.

Buzzfeed made a well co-ordinated effort at this years SxSw. Not just by having one of the key sessions with their CEO, but also having presentations from their ‘Publisher’ Dao Nguyen and the Editorial Director of the new BFF unit, Summer Anne Burton.

Maybe it was the recent collapse of Gigaom but there appeared to be a bit of business model justification going on during the Buzzfeed sessions.

The Buzzfeed themes I took away were:

  • Shareability. Create, iterate and measure content that is relatable, part of a social conversation, something you would impulsively share with your friends
  • Reliance on Facebook. During January 2015, Buzzfeed received 349M referrals from Facebook. Twitter supplied a relatively small 12.5M referrals
  • The creation of Buzzfeed Motion Pictures. 150 people, 3 sets producing 50 medium quality 5 minute videos. A good example is the 48M views and 1.8M shares generated by this video

  • Female oriented content is more likely to be shared and dwelled on e.g.

  • The creation of the 11 person BFF unit who only produce content that is to be consumed within social networks. It’s not a case of spreading a single piece of content across all the nets, but to produce content that is specific to their audiences and in the most appropriate format. The ‘Co-Worker’ theme allowed BFF to produce Facebook content, Vines, … The BFF unit have a target of obtaining 200M impressions a month
  • To gain these impressive numbers of impressions you require a rigorous method of maximising the value of your content and continually tuning it to the audience. Agility, continuous refinement and resource efficiency are terms normally associated with software development, now they can be applied to content creation
  • Where’s the money? In discrete ‘sponsorship’ on articles, videos and native apps

The free content world is one dominated by chasing impressions.

Thus you have the extremes of curated content vs listicles and clickbait. The difficult thing is trying to determine who is actually making enough revenue to continue beyond their current funding.

Image (c) George Mudie 2015.