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May 19, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:20am

PPA chief executive Sajeeda Merali on Duopoly, diversity and surviving the downturn

By Dominic Ponsford

Press Gazette spoke to PPA chief executive Sajeeda Merali about how the trade body defines itself and what its reason for being is in 2022.

How do you define and bind together an industry as diverse as content publishing?

For the PPA, when it launched as the Periodical Publishers Association in 1913 its identity was set out in the title and life was simple.

Today, as the Professional Publishers Association, finding common ground for 250 companies which encompass everything from consumer magazines to B2B data providers is more tricky.

It’s one of the challenges facing Sajeeda Merali who took over as PPA chief executive in September 2021. She came into the role after senior sales director and commercial roles at Incisive Media, Euromoney and Press Gazette parent company New Statesman Media Group.

She says: “It’s actually a really fragmented landscape, it’s quite blurry and and I guess in my first 90 days or so was the tough challenge of how do you find that sort of strategic glue that that really binds the membership together.

“We firmly believe what binds all of our members together is trusted content for specialist communities. That’s what brings a very complex and diverse membership together.”

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Diversity is a key challenge for the news and publishing industry, with recent research pointing to a severe lack or representation for those from working class backgrounds.

Does Merali think the magazine industry is as diverse as it should be?

“It’s not, it’s absolutely not. I still get a surprised look sometimes when I introduce myself as the CEO. There’s a lot to do right across the board.

“I think a key part of that is, what is our recruitment strategy and and what opportunities are we giving to new new talent coming from diverse backgrounds – whether that’s gender, ethnicity or the the social class element as well.”

Asked whether she has ever felt discriminated against, she says: “There  have definitely been days where I’ve walked into a room and it’s assumed that I’m the most junior person in the room.

“I think I’ve just learned to kind of overcome that in the conversation and make sure I introduce myself and make the points that I need to make.

“But I have been lucky in my career and I’ve had a lot of good allies around me and worked for some amazing leaders who have recognised the potential in me and given me opportunities.

“But not everyone is as lucky and I’m really aware of that. Me being the chief executive of the PPA doesn’t mean that we fixed this problem and I feel personally invested in making sure that we overcome this challenge and  move in a positive direction towards a better and more positive industry from that perspective.”

What else does the PPA stand for in 2022? To put it bluntly, what is the point of the PPA?

“We’re driving three new strategic pillars: people, products and audience. All of our members are really thinking about those core areas to make sure that they can really thrive.

“We’re really thinking about how we can bring together peers to facilitate discussion to address challenges around things like our commitment to net zero, audience measurement currencies and subscriptions.

“There’s lots of stuff that’s really hard to do without somebody bringing everyone in the room together and getting us all aligned.

“And then we’ve got got a strategic priority around progressing the industry. So really moving the dial on the reputation of the industry.

“Diversity and inclusion, our commitment to net zero, all of those things are things that we’re thinking about, bringing our members together to get aligned on.

“We also want to make it really easy for our members to understand some of the complex stuff that’s going on in the landscape.

“We stand next to our members, but we also stand up for them and and actually there is power in the pack and being able to come together to voice the opinion of the industry.”

Merali heads up the PPA at a time when publishing industries around the world are engaged in a historic repositioning of their relationship with téch giants Google and Meta.

Does she think there is an opportunity for publishers to get a better deal out of the Duopoly?

“Our public affairs work is is really key in this space, so the work that we’ve done on the Online Safety Bill and ensuring that Google and Meta cannot indiscriminately censor trusted content. The work that we’ve done on the Digital Markets Unit aims to empower the new regulator to tackle the root causes of Google and Meta’s market power and I guess rebalance that relationship between platforms and publishers.

“I think it’s worth saying that we completely understand that Google and Meta have not intentionally set out to harm publishers. But they need to take responsibility for the impacts of their business models.

“Part of that is how do we get a fair deal on online advertising, get a better understanding of tech giants’ algorithms and better access to user data”

After a post-pandemic boom, PPA members are facing an uncertain 2022 with the war in Ukraine, cost of living crisis and price/availability of newsprint all creating problems.

On the day we spoke the UK’s second biggest newsagent chain, McColl’s, had just gone out of business.

Asked about the general economic climate for PPA members, Merali says: “I think it is it is a case of sort of battening down the hatches and really getting clever on how we ride a storm and get to the other side of some of the cost challenges that are coming through.

“Publishers are going have to get really innovative and keep that innovation going in terms of how we get through it all.”

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