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Fighting for quality news media in the digital age.

Kamal Ahmed: Publishers, don’t dump ‘unreliable’ tech platform ‘boyfriends’

BBC, The News Movement and Reuters leaders respond to Digital News Report findings.

By Charlotte Tobitt

News publishers can still find great value – including revenue – on social media platforms despite them behaving like “unreliable boyfriends,” The News Movement’s editor-in-chief and ex-BBC editorial director Kamal Ahmed has said.

Ahmed and other news leaders, as well as the lead author of the Digital News Report Nic Newman, also discussed why a “one-size-fits-all” model no longer works in news content and distribution.

The comments were made at an event at the Reuters headquarters in London to mark the publication of the Digital News Report.

Platforms are a key theme of the report, with a growing reliance on social media but also an increased number of platforms serving different purposes. Some apps, such as Tiktok, “require more investment in bespoke content and offer fewer opportunities to post links,” the report said.

Ahmed co-founded The News Movement with former Telegraph editor William Lewis in 2021. It is a social-first news business aimed at 18 to 25-year-olds with a high reliance on distributing content through networks like Tiktok and Instagram.

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Asked by Reuters Institute director Rasmus Kleis Nielsen how The News Movement views being dependent on platforms that are not focused on news and that can change strategy on a whim, Ahmed said: “We have to go to where the audience is. We can’t keep shouting at the audience to come to where we would like them to be to consume material that doesn’t interest them very much.

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“So how we story-tell on social platforms is very different, not only on social platforms as opposed to owned and operated digital sites or television or newspapers, but it’s actually very different between the platforms.”

He added: “Yes, the platforms can be unreliable boyfriends: some things work for a while, and then they don’t work and you’re sitting there wondering, what did I do? But the big audiences are there, so we need to be there with them.”

Why ‘one-size-fits-all’ struggles on social media

The News Movement’s newsroom has an average age of 25, Ahmed said, and they “behave like they’re chatting to their friends” – “with limits of course”, Ahmed said.

He added that they talk differently on each platform: “We talk about behaving in the vernacular of the platform: don’t try and go to the platform like some ridiculous parent dancing at a rave in East London, you have to go to the platform and be genuine and authentic on that platform.”

Ahmed said therefore that a “one-size-fits-all” approach of putting out essentially the same content for different audiences on different platforms “is a model that really struggles in social media spaces”.

This is why, he said, The News Movement has three different brands offering different things: The News Movement itself for “engaging, non partisan and factual information to help people navigate the world”, the company’s first acquisition The Recount which is a US-based political social brand, and new brand Capsule “which is about engaging people in the world of fashion, celebrity, how they live, what’s cool, and what isn’t”.

Ahmed also said platforms are an important part of revenue for The News Movement but are only one stream of four.

“The change that we are pushing towards is a very varied revenue model. So yes, you will get some income from platform, and it’s important and it’s important that the platforms understand their role in supporting journalism…” Asked by Nielsen if they do understand that role, he continued: “Partly – they’re on a journey and it’s not the full focus of their business, obviously, but the conversations are better than they were a number of years ago.

“The income from platforms is lumpy. When Meta, as it was Facebook, made the big decision on news feeds and changing the newsfeed algorithm, it was very disruptive for many news organisations. So as news organisations, we cannot be reliant on platform income. What has tended to happen is a sudden format and style will work on a platform, and it will be monetisable because the platform wants it to be, and we all rush to that side of the boat.

“You have to protect yourself from that. So we have some platform income, but it can be volatile, it is lumpy, and you have to be careful with with how reliant you are on it. But it’s an important part of the mix.”

The News Movement’s other revenue comes from media partnerships, helping other news organisations produce content for platforms like Tiktok, as well as its studios business called The Collective helping “trusted brand partners” with their own storytelling, and finally from utilising its data and analytics. “We are seeing clear revenue in all four of those areas,” Ahmed said.

BBC: Direct vs social is not an ‘either/or’ choice

BBC News digital director Naja Nielsen told the panel she does not see it as an “either/or” between focusing on social media and driving direct audiences, but that both can be done well.

In particular she pointed to the BBC News Tiktok account which launched in March 2022 and, she said, saw its best month yet with 82 million views in May. Half of those views came from users under 25, she added.

She said BBC News’ digital platforms are used by 20% of young people in Britain more than once a week. That figure, she added, is 80% across the overall population.

“I don’t see it as an either/or – I see it as a positive, natural thing, not ignoring the downside, that people live in an ecosystem of different platforms and what we’re trying to do at the BBC is to be a very healthy part of that ecosystem – a healthy part of the daily diet, a joyful, very valuable part, where people feel that in combination with things they’re doing on Tiktok and YouTube and whatever is coming next, or what they’re reading from The News Movement or whatever else, that they are also really enjoying what they get from the BBC.

“And where we want to distinguish ourselves is, of course, we do not only want to be the most trusted, we also want to be the service that does provide people with the best explanation of what is going on, the most useful context, in a way the most empowering kind of information that makes it possible for them to make their own choices.”

Nielsen acknowledged that the BBC has had to make cutbacks but said it is “tactical” and they are simultaneous “consistently investing millions and millions and millions in our own digital sophistication”.

News avoiders want fewer ‘men in suits getting out of Audis’

At the event, the Reuters Institute’s Newman said the recent growth in news avoidance shows “the one-size-fits-all approach, which many news organisations take, maybe that needs to change”.

Some 36% of people across 46 countries told the Digital News Report survey that they avoided the news often or sometimes, down slightly from 38% last year.

More than half of those who avoid the news sometimes or often (36% of respondents in 46 markets) are “least interested in the type of news that gives them constant updates on the big stories of the day”, Newman explained, in “stark contrast with people who say they never avoid the news who say they’re most interested in that type of news”.

Jane Barrett, global editor for media news strategy at Reuters, told the panel news avoidance is a concern the news agency has been “hearing from our clients over the last three to four years”.

She said: “We’ve really put in a huge amount of work to think about how we tell the story… thinking, yes, there’s a war on. But let’s go and talk to the people who are involved. Let’s find the rays of hope. Let’s find out the person who’s actually been able to go and save people from flooding and bring them to safety. Let’s go and find the person who’s working to help other people – animals, of course, always do really well, anyone helping an animal always gets lots and lots of views.”

One Reuters client told them “you do love men in suits getting out of Audis,” Barrett said.

“So rather than telling the story of the men in suits getting out of Audis, let’s go and talk to the people who are impacted by the decisions of those men in suits getting out of Audis, let’s go and talk to the people who maybe aren’t getting their voices heard by those men in suits getting out of Audis. It really makes us think about news editing and newsgathering in a different way of not just taking the institutional point of view, but really going out and reporting on the real world effects, the real people who are involved and impacted.”

TV must move away from ‘ten negative stories and then the weather’

All three panellists spoke about the move away from the TV bulletin format of “ten things to really frighten me about the world and now the weather,” as Ahmed described it.

Nielsen said: “We have to admit to ourselves that there is a narrow audience of elderly men that really love that stuff,” comparing it to the audience that follows cricket day in and day out.

“We love them, they are our fans, right? But it’s only it’s maybe 10% of the population, right? Everyone else has other stuff, they also do: to take care of their kids, you know, maybe they do something fun with their partner… in that kind of life, you do not have time to follow every development in a war, or the appetite for it. So we need to have that broader stuff.

“And I think what we’ve done recently in the past years in heightening what I call our digital sophistication, not only having a digital team but ten different digital teams that are specialised in search optimisation constantly responding to the needs, looking at what different audience groups are doing, making sure that there are different types of content and that it is not only negative, but also inspiring and providing explanation…”

Nielsen added: “I don’t believe for a second that there are people that never want to hear about negative stuff. They want to hear about things that are problematic or negative, or full of conflict in certain moments, and then they want information that clarifies for them what is going on – whether it’s dangerous for themselves and what it might mean. And then they want to go back to the other priorities in their life.”

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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