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  1. Partner Content
March 1, 2024

How PA Media is helping newspapers make the digital transition

Many PA Media customers rely on print revenue, but the agency is helping them transition to digital.

By Freddy Mayhew

PA Media is using its hard-won experience to help customers transition from being print to digital-led businesses.

“Five years ago we were in the same boat as some of these companies,” says Sam Follett, PA Media’s commercial director. “We’ve been through it, we’ve borne some of the scars that come with that, but we’re now ready to advise our partners on how to do it.”

The UK’s largest news agency now serves all of its content through digital channels with about a third of its output targeted for digital consumption, a figure that is only increasing. Considering PA copy often runs both in print and online, the total digital figure is likely closer to 80%, according to Follett.

This has impacted the way they produce content, making digital outcomes a priority, with our senior Editors taking a lot of time to explain to journalists why this is important to the business and to customers. That process has involved journalists being more tuned in to the needs of digital, and the content they produce.

PA Media produces some 120,000 news articles a year, which translates to about 10 million online articles. It not only serves its customers with “fast, fair and accurate” copy, but through upskilling of journalists on location and in the core operation, has enabled them to shoot video and capture images with greater frequency and in ways that enhance multimedia that performs well online and in social media.

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“We’re potentially the rising tide that lifts all boats,” says Follett of PA’s unique position within the industry which allows it to share its knowledge with publishers, nearly all of whom are its customers. “If we learn it, we have the ability to offer that out through ripple effect in an unbiased way.”

PA Media has an in-house Analytics and Insights team that measures performance of topics, stories and multimedia assets, to enable journalists to target areas and serve content that Customers prioritise. Similarly, this data can be shared with cutstomers to advise on what PA Media content is being used and how within their organisation, so that decisions may be made on the correct balance for different types of content.

Here Follett explains how print-led news publishers can smooth their digital transition, and issues a rallying cry for the news industry to work together to face down existential crises – including AI – and protect robust news gathering.

What are the main challenges PA customers are facing in print?

“The majority of our customers like their print products – they are prestige products for them in some areas and also still incredibly important. The broader issue is that they want to retain these products, but costs are getting ever higher in terms of pagination, delivery, staffing and what have you, and revenues are dwindling. Circulations are one driver of that, but also advertising appetite. People now want to advertise through digital channels or other areas, so attracting advertisement into the print products, while still not impossible, is not as lucrative as it was.

“It boils down to having to make difficult decisions about the size and scope of your print newspapers, or print magazines, and where you keep them alive relative to the revenue they make. And whether old multipliers of what good looks like is still the way to measure success, or if they’re seen more as the ‘prestige piece’ – the market penetrator that drives revenue into your subscription areas. These are existential questions for a previously print-first organisation. How much of your operational resource do you devote to it? How much of your capex budget do you devote to it?

“This too has a major impact on the way the PA Media commercial team has to advise our customers and view our content – if monetisation is different across different channels, we need to know what types of products perform best in each.”

How do print-focused news publishers look at digital?

“We serve probably somewhere close to 100% of newspaper groups in the UK and Ireland. Are they print first? That’s debatable, but certainly print is important to them.  Take the example of many of our longer-term customers – they’re family-owned, they’ve had newspapers for years and the newspapers are still very much the core of their business and the main driver of their advertising revenue. I reckon 90% of their meetings with us will be about ‘how do we get more of a digital imprint?’

“They are print first, but the main driver is digital. I think that’s probably a better way of seeing the market, it’s ‘here’s the bulk of the revenue that’s dwindling or plateauing, and here’s the real growth area’. You don’t want to just stop printing newspapers, because that’s still how a large strata of society gets their news, but ultimately all signs point to digital being where growth is in the future.

“This is where our teams need to be able to advise across multiple platforms, since 1:Many content may work well in print, but are harmful to SEO for example – our teams need to be able to show customers how PA Media can work to provide 1:Few content solutions targeting regional interests, or even 1:1 content designed to deliver on a specific metric that improves digital performance.’”

Why do you think some news providers have struggled to make the transition to digital? 

“There’s a few different reasons. One is change is difficult and sometimes it’s not clear cut what the answer is to some of these monetisation problems. The likelihood is these groups are transferring away from print towards digital. What they’re trying to do is acknowledge that print is still important and you still need to drive revenues from it. You still want to reach as much news to as many people as possible, but if you don’t get the balance right between print and digital, then you are destined to have lower and lower circulation over time or become less and less relevant. The needle is probably only heading in one direction [and that’s towards digital].

“We are seeing greater and greater volumes of requests for advice in this area, with projects being piloted to deliver greater SEO, access to evergreen content to drive affiliate revenues, even the ability to serve video in different vertical formats to support different social channels like TikTok.”

What are some of the biggest challenges presented by the digital transition?

“Budgets are tighter. You have to play with scarce resources. Do you take a major punt or keep going with the status quo and the odd tweak? I think people tend to veer towards the latter.

“I would also say we as an industry tend not to work so well together in terms of solving some of these challenges. Take AI, for example. If you speak to anybody in any news organisation, but also society at large, there is concern about unfettered access to generative AI producing its own news. No one would see that as a net positive. That means that news companies have to be able to be part of that story.

“I would compare it to what happened with search decades ago, where the news media lost out to Google and lost advertising revenue because they didn’t react as an industry. The same thing the industry is facing with AI is probably also the same thing it faced with the digital transition.

“Ultimately news offers value to society and news organisations being able to police what is produced as news offers value to society. We as an industry need to work together to make sure we’re at the forefront of that otherwise someone else will come along and plug that gap for consumers, and by that point, you’re lost.”

How does AI fit into the digital media landscape?

“I think for AI to form a part of the media landscape, media companies need to be involved and probably the driving force in front of it, because we are the ones who understand this industry, we’re the ones who understand the values that underpin it, we’re the ones who understand the pitfalls if you get it wrong. If we represent that and drive that, whether it’s AI, whether it’s digital first, whether it’s monetisation, whatever it is, I think we potentially have the solutions for that.”

What’s something news providers can do now to smooth their digital transition?

“They should be looking at what good looks like and what return on investment looks like in a digital world. When you were selling a newspaper, figuring out the cost per article was very simple because someone paid a certain amount for the newspaper and there are a finite amount of articles in the pages, so a quick bit of maths tells you what the cost per article is. In a digital world it’s not that simple and if you use the same metric it will appear as if what was a pound is now a penny.

“What you’re actually trying to drive with digital engagement is brand loyalty for an advertiser or yourself – you’re trying to get people into the funnel so they go and subscribe in other areas, or they engage in whatever way. You’re trying to capture as much audience attention as you possibly can. The metrics for delivering that will be totally different to a print brand. It doesn’t start and end with someone buying something from you.

“Your print strategy is one thing, your digital strategy is another, and they should both feed up into your wider commercial strategy. You have to know what your business model is. If you want a very targeted audience that you can monetize off the back of it, maybe subscriptions are the way to go.

“If you want to reach as broad a digital audience as possible you’re going to have to be ungated, so how do you monetise behind it? Do you have affiliate links? Do you have SEO content that drives you up the Google search so that you can place programmatic advertising? All of these questions are answered if you have a very well defined digital strategy where you know how you are trying to monetise it.

“But it’s not just monetisation… it’s also understanding how at the core of what media companies offer to the broader public in digital is still that really robust, trustworthy, fact-driven news. And you still have to serve that in order for the news media to retain its value to customers. Otherwise, if it’s all just which article generates the most advertising return, you’ll turn people off quickly and you can’t compete with Google.”

Is there a future for printed news journalism? And what might it look like?

“Print may serve a different purpose in future – it might serve smaller and smaller niches over time – but I don’t see it dwindling down to zero because the point is there’s still a market for it and people still prefer to consume their news that way.

“I think the only thing that could cause it to go completely out of existence will be if people focus too heavily on the commercial model and forget the other driving forces behind what makes a newsbrand. I don’t know of a single media executive that I speak to who thinks print is going to go away completely, but there is an acknowledgement that monetisation is probably going to be driven from other areas more and more as time goes on.

“The fact of the matter is, whether you focus in on print or digital or whatever, at the core of what used to drive print was really robust, trustworthy news gathering – and I don’t think that’s done yet. That is fundamental to who we are as an organisation and that will not change whether we serve that via social media, or to deliver affiliate revenue, or to drive web engagement, or in print.

“News still has to be valuable, still needs to be unbiased, still needs to report facts, still needs to hold up under scrutiny, otherwise it breaks down.”

Contact PA Media

Find out more about PA Media by visiting the agency’s website here, or emailing: info@pa.media

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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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