Occasionally, just occasionally, one sits in an industry conference and feels edified, justified. That happened this week during the News Corp chief executive Robert Thomson's chat with Sir Martin Sorrell at Bafta 195 Piccadilly.
Thomson, an accomplished journalist and the head of the world’s biggest publisher (and that other rare thing: a dry-witted Aussie) forcefully championed quality over quantity, affinity of readership over what he calls "digital drive-bys". The former editor of The Times drove home the essential point that, for publishers (and, indeed, for advertisers), the only thing that matters is the intensity of engagement with one’s audience.
Are we reaching a turning point when the race for online eyeballs and simply producing ‘stuff’ starts to look pointless?
In a multiscreening age, apparently, the daily media engagement time for an individual adds up to 27 hours. Bearing in mind we all need some sleep and have various other habits that preclude media consumption, it means we’re only truly engaged with a minority of the media we consume. The rest is just wallpaper. Yes, it’s "web traffic". Yes, it’s "content". But, frankly, it’s of limited value to any brand that yearns for audience engagement.
Decent newspapers and magazines, whether in print or on tablets, still demand between ten and 30 minutes of undivided attention, which is a rare thing these days.
Are we reaching a turning point when the race for online eyeballs and simply producing "stuff" starts to look a little pointless? I’d like to think so.
Naturally, we all need substantial audiences, so there’s always an element of quantity tied in with the quality. But that’s just it – it’s a proper audience that we require, not browsers or bots.
Kevin Costello, the chief executive of Haymarket and ultimate boss of Campaign, recently announced that the publisher’s strategy was no longer "digital first" but "audience first". This has to make sense. But, of course, this is only part of the process. Once one has prioritised quality, and chosen the right channels, the rest comes down to creativity and talent. As written here last week, it is only the very best, the bravest content that has the power to grab and hold the audience.
But at least we should know where to invest. In response to Sorrell’s jibe about the low margins of News Corp’s newspaper business, Thomson responded: "Good journalism costs money." There may be an essential tension between high margins and a sustainable creative engagement business.
Yes, we all need to monetise what we produce – that is the harsh capitalist meritocracy in which we operate – but one applauds the Thomson mantra: that, in this quest, "we must be flexible with everything, except our principles".
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