When working together at The Times in London, my new business partner, Michael, and I would occasionally turn to each other with a wry smile and say: “It’s never dull, is it?”
This would typically be in response to some stretchy request from the executive floor, or an unforeseen problem that had emerged in product development, or readers’ responses to a particularly punchy editorial, or, indeed, any manner of things.
And it’s true, the business of news and the world inhabited by journalists and those that work with them is never dull. Nor does it show any signs of getting any less interesting.
In many ways the news industry is in a better state than, say, in the middle of the last decade. Digital thinking is much more established in newsrooms, and even where it is not warmly embraced, at least it is now acknowledged; the reflex reliance on ad revenue has evolved as consumer revenue has increased in priority; and in many cases, though I appreciate not all, profits have returned.
There are challenges. The revenues, and consequently profits, of previous decades are not going to return in the near future and many publishers, particularly those with a narrower, more local focus, remain under huge pressure.
The West Coast digital giants – GAFA, or whatever you want to call them – are entering the news market with the clear intention of becoming their users’ primary source of news. While they are paying publishers for this privilege, it is a gamble on behalf of the latter that they may come to regret. The house always wins.
A multitude of other digital platforms are also competing for the most precious commodity we all have – time. Misinformation remains a live and pressing issue. Regulation is always closing in on our industry.
Despite that, it feels like a bright new era awaits the business. New entrants are flooding into the digital news market. Where Politico led, Axios and now Puck have followed; likewise The Athletic has picked up Bleacher Report’s ball and run with it. The Information is making Silicon Valley pay, in more ways than one. Others are preparing to launch general interest news propositions.
It’s not just newcomers who are making moves. Axel Springer is buying ambitiously from Germany and Future is expanding its portfolio in the UK to name but two. The next acquisition by the New York Times is a subject of widespread interest. As we said, it’s never dull.
Into this environment, Michael and I are launching our new strategic consultancy, HBM Advisory.
Our aim is to use our decades of experience we gained at two of the world’s most successful publishers – News Corp and The Economist Group – to help content businesses navigate these challenges and opportunities.
We will work with both traditional news businesses and their challengers to align their products and content to the needs of their users; we will advise on how to optimise customer journeys and build successful monetisation options; and we will share our experience on how to transform businesses to take full advantage of the digital revolution.
The exact scope of our projects will, of course, be up to our clients, but we are genuinely enthused by the range of areas we seem likely to work on.
At the start of anything new, there is always a bit of nervousness, but that is soon swept away by the prospect of working with so many talented people across the industry. Never dull? Of course, but we’d prefer to characterise it as always exciting.