Crawford has also timed his arrival at MediaWorks relatively well, with the organisation seeming to get its groove back after a period of enormous upheaval. The dust of the continuous executive shuffles has subsided, and the company is consistently celebrating ratings victories against its major competitors across digital, television and radio.
But strong audience numbers—whether in entertainment or news—are only part of the battle.
Numbers not dollars
Popularity is not the same thing as profitability and, as the founders of Bebo will tell you, it’s definitely not a guarantee of longevity.
As indicated by the NZME and Fairfax submission to the commerce commission, the revenue earned from digital is still some way off the losses in traditional channels—meaning that there are still serious questions about how to run a profitable news business when the likes of Google and Facebook offer such compelling propositions to advertisers (and when non-news publishers like Metservice rake in a significant amount of ad revenue with nowhere near the costs).
MediaWorks says the figures supplied to the Commerce Commission are wrong, but, as a general trend, it's not pretty reading. Crawford doesn’t pretend to have the answer to all the problems facing journalism. He knows what won't work, however, and is adamant that the answer doesn’t lie in getting journalists involved in commercial activities. This might work in the magazine industry, where ads have always been part of the experience, but Crawford thinks it would be to the detriment of a reputable news publisher.
“You've got to understand the primary role of the newsroom is not commercial,” he says.
“In any publishing enterprise, you've got two customers: the audience and the advertiser. But it's very important for the newsroom to care about the audience, that's the key customer we should be concerned about. If I spend all of my time thinking about advertisers, then I would make a lousy chief news officer.”
Crawford says that panicked media executives shouldn’t give in to short-term thinking by making knee-jerk reactions that remove focus from the main purpose of the news: to inform the audience.
“You can get very confused in this business, but if you hold on to the guiding light of stay close to the audience, stick close to them, make sure you know what they're doing and provide them with news and information that they can use just that they're engaged with,” he says.
“You've got to be smart about this stuff and play the long-term game. If we have great audience engagement sustained over years our business will be fine. I'm convinced of that.”
Melding of the brands
The need to keep the audience engaged every day, all day long has in turn led to rapid-fire repurposing of stories. Once news story breaks, it is quickly replicated across other publications. The sweet day-long joy of a front-page scoop has been squeezed into a matter of minutes.
MediaWorks saw the full force of this trend on Monday, when Newshub political editor Paddy Gower republished a 1993 interview in which Donald Trump essentially rules out his suitability to run for office.
By the end of the day, the story was not only on the Herald, but also on a host of other international publications, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, Buzzfeed and the Daily Mail.
Social media users who have liked a combination of those news sources would’ve seen the same story appear in their newsfeeds from a number of different publications over the course of the day.
What happens in this environment is that brands become indiscernible, and Facebook becomes the news source. And this clearly evident in the fact that 62 percent of US adults today cite Facebook as their main source of news—even though Facebook doesn’t create any of its own content.
But this isn’t enough to dissuade Crawford—or most news heads for that matter—from tapping into what social media offers.
“I think we have to embrace platforms that we don't own,” he says. “There are business risks associated with that, but don't be scared of that. Don't be scared of a platform you don't own.”
Crawford, who co-wrote a book about social media's impact on news called All your Friends Like This, identifies effective branding as playing an important role in visually differentiating news brands from one another (hence the Newshub branding plastered across the Trump video).
Local news publishers, including Newshub, have invested heavily in their online brands over the last few years and we are starting to see some differentiation with the Herald’s Focus brand and Newshub’s explainer videos.
However, the gold standard in differentiation on Facebook really lies with Aljazeera, which through its sub-brand AJ+ attracts billions of views every year and is easily identifiable through its yellow livery.
But employing 70-plus people to produce these videos is expensive and, like its counterparts across the media industry, Aljazeera still hasn’t found a clear path to profitability for AJ+.
And if an organisation that generates over 2 billion video views still hasn’t found its way through the digital shrubbery, then this certainly puts the complexity of Crawford’s task into perspective.