Media Briefing: What publishers had to say at the Digiday Publishing Summit

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This week’s Media Briefing recaps what was said when publishing executives came together behind closed doors at this week’s Digiday Publishing Summit.

  • Overheard at the Digiday Publishing Summit
  • A look at Ozy Media’s audience
  • Q&A with The Atlantic’s Candace Montgomery, svp and gm of AtlanticLIVE
  • Teen magazines dethroned, Clubhouse called out and more

Overheard at the Digiday Publishing Summit

The key hits:

  • Publishers are dealing with a lot of alternate IDs and a lack of clarity around which advertisers will adopt.
  • Acquiring people’s consent continues to be a challenge, just as privacy regulators appear poised to step up enforcement.
  • Getting traction with new projects, including subscription programs and podcasts, is hard — even internally.

For all that publishers have overcome over the past 18 months, their businesses continue to face plenty of challenges. They are working to prepare for the cookieless era while also managing their editorial product portfolio and advertiser relationships.

At the Digiday Publishing Summit (DPS), held in Miami from Sept. 27 to 29, publishing executives gathered — while masked — to compare notes on the issues they’re experiencing and the topics they are trying to tackle. They broke out into groups for behind-closed-doors discussions — conducted under Chatham House rules so that Digiday could share what was said while maintaining the executives’ anonymity — on data and privacy, editorial products and revenue. Here is a sampling of what was said. — Kayleigh Barber, Jim Cooper and Tim Peterson

ID overload

“The ID solutions are just going to be a problem down the line. It’s just like a pivot but not actually addressing the issue.”

“When it comes to the number of IDs, let’s minimize the risk for data leakage and at the same time what we can do to consolidate our revenue sources? Having many, many [IDs], that’s a problem I run into. Every division I work with [says], ‘Hey, I’ve got this great new partner. What they’re going to do is give you one ID.’ I’ve just had seven of those same conversations.”

“We’re waiting to hear from the buyers on what [IDs] they’re going to transact off of. It’s a waiting game at this point because it’s useless if no one is going to transact off of it.”

“We’d like to move sooner than later [to decide on which identifiers to support], but we all know it’s going to get delayed two years. We’re keeping moving forward because we have our engineering, [developer] and legal teams’ attention. But I’m sure that it’s going to come to a screeching halt, and we’re going to be right where we left off.”

“Before the delay [by Google], when it was really top of mind, then the dev team was able to [build support for different identifiers]. It became a bit of a rinse-and-repeat process where things got easier, the more we integrated. I’ve got like six or seven [identifiers] integrated now. But the maintenance of them is becoming challenging. As you continue to maintain the rest of your code base, maybe timing changes slightly somewhere, and now the consent signal is missed on its way over to ID 5. That happened. So maintenance is a different consideration beyond even the initial implementation.”

Email insufficiencies

“[The email address as identity foundation] is insufficient as we look to [streaming] and CTV. So you have my email address because I pay for Netflix or Showtime. But what about my family profiles? You build completely different behavioral, psychographic data off that, and you’re tying it to, most likely, the wrong email address. So [the email address is] a great start… in 1999.”

“I have six different emails, and I pick which email [address] to use based on what spam I’m willing to experience.”

“Part of the challenge is protecting people while also getting their data, progressively over-asking the questions when you’re asking them to sign up.”

“There’s so many prompts that users get all the time now that you could just be another one of the prompts and get what you can get and see if your scattershot approach collects enough consent for you. Or [you could] really carefully offer the value exchange and explain why you need to do this. But how many terms and conditions or explanations or reasons or pleas are everyone going to read?”

“The fact that everybody and their brother now has a consent banner has actually made it more difficult [to educate people on data collection and usage] because it’s so binary now.”

“This [third-party cookie extension] gives us a longer ramp-up time to turn those scattershot banners everybody’s blind to and just clicks without even thinking into a meaningful onboarding process.”

“Most users don’t even understand how their data is being collected or every time they share their location and agree to do that is giving the provider access to their data. That education would probably need to happen in a school-type setting, in a formal education setting. But obviously most users are not in formal education anymore, so that’s a real challenge.”

“This extra time [provided by Google’s third-party cookie extension] isn’t just extra time to do technical testing and find solutions. It’s extra time to allow us to provide user education. It’s about the meaningful consent.”

“Our biggest issue right now that blocks the ability to have proper data, proper privacy policies that really make sense for the industry and also for humans is proper digital literacy.”

Privacy regulation, redux

“We need federal preemption [over states’ privacy laws] desperately. You can’t have every state having their own laws. It’s going to be a nightmare for publishers.”

“I don’t think the lawmakers that are making the laws totally understand what they’re doing either.”

“[Publishers’ legal teams] can’t even keep up [with the shifting privacy landscape]. They have to bring in specialists to consult other lawyers who specialize in [privacy] to help them because it’s changing so much. It’s crazy.”

“With GDPR, there was such a panic, and all publishers were rushing to come up with a solve, and we came up with a solve, not that it was the solve. But we realized that, over time, the repercussions of not following GDPR, the penalties haven’t been that steep. So I think a lot of publishers have said, ‘What we’ve done is good enough. Let’s now move on to the next.’”

“As publishers, we’ve got to be cognizant that a lot of the soft enforcement was because of COVID. And they’re now coming out of that. The I.C.O. specifically said, ‘Hey, sorry, we took a little nap to deal with COVID. We’re back starting in July.’”

“As a publisher, I feel like I was lulled into a false sense of ‘I am good because nobody’s come with an enforcement action against me, and I would probably be one of the first they’d fine.’ But now we’re actually starting to see that pick up this summer. There’s definitely been a false sense of ‘we’ve done the right thing.’ I very much suspect we haven’t done the right thing. They’re just now coming to look at us, and those enforcements really are actually picking up.”

Brand safety: real or red herring?

“You need to have a conversation with (agencies) and educate them. But you also have to go up the food chain and get them to understand what they’re doing.”

“It worked to an extent at the agencies, to go up the food chain to get agency leadership to understand that they needed to take a real look at their block list and get them to try and negotiate a little bit.”

“We all assume that [brand safety is] a problem, but is it really a problem?”

Getting new products off the ground

“We have a lot of ideas but getting them funded internally is complicated. We’re doing a lot of built-if-sold. If we go out and find the sponsors or the brands that want to be tied to that product, maybe it gets easier.”

“Give [leadership] the framework of bullets to cannonballs. We have private equity shareholders that care about ROI maybe more than a VC shareholder or an individual shareholder, so we have to be very careful. So we will fire some bullets, like test mobile app development. We’ll do some improvements on our existing ones, and if we start to get some traffic, we can go back and get more money and then turn that bullet into firing a cannonball. It’s been mostly bullets, not cannonballs, unfortunately.” 

“If you go with small bullets, maybe you’re killing the project from the beginning. If you don’t do it right, the probability of it working isn’t as high, and that’s where you have that catch-22 that is complicated.” 

The subscription paradox, bigger isn’t always better

“We have a subscription product that we launched a year ago, and it hasn’t grown the way I thought it was going to grow. The percentage of the visitors to our site that end up paying us $10 a month is not as high as I wanted it to be, and I wonder if it’s because we didn’t invest as much up front in the product.” 

“Doing a blanket subscription is missing out on a lot. I think you have to have a targeted approach. If I limit access but improve quality, are there targeted [audiences] that I can better [serve] and then can I duplicate that strategy?”

Identifying the right people to lead new projects 

“Anyone with an editorial team knows, you can’t just hire in people who are talented or passionate. You kind of have to create that, and so it’s better if you can cultivate that environment internally.” 

“What’s beneficial for us is we are trying to raise the people who have proven themselves and love to learn to do new things and having them supported from the bottom up. You don’t want to make assumptions [about what people want to do]. You want to give them the room of choice, by having them be responsible and accountable for work [and giving them a] roadmap to focus people so they have an individual track.”

“What I look for is an employee who says, ‘This is a good project, I would like to take a bet on this.’ And regardless of if it is an intern or a senior manager, if it works, they own it.”

Building a podcast in a black hole

“[Podcasts] have to be the hardest product to start because the distribution challenge is so great. Unlike video, newsletter or content itself, you can only put [a podcast] front and center so much. If people want it, they will listen to it. If they don’t want it, you can’t auto-pop up a podcast and get listens to it, like a video. Also, if they download it, [how do I know] they’re going to listen to it?” 

“With our content, we know who is reading what, but with podcasts, you just get information from the platform about how many downloads you got. If you wanted to build a new product, I have no way to target those people other than the podcast itself.”   

“[Why are we] launching a podcast when there are so many panels and virtual events and those are faster and easier to put together?” 

“I think podcasts are all about setting expectations. If we’re going to go that route, we know we’re not going to see that return at first.” 

“It is really hard to build an audience from scratch. There is demand on the advertiser side for audio content [so when] your sales team asks, ‘Can we spin up a podcast for this sponsor?’ We’re like, ‘Sure, but is anyone going to listen to it?’ And on the other side, you can’t substantiate for the advertisers running [campaigns in this medium] how many people heard their ad.”

What we’ve heard

“Everyone talks about the ‘Great Resignation.’ We haven’t seen that — our turnover is back to normal and maybe up a little bit [compared to pre-pandemic rates] — but we are seeing upward pressure on pay.”

Publishing executive

… But who’s counting?

The tittering about Ozy Media, its many attempts to misrepresent the size of its audience and the relevance of its programming, has taken on a life of its own among the media commentariat this week, with observers puzzling over its website’s lack of advertising, its “bullshit” use of branded content to market Ozy’s talent and the wild story that its cofounder, Samir Rao, impersonated a YouTube executive in the middle of a meeting with Goldman Sachs.  

Ozy founder Carlos Watson swung back at some of the claims, chiefly by saying that many of the third-party measurement firms, Comscore among them, are undercounting Ozy’s audience. 

It’s an interesting defense for a company that used the measurement service to overstate the size of its own audience, using some tricks that were more eyebrow-raising than others.

When Ozy was a Comscore customer back in 2017, it used a tactic that was common at the time, rolling the traffic of third-party sites including Newser and Public Radio International up into its Comscore property, claiming it was authorized to sell their digital ad inventory. That roll-up, in 2017, claimed that Ozy had an audience of about 14 million, more than twice the 6 million that visited Ozy on its own; recent Comscore figures peg the site’s monthly audience at under 500,000.

But any ad buyer, agency exec or investor looking at Ozy through Comscore at that time would also have found something that made Ozy look considerably bigger: a custom entity built by an Ozy employee that pegged Ozy’s audience at more than 114 million.

The custom entity rolled up the traffic for dozens of sites that had no affiliation with Ozy at all. They ranged from viral sites, such as Viral Liberty, to educational institutions, such as Brown University, to white nationalist and conspiracy peddling sites including the Daily Stormer and Infowars. The custom entity was accessible in Comscore until 2019.

Neither Watson nor Rao responded to Digiday’s request for comment; Comscore declined to comment. 

The phrase “fake it til you make it” has played an unusually prominent role in the tech and media news cycle this year. But the scope of what Ozy did was so vast that some of its own business staff felt uncomfortable with it; one former employee told Digiday they did not feel comfortable using some of the numbers Ozy executives told them to use in decks. 

A similar kind of discomfort stirred, that same source said, when Ozy ordered its employees to write positive reviews of the company on Glassdoor, in an effort to make the company more attractive to top talent. — Max Willens

Numbers to know

40%: Percentage share of top management positions at Axel Springer that will be held by women by 2026.

19%: Percentage share of sports media staff positions that are held by women.

>$2.5 billion: How much money IAC is reportedly likely to pay to acquire Meredith.

8%: Percentage share of newspaper and publishing staff members who identified as Hispanic in 2019.

Q&A with The Atlantic’s Candace Montgomery, svp and gm of AtlanticLIVE

The Atlantic Festival is virtual for the second year in a row, due to the ongoing pandemic. It also marks somewhat of a comeback: The Atlantic’s live event division was the hardest hit when the company laid off 68 people (17% of its staff) in May 2020.

The usual four-day festival — which launched in 2008 — will run over the course of two weeks under the theme “Visions of What America Can Be.” It has a new format, platform and approach — for example, for the first time, attendees can curate their experience by adding sessions to their calendar around five content tracks, including: business and tech, climate, culture, health and race, identity and politics.

Digiday spoke with Candace Montgomery, svp and gm of AtlanticLIVE, on what The Atlantic learned from last year’s event, what’s changed this time around, and what’s to come for future Atlantic events. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. — Sara Guaglione

What did you learn from last year’s Atlantic Festival that were taken into account this year? What is different this time around?

We expanded it to seven days this year. Based on viewing patterns from our other virtual events this year, we saw people are getting busier, people are going out in the evenings. We are doing shorter days over a longer period of time, with more daytime programming, to accommodate the audience’s busy schedules and how people’s lives are adapting to the new normal.

We also improved the production value and quality. We recorded live, from our set in D.C. We really doubled down on the platform experience. We created videos that we play during breaks of the show to help people navigate the platform better, to find out how to chat, network and find the schedule. We can direct them throughout the experience to find the things they are looking for. Our media partnership with NBC this year is also a first for the festival. NBC anchors are joining Atlantic editors to interview different subjects.

Are there any notable changes in attendance of the Atlantic Festival? If so, why do you think that is?

In a virtual realm, you can get far more people than you can in a live experience. We are nearly at 23,000 registrations. We can’t compare that to the festival in 2020 yet because the event is still going, so it won’t be apples to apples. I think we are doing well but we also realize that the world is a little different now. So we are not just focused on registrations, but on engagement as well. We are at 43% yield right now, which is great in terms of registration to attendees. Engagement is up compared to last year. We are at 1.5 million views across all platforms on social, including YouTube, Twitter and LinkedIn. 

Any notable changes in the festival’s sponsorship?

Underwriters allow us to bring the festival to the audience for free. I can’t say that model will always be the case. It’s possible that may change. Sponsorship revenue from the Atlantic Festival increased 60% from 2020 to 2021. We attribute that to thinking about our brand integrations, improvements in the platform and putting our editors forward. We have 15 underwriters this year. We expanded what the underwriters can do across the rest of our product suite, and built out those packages. So it’s not just the event, but it could be media spend, digital integration, custom content or a more integrated package. 

Does that mean the Atlantic Festival could be ticketed next year, or certain programming could be?

We’ll see. Potentially. We are an evolving and growing business, so we have to think creatively about how we are going to market. It may not always be this model. We are thinking about how to evolve and grow.

What we’ve covered

Leah Finnegan is rebuilding Gawker with her editorial vision front and center:

  • The leader of the newly relaunched Gawker is looking to right past wrongs, from internal workplace culture issues to misguided editorial decisions.
  • Finnegan has hired mostly women to work at Gawker “because the misogyny was such a powerful and noxious force when I was there.”

Listen to the latest Digiday Podcast episode here.

A Q&A with Fortune’s new editor-in-chief Alyson Shontell:

  • The former editor-in-chief of Insider’s business vertical will be the first women to oversee Forbes’ newsroom in its 92-year history.
  • An initial priority for Shontell is to dig into data to understand why people subscribe to the publication and what they read.

Read more about Shontell here.

How Axios is tackling local news: newsletters from small teams, in more markets:

  • Axios Local plans to operate newsletters in 25 markets in 2022.
  • The publisher’s local division is on pace to generate $4 to $5 million in revenue this year.

Read more about Axios Local here.

News U.K. puts its data the nucleus of post-cookie push for media budgets:

  • The U.K. news publisher has overhauled the way it collects, sorts and monetizes its audience data across all its titles.
  • After launching its first-party data platform earlier this summer, all of News U.K.’s biggest sponsorships include data from the platform.

Read more about News U.K. here.

Here’s why the loss of the third-party cookie is heading toward a collapse in the middle:

  • Major media companies and niche publishers are well-positioned, but those in the middle are in a precarious spot.
  • Mid-tier publishers are too small to build and sell credible, large first-party audiences but too big to outsource those tasks.

Read more about the third-party cookie’s collapse here.

What we’re reading

Ozy’s shadiness shines a light on media’s dark side:
Ozy Media’s COO Samir Rao impersonated a YouTube executive in an attempt to convince Goldman Sachs to invest $40 million in the media company, according to The New York Times. There’s no sense summarizing the story because if you’re reading this newsletter, then you’ve probably read it already or plan to soon. The article was a big topic among publishers at Digiday Publishing Summit. As one attendee said, “Have you read about Ozy? It’s everything that’s wrong in media.”

The teen magazine given way to TikTok and other platforms:
Not 10 years ago, teenager and young adult magazines and digital websites, like Teen Vogue, Rookie and Seventeen, had a grip on that age demographic, The New Yorker writes. But just a few years later, funding for these titles have decreased and have led to the brands completely shuttering or decreasing the print output significantly. That’s in part because the role of these magazines — giving teens access to advice, role models and information written for them — can now be easily delivered via TikTok and Instagram, though not without their problems.

The New York Times assembles a “trust” team:
The New York Times has put together a group of employees across its organization, including journalists, to address people’s mistrust in the media. According to Vanity Fair, the team’s work is a priority for publisher A.G. Sulzberger. But it remains to be seen how the Times plans to show the work it puts into its reporting and whether the effort will work.

Student journalists are also suffering burnout:
Claire Hao, editor-in-chief of University of Michigan student newspaper The Michigan Daily, has opened up about the stress and anxiety she has experienced from the job, which is why she decided to step away from the newsroom for a week. Some people are burnt out on stories about newsroom burnout, but Hao provides an example of both how systemic the issue is and (hopefully) how the next generation of journalists will help to find ways to address the issue without exiting the industry.

MSNBC’s hard news push draws internal criticism:
MSNBC president Rashida Jones is pushing the TV news network to compete against CNN in covering hard news stories, which is leading some employees to worry what that means for its opinion-based primetime programming, according to New York Post. MSNBC may have established itself as the left’s answer to Fox News, but the emphasis on straight news seems responsible given how detached people have become from the facts and the mistrust in the media that other news outlets like the Times are trying to address.

Clubhouse launched its creators program, but without giving the promised support:
When Clubhouse built its creator program, it promised participants the ability to get one-on-one meetings with prospective sponsors. Instead, they were told to pitch themselves and their Clubhouse shows in a public discussion on the platform that didn’t yield deals because it was difficult getting sponsors to show up to the pitch sessions. Clubhouse’s future success relies on it standing out from all of the other platforms in the market and The Verge writes that these initial attempts are not working.

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