Digital Publishing Guest Columns
4 mins read

Inside the judging room: What can we learn about the future of digital publishing?

A peek inside the AOP Digital Publishing Awards judging room shows that publishers are becoming faster, smarter, and more creative in their strategies – and that quality journalism is alive and well in the UK.

The AOP Digital Publishing Award entries never fail to showcase how many strides the sector has taken. Even in twelve months, the progress is clear: publishers are becoming faster, smarter, and more creative in their strategies.

On an individual level, the entries themselves reveal a huge range of ways that publishers are pushing the boundaries of their businesses. However, when looked at from a macro perspective, there are a number of connecting themes that emerge.

Impactful, quality journalism is alive and well in the UK

Throughout the entries, the strength of journalism shone through. Of course, this was particularly evident in our editorial categories, but the impact of quality journalism was present across the board.

We saw evidence time and again of how journalism – even in the smallest, most unpredictable and unknown environments – can create waves of influence that shake the world. Of particular note for me was the incredible work of our finalists in the category Inspiring Local Journalism [sponsored by Google News Initiative], which reminds us how the unsung heroes working in local newsrooms can build coverage of issues that go on to lead the national news agenda.

One of our jurors, Mediahub’s Erfan Djazmi, also recognised the speed at which journalists were addressing emerging cultural zeitgeists: “There was a clear red thread around the challenges that editorial face around how to pivot quickly into content, how to be resilient, agile, and deliver great journalism.”

Work smarter, not harder

We also saw further evidence that digital publishers are thinking smarter about the ways they work. In particular, so many of the entries demonstrated data-driven decision making and showed that publishers are competing with the big social platforms by acknowledging that their strength isn’t in scale, but in the depth of their relationship with their audience. The Audience Development Team of the Year was a particularly hotly contested category this year, where every finalist had a great story.

“There was quite a big focus on how brands have been adapting to what’s been a very challenging time – through the cost of living, inflation, and of course with the pandemic and COVID,” remarked Global’s Julia Connaughton, another of our AOP jurors, before commending the finalists who had been able to adapt and evolve to reach new audiences.

What digital publishers lack in terms of the volume of reach that heavy hitters like Facebook or Instagram can bring to the table, they make up for in spades with a highly nuanced understanding of their users that allows for more intelligent and purposeful partnerships with advertisers. Many of the innovations we saw from our finalists reflect how publishers are building services around that new data framework. And, in return, digital publishers are finding new ways to deliver against advertiser requirements and still meet the consumer’s preferences regarding their own user experience and the use of their data.

Publishers are stepping up and moving forward

Most encouragingly of all, there were more examples than ever before of publishers acknowledging their social responsibilities and empowering people within their teams to ask: ‘What can we do? What should we be doing better?’ Entries for Best Publisher-led Social Good Initiative or Campaign and AOP Employer Excellence Award [sponsored by Deloitte and Lewis Silkin respectively], were clearly exemplary in this regard, although this renewed energy and purpose was also evident across our other categories. Judges commented that the nurturing of every individual was clearly demonstrated in the ‘best team’ entries, saying of one submission that the “values shone through”.  Digital publishers are creating a culture of empowerment and in return this is driving positive change across the country.

Publishers are creating better workplaces and enriching them with diverse opinions; more and more, we’re working to make decisions inclusively, and not in a tower, to empower marginalised voices, to make our content accessible to broader audiences. This is also shifting internal cultures. More companies are talking about their younger employees and the responsibilities we have as employers to nurture these emerging talents – and it was a pleasure to have a high number of fantastic entries in the Rising Star category this year. If our finalists are anything to go on, the future of the sector is in good hands.

We will be celebrating our finalists and announcing the winners of the AOP Digital Publishing Awards on June 14th at Old Billingsgate in London. Make sure you’ve booked your ticket to join the industry-party of the year – find out more here.

Richard Reeves
Managing Director, AOP

The UK Association for Online Publishing (AOP) is an industry body representing digital publishing companies that create original, branded, quality content. AOP champions the interests of media owners from diverse backgrounds including newspaper and magazine publishing, TV and radio broadcasting, and pure online media.