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“The death of media is greatly exaggerated”: Insights from media maven Simon Owens

Journalist Simon Owens’s Media Industry Newsletter is compulsory reading for anyone trying to navigate the ever-changing, challenging world of digital media. He tells Piet van Niekerk what he thinks will be some of the recurring themes at June’s FIPP World Media Congress in Cascais, Portugal, where he will be a speaker.

Simon Owens doesn’t suffer fools or mince his words. Not when he accuses Facebook in his newsletter of “bribing publishers” with its (now disappearing) news tab, spells out (back in January 2022) why Jeff Zucker, then president of CNN Worldwide, “seriously overestimated the general public’s brand affinity toward CNN”, or describes Fox News as “doling out partisan catnip”.

There is good reason for his fluency. Simon has been poring over the inner workings of media for over twenty years. Media was a central theme when he started blogging as a student in 2003. When he launched his “official” blog, Blogasm, in 2005, it soon morphed from covering the “burgeoning blogosphere” to digital media as well.

No wonder, then, that when Simon took on a job as a traditional newspaper reporter, Blogasm ticked over nicely on the side, keeping him alert to the changing landscape of the creator economy and the trials and blunders of legacy media, most of which were on a crash course with digital disruption. 

“Back then, I just had a natural fascination with media because there was this transition that was going on very early on where traditional media was trying to figure out how to use the internet, how to monetise the internet and understand the concept of eyeballs. So it was just perfect timing. When I moved to Washington, DC, I got a part-time role with PBS’ MediaShift. My role was to cover the digitisation of the media industry and write long-form pieces around that.”

Many years of “education” followed, and Simon became an undisputed authority on the flaws of legacy media entering the digital age.

Join Simon and over 500 leaders from 40+ countries at this year’s 46th FIPP World Media Congress. Taking place June 4-6, 2024, in the seaside village of Cascais, Portugal, the event offers unmatched knowledge sharing, networking and strategic partnership opportunities. Discover more and secure your spot today.

Create better advertising products

Simon says publishers are quick to blame big tech companies for taking away their advertising revenue but are dreadfully slow to create products that offer brands better ROI.

“They blame big tech without analysing why advertisers actually prefer those products over their own. It’s because they have subpar advertising products to offer brands. That’s a huge challenge that a lot of the media market hasn’t even acknowledged exists.”

On top of this, advertising tech does not work, and it seems publishers do not even understand how bad it is. “A lot of display advertising is not providing much value for advertisers. It provides a low ROI. And the tech enables some advertisers, through keyword blacklisting, to block news publishers from their advertising because they publish controversial topics such as politics, abortion and topics like that.” 

Publishers need to get into a position of “reckoning”, where they create better advertising products, says Simon. That is the only way they will win back brands who now prefer to advertise on Amazon, Google and Meta.

Add value through podcasts

Simon rates podcasts as one of the best tools publishers can use to add value to their overall offering. After working various full-time jobs in marketing, PR, and traditional journalism (including at US News World Report), he became a full-time content marketing consultant in 2014. When he started covering the media industry full time, focusing on the intersection of tech and media, his podcast was closely linked to his successful Substack newsletter. 

“Podcasts can be utilised in many different ways and there is still a huge opportunity for media companies, especially now that there’s good video creation software, where it’s really easy to create a podcast with video. And you can take the transcripts of your podcast and turn it into an article. There’s just so many different ways that you can utilise podcasts that I think a lot of publishers haven’t unlocked.”

The same applies to video. “I think there’s a huge opportunity in video and a lot of growth ahead of us for video. A lot of publishers, especially ones that aren’t the truly big ones, just haven’t fully capitalised on this opportunity yet.” 

Get to grips with newsletters

While just about every publisher has a newsletter, many are slow to optimise it, argues Simon. “They haven’t given newsletters enough thought. They need to think more about how to create a truly great product that people will look forward to opening every single day.”

Newsletters are so important in terms of building a habit with your audience, building a true connection with them but also getting access to first-party data that you can utilise when you launch new products or initiatives.

Simon Owens

A mistake many traditional publishers make is to think of newsletters as a tool for readers to link back to the article pages on their website. “Their main aim for the newsletter seems to be driving readers to their websites, which carries the programmatic display advertising, which itself does not deliver high ROI.” 

This is not the purpose of a newsletter. A newsletter should be the first place that readers interact with your considered thoughts on a particular topic, says Simon. He argues that newsletters that people wake up to, that have an open rate of over 40% and are actively followed, can be directly monetised.

“A newsletter is the first point of introduction to your content. Readers are more incentivised to open it. So I think there’s an opportunity there. The other great thing about newsletters from a subscription, paid subscription standpoint, is you don’t have to remember a login. Think of the many times you hit a paywall for a site that you’re already paying for. And then you have to hunt down and either remember your password or do a password recovery. But once you sign up for a paid newsletter, you are just going to start receiving it in your inbox.”

He thinks there’s a huge opportunity for advertising in newsletters, especially newsletter native advertising, “because there’s so much higher engagement with newsletters than standard website articles. But most publishers are not even trying to sell advertising in their newsletters.

“So, if you were actually to sell native advertising units within your newsletter, I think you could sell them at much higher cost per thousand. And they would produce higher ROI for advertisers.”

Turning to the bright side

So, it’s not all doom and gloom if publishers get the basics right? Not at all, says Simon. Unlike the tech giants, publishers create original content. “So there’s still tremendous value from people, from organisations and companies that know how to generate the kind of content that audiences actually want to consume.

“It’s just a matter of figuring out how you monetise that audience, and I think that’s where publishers have suffered. And part of it is that they tried to optimise their content for the tech giants and whatever their whims were.”

Many legacy media companies, he says, “are still too stuck in their printed mindset”. As soon as they realise that they already have audiences, the expertise, and the ability to put good content in front of audiences, they need to work out how to make money from it.

“Through things like paid subscriptions, through affiliate and e-commerce, through better advertising products, there’s still tremendous opportunity for media companies,” Simon argues. “The death of media is greatly exaggerated.”