SOPA talk: Paywalls, digital products and profiting from the media’s digital age

(From left to right) Inkstone’s senior editor Juliana Liu moderating a panel on digital media with Coconuts’ Tara Chanapai, Bloomberg’s Anjali Kapoor, and SCMP’s Malcolm Ong. Photo by Chad Williams.

How do you solve a problem like Maria? — an acronym we just made up for Media Achieving Revenue in the Internet Age to justify the Sound of Music reference.

That was the focus yesterday as media figures took part in a panel discussion at the SCMP’s new offices in Causeway Bay to discuss how their outlets were confronting the changing business of journalism in a digital world.

Organized by the The Society of Publishers in Asia and chaired by Inkstone’s senior editor Juliana Liu, the panel featured Coconuts’ own marketing director and Thailand country head Tara Chanapai, Bloomberg’s head of digital for Asia Pacific Anjali Kapoor, and SCMP’s head of product Malcolm Ong.

Though publications with different styles and readerships, all three face challenges born of the digital media revolution, like fragmented audiences and expectations of readers accustomed to free and varied content.

Each, too, is working to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the online sphere, with its multiple ways of telling stories and connecting with audiences, whose preferences and feedback now comes in real time.

Here’s some of what they had to say:

On COCO+

Kicking off the panel discussion, Liu asked Chanapai about Coconuts’ recent decision to put up paywall.

Chanapai cited surveys carried out by Coconuts where readers indicated that they would be willing to pay for Coconuts but want to see more original content and reporting, something the company has set as a priority.

“A paywall is the solution right now,” she said, discussing the changing media landscape and efforts by outlets to remain viable.

“We’re still figuring out a bit as we go, but it has had a great response from our readers, and what we’re trying to communicate to people right now is that paying for content is a good thing; it has really important benefits for our readers. Our readers are smart people across southeast Asia that want quality content, and Coconuts has transitioned to even more original content than we started with in the last year or two.

“As we add more benefits and more perks and privileges to the entire COCO+ membership programme, people will see even more of the quality.”

On audiences and analytics

The panelists also talked about the importance of data in the newsroom, with Kapoor explaining that Bloomberg reporters keep an eye on data analytics to see which stories are doing well.

“I would say that on a day-to-day basis, it’s high-quality premium journalism with original ideas or original opinion from our opinion team that really get the top 10 on our site,” said Kapoor.

“You can’t just look at analytics on your site anymore, you have to look at how people are engaging with your content across multiple social platforms, how they’re talking about it and how they’re sharing, and then you get a sense of the wider sphere of how your content performs.”

Ong agreed, saying that it was not just about counting the clicks, but also understanding how readers share articles, what devices they read it on and how do they interact with it.

Although the SCMP website has been around since 1996, it was the arrival of the iPad, he said, that prompted media outlets to think about how readers were consuming their content, and how to make it more mobile-friendly.

“Part of our digital transformation and understanding more about users is being more data-driven, and couple that with more of the qualitative research that we do do. So it means understanding how your users are using your product, where they’re using your products and exactly in what context.”

New products and the future

With the recent launch of the SCMP’s sites Abacus and Inkstone — respectively, new sites dedicated to covering China tech and a daily news digest dedicated to “translating China” — Ong says the newspaper is also planning on launching a third website that will be more lifestyle-focused.

He added that the SCMP had also been experimenting with different formats and mediums such as audio, AI, AR and VR.

“We’ve definitely done some VR-related stories before, but I would say we’re just on the tipping point of that and certainly as an industry,” he said.

“I think a lot of publishers are still trying to figure out what exactly that really means for story-telling, but at the end of the day it is just figuring out what types of stories, what formats and in what ways our readers like consuming it as well as [how] our editors and our journalists like telling it.”

He acknowledged, though, that the newspaper, which is owned by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, the executive chairman of online retailers Alibaba, did not have to worry about profit as it explored new avenues of storytelling online.

For Coconuts, Chanapai said the priority was on developing content and stories that provided value for readers.

“Right now we’re thinking a lot about the different ways to develop COCO+ and to give our audience real value there, so with the membership program I guess one thing on our mind is online events that would connect our editors with groups of our readers around specific topics in different markets that they’re interested in.”

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