Shift North 2017 reports and presentations

A view from the floor at Shift North 2017: Publishers' future lies in the strength of their brands

Anyone attending Newsworks' Shift North event in Manchester on Tuesday should have left with little doubt of the headline story... news is back and it means business, writes Nik Wheatley, head of The Story Lab North.

Opening the morning, Newsworks' CEO Vanessa Clifford challenged each of us to answer which other industry could credibly say they have adapted, nay re-invented, their business models and the nature of their customer relationships so successfully over recent years – achieving so much in the face of such overwhelming disruption. She has a point.

Across the morning we saw evidence of news teams that have learnt to love data, editors rewriting their reporter rule book to attract social first audiences and some excellent examples of the burgeoning marriage with tech to drive new experiences barely conceivable 15 years ago. Critically, we saw brands with a new-found confidence and clarity of purpose, exploring new possibilities both editorially and commercially with their audience.  

So, what's the trend underpinning all of this? It's difficult to escape that each of the speakers (and I'm guessing each of their organisations) has found a common enemy in the proliferation of fake news, the collapse in confidence of what we see littering much of our more lightly regulated news feeds and the need to get some sort of a stake in the ground to make sense of the crazy political shifts we are all seeing play out before our eyes. 

Even Sophie Tighe, the Sun's Snapchat editor, was clear that her audience showed clear conviction to consume the serious stuff (the morning was fab for debunking lazy stereotypes but more on that in a minute) – they just want to access that conversation on platforms and in editorial styles that may not be familiar to those who grew up in the pre-digital era.

Against the common enemy it appears each of speakers had individually come to the same conclusion – their future lies in the strength of the brands they have spent decades building and in which audiences are still prepared to invest trust to help navigate these challenging times we live in. That each did so with barely a hint of nostalgia was creditable. 

The Guardian's Chris Moran put it simply – readers are turning to them to help share a more qualified view on subjects that are increasingly hard to make sense of, in environments where your views are more exposed than ever. Strong newsbrands of whatever persuasion facilitate this uniquely well.

Data was an active participant in the development of each of the news stories shared with us. The Guardian are refining their story telling to succeed as a multi-platform, multi-national story teller – reaching out to audiences that the print brand may previously have excluded. In essence, slowly but surely making a nonsense of the old fashioned narrative of 'Guardian readers' as a coherent stereotype. 

The Sun's Snapchat team are equally data savvy and Sophie clearly articulated how the back bone of their editorial output is subject to constant refinement based on the tracking of audience behaviours and performance against KPI's. 

Perhaps, more than any others, The Telegraph's Cat Wildman was able to showcase how the support of data is helping build a brand that is at ease both as a modern entity delivered as a morning briefing via Alexa or in the depth and analysis they claim as their heartland by way of a coherent Snapchat offer that was modern (without being a 'dancing dad'!).

Of course there was acknowledgement of challenges among the reasons for optimism. Cat probably captured this most succinctly – The Telegraph reaches 74% 18-24 year olds – a higher proportion than any other demographic and yet how many of those actually know that The Telegraph are delivering the journalism? 

As distribution of the product becomes more complex the idea of 'owning' the relationship becomes harder to square – and yet we all know that the strength of that relationship is one of the key factors influencing the premium that advertisers will pay to reach those audiences and create hosted content experiences for them, as is central to the work that we do in The Story Lab. Each speaker agreed that data and continued commitment to understand refine and innovate will underpin this journey.

Overall, Shift North was an impressive showcase from an industry that looks to be regaining its pomp. The headlines were positive, but reassuringly the substance of the body copy was also strong enough to suggest the story is only just getting started and promises much to justify our continued attention.  

Critically, we saw brands with a new-found confidence and clarity of purpose, exploring new possibilities both editorially and commercially with their audience.

Nick Wheatley, head of The Story Lab North
by Nik Wheatley 05/10/17

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