The inaugural PubTechConnect conference, copresented by Publishers Weekly and the New York University School of Professional Studies Center for Publishing, was held on April 20 in New York, and from the start, innovation and the digital future were front and center.
The conference's opening keynote featured a conversation between Sree Sreenivasan, the chief digital officer for New York City, and Kinsey Wilson, the New York Times editor of innovation and strategy and executive v-p of product and technology. The pair discussed at length how both the City and the Times are developing their digital strategies in an era in which both municipalities and legacy publications need to direct more of their attention on rebuilding infrastructure to focus more on the digital realm.
For the city of New York, that means addressing the very real problem of broadband deserts. Sreenivasan noted that while many people still don't always think of the Internet as a utility like electricity or gas, the City has begun to try to address access needs as it would with any other utility. That said, it can, like improving any other aspect of infrastructure, be a bit tricky.
"We're all for disruption," Sreenivasan said. "But the regulatory rules, sometimes they're decades old." That said, finding new ways to interact with old problems is exactly what the tech sector's "disruption" strategy is about, and Sreenivasan found ways to bring that mindset into the City's programs. One example? New apps for city residents, like ParkNYC, an app that allows drivers to feed the parking meter from their smartphones.
Prior to working for New York, Sreenivasan was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where, he said, he treated the museum "as a publisher. The future of the Met," he added, "is in storytelling." For the New York Times, storytelling is as important as it always has been, but in a digital landscape, other strategies are just as important. Wilson noted that advertising remains an important bulwark in the continuation of the paper's digital development, but added that, as per a corporate strategy developed in the summer of 2016, being a "destination" is just as important—and that means increasing subscriptions, the revenue source that has always been the Times' bread and butter.
"The pendulum seems to be swinging in favor of [subscriptions], in part because of profound changes in the ad market," Wilson said. "Everyone is scrambling to try to find a subscription model.”
Wilson outlined the Times' main sources of digital traffic of late: politics, then opinion, and then cooking. Wilson highlighted the paper's cooking coverage as the nexus of one of its most surprisingly strong digital makeovers. The company had been "sitting on a database of 17,000 recipes," Wilson said, and once they "went to the trouble of tagging them, so they were actually searchable and useful," saw those recipes jet to the top of Google searches and provide the consequent traffic spikes.
Wilson offered publishers the same philosophy on digital strategy as the Times subscribed to while revamping its cooking content. “The question we ask ourselves is, do we have a distinct competitive advantage?” Wilson said; i.e., is there a particular subject the Times has strong coverage of, and can they scale it up to an audience need that they—and other media outlets—have yet to address? He also made sure to note that sometimes, tried and true systems are the best, pointing to email newsletters as an "elegant" and successful method of digital distribution.
The morning's first panel, moderated by Fast Company's business and technology staff writer J.J. McCorvey, saw business leaders from across the tech sector discuss what publishers need to learn to shake up old formulas to achieve new results. Amory Wooden, director of brand marketing at Squarespace, stressed the importance of branding one's online presence, which starts, she said, with getting one's own domain. Joanna Lord, chief marketing officer for fitness startup ClassPass, stressed the importance of stretching beyond the core competency of a business.
Hillary Kerr, cofounder and chief ideation officer of Clique Media Group—a fleet of digital fashion websites—insisted that publishers needed, above all, to listen to their audiences and to calculate decisions based on a mix of community suggestions and hard knowledge. Part of creating a development strategy is a gut instinct, Kerr said, but added that "you have to listen to the audience, you also have to make informed, calculated risks. Everything we do, we test and we test and we test.”
Dropbox's George Baier IV, a book industry veteran now head of media solutions at the file hosting service, also relies heavily on outside opinion. “Every conversation we have [with customers or partners] starts this way: 'I like this aspect of Dropbox and I wish it did X.’” he said. But equally important, at least for Dropbox, is the importance of communication through every step of any business process, something he said publishers could learn from tech companies. "Everyone [at Dropbox] can see everyone else’s calendar in the entire company…which is an incredible amount of trust,” he said. “Every docket we publish internally is public to everyone in the company.” He contrasted that to publishing, where, he said, most people working on the lifecycle of one book don't even know each other. "That means inefficient communication," he said, "and that’s a big drawback."
But the bottom line, for everyone in the panel, was the importance of calculated risk-taking. “You have to actually encourage everyone at the company to suggest something risky and make it a non-issue," Lord said, adding that if people think they’ll get in trouble for saying a “silly idea,” publishers will inevitably miss on ways to develop new business ideas—meaning someone will inevitably beat them to it. "So," she added, "it’s important to have that open kind of environment."
More coverage of the full-day conference will be in Monday's print edition of PW as well as online.