The need to adapt to new technology platforms was a recurring theme at the morning session of the second PubTechConnect, a day-long conference on publishing and technology, organized by Publishers Weekly and New York University’s SPS Center for Publishing. The conference was held March 6 at NYU’s Kimmel Center.
Presenters, ranging from New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul to Melissa Bell, publisher at the news and lifestyle online startup Vox Media, used the morning program to continually address the importance of learning how to use emerging technologies—particularly podcasting—in sensible and “authentic” ways to either serve or develop an audience.
Indeed, responding to questions from MSNBC’s Anand Giridharadas, Paul, along with her NYT colleague, assistant editor Sam Dolnick, highlighted the various ways podcasting, as well as VR and video, were transforming news and book coverage at the New York Times. Paul said the challenge was to “stay on top of the innovation that was already happening.”
The New York Times book coverage, she said, was currently in the midst of a reorganization. Calling the previous approach a "mish mosh," she said the paper "had no sense of how to make it make sense to someone who comes to our book coverage on a phone.” In the past, the paper's book coverage was, as she put it, “review-centric." Now, she explained, the goal is to move away from "just, ‘here’s a new book.”’
Dolnick said each medium “is different and needs its own treatment.” He pointed to "The Daily," the New York Times' daily podcast summation of the news, which he noted is the paper's "most successful” new media offering. He also cited the publication's VR and video coverage (initially focused on the refugee crisis), and said to expect more Times experiments with audio and with voice command platforms, like Alexa and Google Home, to learn “what they can do.”
Paul cited the success of "The Book Review Podcast," which features the Times book critics in conversation with Paul about what goes on behind the scenes, discussing things like how books are chosen for review and, she said, the "texture of reviewing and criticism."
Dolnick, who oversees digital and mobile initiatives at The Times, including podcasts and virtual reality, cited his young daughter, who uses a Nook and voice commands to listen to Percy Jackson audiobooks. He said that he feels her use of audiobooks has impacted his understanding of “what reading a book means."
Asked by Giridharadas if “something is lost” by listening to audiobooks, Dolnick said it might be. But, that, nonetheless, "audiobooks led her to reading.”
At the end of the day, Paul and Dolnick said their efforts are focused on how technology works in relation to the Times' mission statement "to help people understand the world.” Paul said that, with this in mind, she focuses on how readers use technology and how, in turn, the paper can "use technology to add something to the story.”
Throughout the PubTechConnect morning session, the need to adapt technologies like podcasting to the mission and goals of your company, as well as the expectations of your audience, became a theme.
On a panel called "The Innovators," featuring executives from a variety of successful startups, the utility and popularity of podcasting once again became a focal point of the conversation. Michael Mignano, CEO of Anchor (a firm that enables people to launch and distribute podcasts), and Amanda Hesser, CEO of Food52 (a site featuring food content, recipes and a book imprint in partnership with HarperCollins), traded conflicting opinions on the proliferation podcasts, as well as the level of production needed for a successful podcast.
Citing an examination and redesign of the programming on the Food52 podcast, Hesser suggested there is an oversupply of podcasts, noting that “it’s easy to create a crappy podcast, and harder to create a good one.” Mignano, however, downplayed the notion of an oversupply and celebrated the proliferation of podcasts. Anchor, he said, was unleashing a wave of creativity by removing the barriers to producing podcasts. The Anchor app, he noted, “is the easiest way to start a podcast.” An he emphasized that authors are using it because it gives them “the ability to be heard like never before.”
Innovators panelist Melissa Bell seemed to connect with Mignano's vision of the platform. Her company, Vox Media, which is a network of news sites covering food (Eater), technology (Verge), sports (SBNation), real estate (Curbed), and other categories, has launched a growing network of podcasts.
“Our creators [Vox reporters, editors and contributors] were asking for them," she said. "Some were good at it, others not so. But its been driven by the authors who really want to do it and that’s where the magic comes from.”
Throughout the rest of the morning, panels on topics such as marketing and online video return to some variation on the topic of creating content and what platform to use to deliver it, including the creation of branded content that includes the use of video, VR or audio.
In a slide and video presentation, Penguin Random House marketing v-p Kristin Fassler showed how the publisher worked with the New York Times to create a Virtual Reality experience around novelist George Saunders bestselling novel Lincoln in the Bardo. She said that the video experience ultimately drove “discoverability beyond B2B, and directly to readers.”
During a panel on marketing, representatives from The Atlantic, TMI Strategy, a marketing research firm, Scholastic, and HarperCollins, discussed approaches to create branded content, and the importance of having a sense of “authenticity.”
The Atlantic’s Hayley Romer said the quality of authenticity--the ability to communicate with consumers in ways that are consistent with the company's brand and its history--“is what it’s all about. What makes the audience want your thing? The Atlantic is 160 years old and what makes sense for The Atlantic may not be SnapChat." For the Atlantic, she said, authenticity means the integrity of its intellectual history and the quality of its journalism. Podcasts, "make sense,” for the publication, she said, as long as you can craft a campaign that embodies the qualities your customers value in the company.
In a separate presentation, Elisa Kreisinger of Refinery29, a media firm focused on women, and the producer of a popular podcast called "Strong Opinions Lightly Held," outlined her own experience with launching the show and the importance of connecting to your audience.
Kreisinger used her presentation to outline the dangers of being dazzled by technological platforms, and the importance of talking to customers to assure that you deliver the right programming and content. Refinery29, she said, conducted a survey and "asked women what they want," and the results were surprising.
“We wanted to do video for women, but all our research said that women want podcasts,” she said. “So does your audience want video or is it just your boss?”
Correction: An earlier version of this story noted incorrectly that Vox Media had launched a podcast for every vertical at the company.