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Data and the Revolution in Publishing

This is a strange interregnum in the closing years of the 350 year reign of the Gutenberg dynasty, writes David Worlock. While most observers are convinced of a digital future (even Clark Kent has left the Daily Planet to run a blog) there has been huge difficulty defining what that might mean.

By David Worlock

Some publishers still talk learnedly about the power of Content, and assert that if they have great content, the world will beat a path to their door. Less sanguine types speak of "migration" or "transitioning" to digital, as if a well-marked route were available, and as if once the arduous journey is over, they could settle down again and do on a screen very much what they had always done in print.

Further down the track, the BBM (Broken Business Model) brigade are lamenting the shrunken value of advertising online and seeking, sometimes via a paywall, a return to the balanced and regulated world of multiple revenue flows derived from advertising and subscription. And there may well be tenable niches in all these areas which will support survival and even some semblance of normality for a little while. But many seasoned observers now feel that it is time to put “migration” on hold – and begin to “re-think”.

In touch with customers?

One of the most popular myths of the Great Age of books and magazines, was that publishers were really very closely in touch with their customers. As we began to build more databased services in the late 1970s and early 1980s, this was already beginning to be exploded.

We could neither predict what they would use or predict what they would use it for, so we turned instead to creating massive, inclusive research services that satisfied generalised requirements for some groups of users. Thus WestlawNext and Lexis are the lineal descendants of these early services, still mostly used by litigators in the legal profession and still primarily dedicated to research and reference.

Yet they and services like them also sparked another ongoing developmental trend. As well as making publishers very used to handling searchable content and creating databases around it, they also prompted the question, not answered very well by usage logs, “how do our users use information to fulfil the daily demands of their working lives?” The Thomson mantra – “find out what they did just before they used your data – and afterwards as a result” has become embedded in the consciousness of one large sector of the B2B industry.

The poverty of the answer is accounted for by the fact that most of us do not do research for most of the working day. But the pressure to answer it became very much more acute as we moved into a networked society and a networked economy, where a good proportion of the readers / users of our books, magazines and databases were now interconnected, and busily creating information flows and new data as they transacted business with each other. And the handling and interrogation of that data was so valuable that it suggested that the information required to complete every transaction, every process, every compliance requirement, should be embedded in the network as well. Then users could work seamlessly, leave an auditable record, and comply with the ever increasing expectations for speed of delivery in the networks. But who can supply the data to make this work, and wrap it seamlessly in workflow software, update it and maintain it? The rewards for doing so are obvious; immense stickiness (once adopted this becomes part of the working life of an industry), brand transference (utilising the trust and authority vested by the industry in the underlying content); and much reduced competition. Yet can a publisher accomplish this?

Publisher success stories

There is plenty of evidence now that publishers, also known as information services providers, and sometimes even as information services and solutions providers are really rather adept at doing this. One of the first data-driven workflow models from Thomson Reuters (a model which runs a patent attorney’s office) is now close to ten years old. RBI has recently put the final touches to a strategy that has moved them away from an armada of over 150 magazines into seven fields of data investment where they can bring real value to the daily workload of professionals as diverse as bankers, aircraft leasing officers and HR professionals.

Look at “old” media companies as venerable as the American Farm Journal, and we find data assets on tablets used in the cabs of combine harvesters to optimise the timing of sending crops to market.

The pioneers were very close to the user objective, and this has been a key reason for success. Users seem to need to find, if they are to move across the threshold into utilising these new services, some combination of three factors if adoption is to take place. Centrally the solution has to demonstrate a productivity gain. Does less effort and quicker translate into lower costs and fewer people? Publishers who have struggled to demonstrate the ROI of information have sometimes struggled with this. Secondly, are the decisions made as a result of having all the data in the workflow proved to be better decisions than their more haphazard predecessors? Trialling and experimentation with key customers is implied here. And, finally, does the solution support compliance (aka good industry practice, good oversight and governance, industry best practice defined by trade bodies, trade regulation and legal constraints)? For many businesses, the costs of compliance, and the daunting problems of demonstrating it in an audit process to a regulator, are front of mind when it comes to adopting services and systems that inform workflow, as Thomson Reuters have found in their major GRC division initiative.

The competitive landscape

This implies a number of obstacles as well as huge advantages. The fact that each market niche seems intolerant of more than three, and often only two workflow-based data-driven solutions suggests a very different competitive landscape. Why would they want more? Only if the market leader failed to continually innovate or upgrade, and the second player did not act as a brake on prices would a duopoly be threatened. Yet this is very different from the hyper-competitive world of magazines. Again, selectivity was one of the prized assets of the publishing world. Here, inclusivity may be more important. The major development of individual and household risk assessment services for the workflow of US domestic insurers has been the major growth field for Lexis Risk, giving them an enviable market leadership which built upon their acquisition of ChoicePoint. Yet, vital as that core data is, the fact that it is searched in conjunction with a huge number of US Federal and State databases as well as Experian’s credit checking data creates the magic (and also created a Big Data demonstrator for the industry, with its own, now open source, software).

Many publishers have seen another obstacle right here. Licensing your competitor’s content (as Elsevier did for its GeoFacets oil and gas research workflow project) seems like a hard act, yet if the opportunities divide up into workflow-based niches, then no one player, however big, can do all of them.

Collaboration therefore makes sense, and we are already seeing more and more of it between content holders, more use of third party data, more negotiation with government for data, and, above all, more collaboration with customers for the re-use of data generated in trading and by the use of the workflow application itself through a feedback loop. Collaboration is a feature too of software and data players working together. Publishers sometimes indicate a willingness to become a solutions architect, but an unwillingness, oddly, to become a software developer. Apart from the fact that content, data, software and solutions are so tightly inter-twinned that all publishers are destined to be, in part, software players, even if that is at the level of creating a widget or an App, this ignores the major software industry that has grown up alongside traditional publishing, which is more than capable of developing the toolsets, performing the analytics and creating the platforms needed, and can do this as a partner or a sub-contractor.

Some of these perceived obstacles are at base attitudinal. Publishers have always been entrepreneurial roamers, moving their business drivers to where they can best take advantage of change. This applies to their development from eighteenth century booksellers onwards. Data driven solutions are another page in a long story, but it is quite wrong, as some imply, that it is a place where only the very largest players can play. As Macmillan, through its investments in Digital Science and Digital Education, has shown, buying niche players can make strategic sense. Elsewhere, the collaboration between the small Dutch software player Utopia Documents and the not-for-profit Portland Press can produce highly valuable workflow for biochemists.

As the new data pyramid shows (see above), the old value hierarchy of our industry is being re-written once again for an age where change derived from innovation is the only constant. That too may be seen as an obstacle, though it is in fact a huge advantage.