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State of the industry: 5 minutes with… Sajeeda Merali

Ahead of this year’s PPA Festival, taking place on 23rd April, we grab five minutes with PPA CEO Sajeeda Merali to get her thoughts on the state of the publishing sector.

By Sajeeda Merali

State of the industry: 5 minutes with… Sajeeda Merali
A panel discussion at last year's PPA Festival.

Q: What is the state of play when it comes to digital transformation and revenue diversification in the publishing sector?

A: Last year, the PPA produced a detailed market report which analysed the transformation and reimagining of established business models within the specialist media sector, and set out the themes that are driving the future success of this industry. There was much good news, with a huge amount of optimism that publishers’ investment in innovation is paying off, and highlighted that the focus now is on ruthless prioritisation of the factors delivering a return on investment.

Publisher revenue continues to diversify, with the report showing that 86% of PPA members now currently operate across five or more platforms, versus 75% in 2019.

What is especially encouraging for publishers is that the areas with the strongest performance and the strongest predicted growth, are areas of consumer revenue where audiences are voting with their money for the value of content and experiences including live events, digital subscriptions, memberships, and newsletters.

But the core reason for publishers being able to diversify their revenue is due to the strength of their brands and what they stand for; quality content and trusted journalism. Never has trust been so important to people – trust in what they see and read – and we are in a situation where our content is being merged in with UGC and AI, and ‘reality’ is becoming distorted. We need to be able to identify trusted journalism versus user generated and AI content.

To continue to drive revenue, we need to be able to differentiate and protect the content of our members, and provide confidence to consumers in the promises made by our industry. The PPA will continue to work closely with its members and government to ensure we protect what is rightfully ours, so that consumers can continue to enjoy the quality content that we produce.

Q: What impact do you expect AI to have on the publishing sector?

A: The first thing to say here is that we welcome the innovation that technology affords, including AI and the positive impact it can have on the industry. But this needs to be balanced with overcoming some of the threats and challenges it poses to our industry.

For publishers, AI falls currently into three areas:

  • Copyright: This is an area where we are working closely with the Government and on behalf of our members to ensure publishers get paid for the content that is and continues to be used by tech platforms, and that they are held accountable for what has already been taken. We can’t be in a situation where AI tools can access and repurpose PPA members’ original content without reimbursement.
  • Workflows: There is a huge benefit to businesses where AI is being used to improve or streamline workflows where they can automate low level tasks such as copy checking and meta tagging. It’s also an excellent tool to analyse engagement data and can help publishers to analyse audience insights and understand where they should focus their journalism efforts or develop new products.
  • The product: For example, Nursing Times has used AI to build a large language model with their own content. ‘Ask Nursing Times’ is accessed via their website, and nurses can ask questions and get answers to questions immediately from the myriad of the brand’s archived ‘trusted content’ on the site. This is a valuable service to nurses and is a great demonstration of using AI in an innovative way to enhance the user experience and the role that specialist interest media has in this community. I’m sure this is the first of many very exciting AI innovations.

Q: What do you see as the main priorities for publishers over the next twelve months?

A: I see three:

  • First party data: Data is being used in pretty much every strategic decision. In the market report, more than 80% of PPA members said they are using data for subscriber retention and acquisition. Roughly half are using it for content monetisation and ad targeting, with three-quarters using it for lead / demand generation. Data and insights around audience preferences and personas continue to inform new product development and increase the customer experience and this results in higher value ad products. As we move towards the post-cookie era, there is a significant and lucrative opportunity to capitalise and build upon current levels of data usage; develop clear data strategies and benefit from the first party data available to publishers.
  • People: It’s crucial that we see a continued focus on talent strategies that attract and retain talent at all levels across all functions. Our market report found that there were more recruitment and retention enhancements in 2022 than in any single previous year. Nearly three-quarters of publishers raised salaries, increased training opportunities, expanded career development options, instituted permanent flexible / hybrid working schedules, and / or improved onboarding. Coupled with this, ED&I is a big focus and publishers need to maintain momentum and remain committed to ensuring their businesses are inclusive places to work and that their leadership teams are accountable for the progress of their ED&I strategies.
  • And, finally, Revenue: As I said at the start, ruthless prioritisation of revenue generating, customer centric initiatives will be key.

Q: What do publishers need to do to make the industry an attractive career choice for young people?

A: We need to do a better job of presenting our industry as a career choice. Lots of people fall into the sector and love it, so let’s turn this into an industry where people are making conscious decisions to work in it. It’s a fun industry and there’s such an exciting array of jobs available from data scientists through to social media content creators. Last year, we created a Next Gen Board – it has been incredibly well received, with some fantastic talent representing a range of roles and businesses across our membership. There’s no better group of people to showcase the ‘best of publishing’, and they’ve been working on an industry-wide talent acquisition campaign that we look forward to sharing in due course.

Q: With a general election imminent, what would the PPA like from a new government?

A: There are numerous bills currently working their way through parliament that tackle really important business issues for publishers – from delivering a regulatory approach to AI, to ensuring we have the right environment for subscriptions to thrive – and we need to see these bills progressed and passed and not held up between governments.

But, most importantly, we want our industry to be a priority for any potential new government. For them to value the creative economy.

At the beginning of March, Creative UK held The Big Creative Summit 2024 at which the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Rt Hon Luzy Frazer KC MP, gave a speech which championed the successes of the creative sector, and commended the energy, leadership, passion, and investment that the creative industry has brought to the country. And this support needs to continue for us to flourish.

In March, I attended the Labour Creatives Conference and they specifically stated that the creative sector was one of their core growth sectors. This focus will be a major step forward in terms of levelling up the reputation and value of the sector amongst other industries.

Q: The theme of this year’s festival is ‘Turning optimism into action’. What’s the thinking behind that?

A: The evolution we’ve seen in our sector has given people optimism for the industry’s future but there’s a lot to do to capitalise on these opportunities. Whether it’s talent, sustainability, AI or ED&I, the PPA Festival will collectively help to drive these discussions forward; facilitate collaboration and bring in speakers who will give delegates the opportunity to understand how we make that a reality.

Q: What advice would you give attendees at events like the PPA Festival on how they can get the most out of the day?

A: The PPA is broad church and when we plan the agenda, we think about the different business types along with the functional groups core to the sector. Making sure there’s always something of interest to everyone across the four stages of content, is a constant consideration. This year will cover strategic broader issues that affect the whole industry, and then we will stream into a number of sessions where speakers can get more technical with plenty of practical insights. It’s also a fantastic networking opportunity. This is the one industry event where we get representation at all levels including C suite and executive teams. From the most senior, to up and coming talent and students, so don’t be shy, introduce yourself to other people, speak to your peers and make new connections.

About us

The PPA represents, champions and supports special interest member companies, ranging from large consumer magazine publishers to business-to-business data and information providers, as well as smaller independent publishers. Synonymous with magazine media for over 100 years, today the PPA membership is made up of modern, multi-platform media businesses carving out a new future defined by trusted, quality content. Whether on the page, online, or face-to-face, PPA members create professional, inspirational and influential media content that engages and influences audiences.

The PPA Festival take place on 23rd April at The Brewery, London.