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article imageHow news outlets can innovate beyond native advertising Special

By Michael Thomas     Oct 8, 2014 in Business
Toronto - At a recent talk by the Canadian Journalism Foundation on native advertising, the heads of Canada's major news outlets were caught off-guard by one question: are any of them doing anything truly innovative?
The question came from Sabaa Quao, president of /newsrooms (a company he co-founded with Digital Journal), who explained what traditional news outlets are doing wrong and how they can look for innovation to bolster both their brand and bottom line.
First, Quao found that the CJF discussion went on for far too long on the subject of labeling, or distinguishing native ads from independent news. He made the comparison to television: audiences immediately know when a show goes to a commercial break, so why can't newspapers be as clear in the distinction between editorial content and advertising?
For one thing. Quao says, news companies are spending too much time pondering the "church and state" problem, or the wall between the editorial and business sides of a newsroom. At the talk, the panelists all said that no journalists work on native ads, but the outlets aren't seeing the larger picture, he notes.
"They're saying we have to do [native advertising] or investigative journalism will disappear," Quao said. "That's rubbish. The premise that this will save journalism is flawed."
So what should a news outlet be doing? Quao said they should be looking at ads as revenue, not editorial content. "I think the solution means church and state remain separate," Quao said. The better question news organizations should be asking themselves is, "What do we have to do with revenue that has nothing to do with editorial?" Quao thinks that if the major outlets look at the problem from that angle, they'll come up with new bold ideas.
So has he seen any outlet heading in the right direction? Scott White of Postmedia last week said he was proud of Gastropost, and Quao acknowledged he likes the idea, because it's a clear "stake in the ground."
But the real top of the pack on getting native ads to work is Buzzfeed.
Buzzfeed is doing well because it's constantly experimenting and hammering out new approaches Quao said. "By constantly testing the fence, they're closer to coming up with a sustainable solution. I can't say that the Buzzfeed approach is workable for anyone else, and that doesn't matter. What's important is that they are consistently creative and aggressive in their pursuit of revenue solutions. That's admirable and impressive."
At /newsrooms, Quao and his team deal with top-tier clients on a daily basis. Through his experience, he believes strongly in the fact that brands should not be looking for subtle ways to hide its name in newspapers.
"It's the very purpose of being a brand, not being subtle," Quao said. "Don't try to be quiet and persuade people. Part of the value of building a brand is to be clear and distinct."
Quao and /newsrooms find that brands serve their audience best by finding the issues that resonate with them and catering to those interests.
Further, those interests might not just be in Canada, though that's where the discussion centred last week. Quao pointed out the New York Times' international edition as something that worked, and he wondered why the Toronto Star, the National Post and Globe & Mail only see Canadians as the demographics who will read their content.
While acknowledging that the companies have physical products, Quao wants to see them aim higher. "If [they] have something good, why haven't they served it to the world?" he asked. "Their global audience has got to be bigger than their Canadian audience."
Of the panel at the CJF talk, he described the outlets involved as "bordered, not borderless."
He added a key point about how comfortable the news leaders seemed to be with each other, how they weren't hungry to find a better solution to their revenue challenges: "By the time we had gone halfway through the discussion, it seemed like they were satisfied with their answers. They came across as shockingly complacent."
More about native advertising, branded content, Innovation, Sabaa Quao
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