​News Corp - On deadline in a digital world

As challenges impact newspaper businesses, News Corp outlines how the channel can help instigate change through digital technologies.
Mark Drasutis - Chief Product Officer for Digital, News Corp (Photo - Maria Stefina)

Mark Drasutis - Chief Product Officer for Digital, News Corp (Photo - Maria Stefina)

When walking around News Corp headquarters, the daily toil of reaching over seven million Australians each day, through 111 publications across six major capital cities, is evident.

Cluttered desks, hordes of newspapers piled up in walkways and an air of tense excitement.

But as the flickering of large screen digital displays suggest, this news desk isn’t a relic of the past, rather a demonstration of future becoming reality.

As the home of The Australian, The Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun and The Courier-Mail, News Corp is blending traditional newspaper practices with cutting edge innovation strategies, as it expands its reach and influence across the country.

“This interview will end up on multiple media platforms,” News Corp chief product officer for digital Mark Drasutis explained. “If somebody decides to sit in their office and read this in a magazine then that’s their choice, likewise if they decide to consume it digitally instead.

“Consumers are now in control and have choice — it’s about discovery not distribution.”

Yet many industry critics believe Australia’s newspapers — in following the path of global counterparts — have deliberately, and somewhat conveniently, ignored the story of their own decline, refusing to acknowledge that the internet has poached both readers and advertising dollars in equal measure.

For Drasutis however, a responsibility for setting an innovation agenda at Australia’s leading media company creates a responsibility to fuse paper with digital platforms.

“A very interesting view of our business is that newspapers are going to die and that nobody is going to buy them,” Drasutis acknowledged. “But that’s factually incorrect. It’s actually an and, not an or, conversation for consumers.

“We have a large proportion of our customers buying print products every week and during the weekend, but they also like to consume our content on Apple News, or on their Facebook feed or through our apps.”

In walking past the The Daily Telegraph newsroom, as the night editors gathered on the floor in deep consultation, Drasutis stopped to illustrate his point.

“Our editorial teams produce great journalism, they have a tummy compass and they know what is going to be a good yarn,” he observed. “They then use data to verify that which we provide via our technology platforms.

“But we’re not expecting a journalist to understand an API or necessarily how to utilise Periscope on Twitter or Facebook Live. They should just be there as a tool if they feel that it’s the right thing to augment the story.”

After becoming the first Australian media company to launch on Snapchat’s content portal, Discover, two years ago, Drasutis and his team continue to execute a strategy designed to leverage digital technologies to meet ever-changing business objectives.

“We enable the transformation of our business from where it is today to where it needs to be,” he said. “And we do it in the background. We’re in the background, but we’re setting the table.

“With Snapchat, we presented a discoverable platform which we can monetise and gain value from.

“We knew a certain demographic of 14–25 year olds exist here, and we utilised technology to reach them.”

Mark Drasutis - Chief Product Officer for Digital, News Corp (Photo - Maria Stefina)
Mark Drasutis - Chief Product Officer for Digital, News Corp (Photo - Maria Stefina)

With an arsenal of newspaper titles and lifestyle brands, News Corp’s digital sites have a monthly unique audience of 6.7 million, creating multi-platform leaders in food, health, parenting and style and property as a result.

Coupled with new digital products for key mastheads, and more than 2.3 million subscribers viewing Foxtel on their television, computer, mobile phone, Xbox 360 or tablet with the new Foxtel Go app, and News Corp is continuing to remain relevant across an array of platforms.

Digital agenda

In drawing on expertise gleaned in executive roles at AOL and Yahoo, and through moving away from conventional IT approaches, Drasutis is creating a digital agenda based on collaboration, spanning editorial, digital, sales and marketing teams.

Collaboration now comes from the technology division out, incorporating all key stakeholders from the start, instead of the traditional way IT has dictated usage to the business previously.

“Take SuperCoach for example,” explained Drasutis, referring to News Corp’s sports fantasy game, which encompasses more than 450,000 players across AFL and NRL.

“We make SuperCoach TV, we’re on Twitter every Friday afternoon, we’re on Facebook, it’s all over the website and it’s in the newspaper. It’s a team effort.”

Citing the internal and external success of SuperCoach, Drasutis said that when developing new products and go-to-market strategies, from the outset, technology and the business are on the same page.

But in drawing on over 20 years of media and technology experience, Drasutis acknowledged that key stakeholder buy-in wasn’t always as straightforward.

“It hasn’t always been that way,” he said. “At News Corp, we merged together the digital and technology teams two years ago. Technology was no longer just the IT team and the guys that fix the printers. It’s a whole different dynamic.”

Under the previous leadership of News Corp chief technology officer Alisa Bowen — who was appointed to the role in January 2016 but departed for Disney in March 2017 — the division has recognised the need to be closer to the business, removing silos and leading the conversation through technology.

“News is news, it’s designed that way and it operates well,” Drasutis explained. “The Daily Telegraph is The Daily Telegraph, that’s it’s job and that’s the point.

“Through technology, we provide the connective tissue and create collaboration across the organisation. “Business needs technology to take ownership and it’s the foundation and powerhouse of any business today.”

Buying process

Despite the freedom to adopt emerging technologies however, News Corp still relies heavily on the opinion of IT and key business stakeholders, striking a balance between innovation and governance as a result.

“We might be agile but we still adopt a business case approach,” Drasutis said. “My team is a hybrid, they are focused on both the customer and business outcomes.

“When the business requires a new capability, we assess the value of either building or buying that technology. If we buy it, we have a conversation, create a RFP and work out who is the best vendor.

“The business still requires some level of lean governance over the top.”

Driven by business outcomes rather than purely technology performance, Drasutis represents the new breed of IT buyer, a buyer that views value differently to the IT department.

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Such difference requires new levels of engagement from partners and vendors alike, considering the changing expectations of the end-user.

“Vendors and providers need to talk a different language because my questions are different,” he said.

“Why should my customer care? Why are you different to anyone else? Are you open? Can you be integrated in a seamless frictionless way with my current systems?”

To target a buyer of Drasutis’ calibre, technology providers must now completely rethink how to take IT products and services to market, changing sales techniques as well as offerings to ensure traction.

“Providers must talk in a way that is about the customer, and how we can piece together technologies and services to deliver the most amazing customer experience,” Drasutis advised.

In taking a deep breath and glancing at a whiteboard of post-it notes and ideas, Drasutis cited artificial intelligence (AI) as a key case in point.

“How many providers tell me that they can utilise AI and machine learning to deliver the right content, to the right customer, at the right time, on the right device?” he asked. “Literally, thousands of them.

“But I don’t need to work with thousands of them. I need to run experiments with a few smaller businesses that are agile and nimble enough to change and understand my business.”

Adding weight to the channel theory that specialised niche providers are now in vogue, Drasutis represents a buying demographic allured by tailored solutions and services.

In short, it’s a specific request for a specific type of expert provider.

“Today, if I strike a deal with a large traditional vendor, I’ve put all my eggs in one basket and then I’m taking a risk,” Drasutis explained. “It’s all about risk and it’s a huge risk to take.

“If I have a start-up in one corner that specialises in a technology and is more targeted and focused on what the outcome I’m looking for, compared to a big deal in the other corner that means I’m unable to switch because I’ve signed a contract that prohibits me from changing — the choice is obvious.”

In migrating “almost 100 per cent” to the cloud through Amazon Web Services, Drasutis said News Corp sought a no lock-in agreement, which subsequently lends itself to increased innovation in the future.

“We don’t just want one solution because one size never fits all,” he said. “That might have been the case in the past but I believe a niche or specialist provider is more likely to gain traction today.”

Currently, Drasutis is locked in conversations around extending New Corp’s video capabilities, as he navigates ways to monetise the platform in new ways.

In looking over the Pacific at Silicon Valley, Drasutis has a meticulous approach to choosing a technology provider.

“They are series A and series B kind of guys and the technology is super smart,” he explained. “If News Corp can shape their roadmap somewhat then we can get a better outcome as opposed to ‘this is what you get, take it or leave it’.

Mark Drasutis - Chief Product Officer for Digital, News Corp (Photo - Maria Stefina)
Mark Drasutis - Chief Product Officer for Digital, News Corp (Photo - Maria Stefina)

“A small vendor will have a better chance of having that conversation if they are pluggable and swappable because the world of being locked in for 5–10 years is over.”

For Drasutis, providers that can add unique layers of value will gain greater prominence across an Australian entertainment and media market that is forecast to grow to $43.4 billion by 2019, a compound annual growth rate of 4.2 per cent.

According to PwC findings, consumer spending on entertainment and media products is also forecast to grow 3.8 per cent to reach $27.1 billion by 2019, illustrating end-user appetite for innovation.

“Niche markets are big enough now in Australia,” Drasutis said. “I’m attracted to agility and the ability to help drive a roadmap and plug technologies together to create new capabilities.”

At the big end of town however, News Corp works with tech giants such as IBM, Google, Salesforce and AWS among others, as large vendors divide solutions and offerings to cater for niche end-user needs.

“IBM is a great example,” Drasutis added. “The IBM Bluemix Garage model allows me to play with a series of IBM technologies without having to buy the entire Watson engine. At this stage, I just want a bit of it.”

Future tech

With a specialist criteria set, Drasutis is focusing on how to fully embrace emerging technologies such as AI, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), in a way that embeds into applicable News Corp brands and products.

For many years, AR/VR were the stuff of science fiction. But now with powerful smartphones powering inexpensive VR headsets, the consumer market is primed for new paid and user generated content- driven experiences — in a market expected to top US$162 billion by 2020.

“But we know we can’t just turn up with a shiny new piece of technology and go and use it,” Drasutis cautioned.

“It’s got to be packaged in a way that shows value to the business and we need to be scalable by design. We can’t just run one-off VRs for example, we need to think about how we can make a repeatable process that delivers VR at scale.”

With Google and Facebook already on the way, the rise of new, less expensive hardware will put AR/ VR technology within the grasp of a growing number of companies and individuals, such as News Corp.

Specifically, for Drasutis, such technology could be used to enhance the user experience through REA Group, a global online real estate advertising company of which is majority owned by News Corp.

In housing, Australia’s largest property website with 4.4 million unique browsers each month, Drasutis said opportunities are rife for exploiting new technologies from a property viewing perspective.

“Today people go to a house or walk past it and see boards outside with an advert,” he said. “But what if we could take you on a magical journey and place you in the middle of the house? You can have a quick look around, do a 360-degree view before you’ve even physically visited the property. We can do that today.”

In a move that would no doubt render flattering, and fake, photo- shopped imagery redundant, Drasutis’ work with REA Group is just one of many initiatives bouncing around the digital corridors of power at News Corp headquarters in Sydney.

“Photography is also a great example,” he added. “Our photographers generate thousands of amazing images on a weekly basis so how can we enable that to be a VR experience for the future?

“Or take voice. Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant are becoming mainstream but what are we doing from a product perspective? And even print innovation is key. How do I lift from the paper via AR to enable a video on my phone to be triggered and play? That’s on the horizon also.”

With new technologies coming into play, Drasutis’ core priorities for 2017 are focused on doubling down on video, commercialisation and native, ensuring News Corp has the network capable of targeting new and current customer bases.

“How do we understand data to reach our customers?” he asked. “We also need to keep line of sight on where mobile is going, alongside what Apple and Google are doing. They are frenemies of ours and it’s our job to understand those platforms and our content to ensure our great journalism is valuable on those platforms.”