Talking publishing with Niall Coen

Niall Coen started Snack Media in 2007 and currently produces content that reaches over 26m sports fans, with 300 owned and exclusive sports websites including Football FanCast, Transfer Tavern and Football League World. During the growth of the company, Snack Media acquired Digital Sport and invested in the development of the site. 

Digital Sport is a website that provides information and insight on the latest developments in the business and technology side of sport. The website runs monthly events for industry leaders to come and speak and attend as we discuss some of the biggest topics in the world of sport. In our chat, the CEO of Snack Media shed some light on the deal that brought Digital Sport under the wing of the multimedia company. 

He said: “Snack actually got involved and we started helping Dan (the creator) with the content. We grew it from what it was back then, which was just about 1,000 people coming to the blog a month, to what it is today, somewhere around 50,000 digital sport professionals. It’s not a Snack Media channel, it’s our investment back into the industry of digital and sport.”

Digital Sport’s role in the market is to explore how tech and business in sport and media is changing, and this is an area that Niall had some very intriguing insight about. In a world where online content is growing more and more, how does the income continue to flow in?

Niall said: “These are really, really interesting times. There are lots and lots of challenges for publishing in general to figure out, not least who pays, but when, and how? You’ve got advertising models, you’ve got subscription models, you’ve got e-commerce models like cropping-up. 

“There’s the battle-ground for data: how that plays out between the fans, the publishers, the sport rights holders, who collects what data and what they’re allowed to hold and how they use it. It’s a hot potato, not least politically, but also if you’re a commercial director at a business or a publisher, that is something you need to wrestle with. 

“You need to decide what your strategy is and how to go about it. I think it’s a time where a lot of decisions will be made in the next 18 months to two years that will decide how this industry, in particular publishing, plays out.”

Publishing undoubtedly has changes to adapt to, and throughout the conversation Niall addressed other issues that need tackling in the industry. However, the Snack CEO isn’t convinced by the idea that fans don’t have the same attention span they once did, or that they prefer to read short, bitesize content. 

He believes the younger generation will continue to digest large quantities of content providing there’s a quality behind the delivery. He rightly made the point that podcasts get hours and hours straight of listeners, who are of all ages, as do YouTube channels, so if the content is engaging enough attention-spans shouldn’t be called into question.

In order to get the attention of fans, there’s a belief among some newspapers and online publishers that you need ‘clickbait’ to entice readers, only to ultimately let them down with the quality of their writing and the story being ‘broken’. Niall feels that clickbait will struggle to be successful in the long-term, stating that fans and readers get disappointed and turned off if the paper doesn’t “deliver on the promise of the headline” and that there’s a desire amongst readers to not reinforce those who are out to “make a quick buck.”

Niall believes the quality of content and the trust built between reader and publisher is the key to long-term growth and engagement: “Most publishers that I speak to, and I’m talking about big global brands, they’re spending their time and attention thinking about how they work these readers through a funnel where they have some sort of either regular content value exchange with them, where they can serve advertising, or where they start to encourage them to pay. And we see the newspapers, The Times, Guardian etc, every time I go onto one of the apps it asks for a subscription, so I think we’ll see a lot of that”.

The Athletic, an online sports publication from the United States, have recently made big moves in the UK market, hiring some of the countries finest sports journalists, such as David Ornstein and Jack Pitt-Brooke, while looking to remove adverts, clickbait and rushed content and instead providing a paid subscription model to the readers. The payment allows for the site to run this consumer-friendly website while ensuring the flow of income is maintained. As it’s a very new project, it remains to be seen whether this model will work long-term across the pond.

With companies like The Athletic coming to add further competition to an already saturated market, is there still room for people to become journalists themselves, considering the ease of building a website and an online profile? Niall doesn’t think it’s quite as easy as people think: “Is it true that anyone can write news and be a publisher? I would challenge that.

“I’m not sure that that’s true, and the reason I don’t think that’s true is because I actually think news is a two fold factor. 

“Firstly you’ve got to have something to report, and it probably needs to be exclusive in some way and add some value, and secondly, the most important factor overall, overtime it will all be around trust. I think there will be algorithmic and clever pieces of technology that will deliver a measure of trust from an individual, from a news publication.”

The idea of building a measure of trust via technology is incredibly interesting, and shows a glimpse of how far the digital spectrum can go towards improving the quality of journalism as well as just ensuring that the quantity and access is there for all. 

There’s no doubt we live in a golden age of technology, with more online sports content than ever before, but the uncertainty on where the industry will go is keeping everyone on their toes, perhaps somewhat nervously, as companies look to reinvent themselves for what’s coming next.

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