The Independent’s CEO eyes publisher partnerships beyond BuzzFeed

The Independent’s CEO eyes publisher partnerships beyond BuzzFeed
The Media Leader Interview

In an exclusive interview, Christian Broughton reveals talks with other publishers and why he’s optimistic about AI, US growth and the title’s first-party data strategy.

“We are definitely going to expand our publisher partnerships.”

Since inking a deal with BuzzFeed in March to take over its UK business — inclusive of BuzzFeed, HuffPost and Tasty UK — Christian Broughton, CEO of The Independent, has received renewed interest for similar collaborations from other embattled news brands.

Speaking candidly to The Media Leader in The Independent’s Finsbury Square office in London, he describes having had “more than half a dozen” serious conversations with “major” global publishers considering a similar partnership. Broughton suggests that they are attracted to The Independent because it is a rare digital-only publisher that is still profitable and growing revenue.

As he puts it: “If you are one of those big publishers at the moment that’s at the tipping point where they know they need to really seriously accelerate what they’re doing in digital, why wouldn’t you want a conversation with the only brand out there that’s really been through that process and has a genuinely very successful story to tell?”

The BuzzFeed partnership has thus far exceeded expectations for Broughton. BuzzFeed’s UK brands are already projecting a profitable year following the deal, with their internal budget being revised upwards following a better-than-expected Q1.

In addition, the cultural fit between teams has been encouraging, while the pooled data inventory and audience reach have made The Independent’s commercial opportunity easier to sell to advertisers.

“If you want to reach Gen Z, we’re huge in Gen Z. If you want to reach millennial, we’re huge in millennial. If you want to reach Gen X, we’re huge in Gen X,” says Broughton of the new brands under the Independent umbrella. “We’ve got that and we’ve got authentic voices in those spaces. We’re not a sort of more grown-up media brand trying to unconvincingly reach out to that hard-to-reach younger cohort.”

In part thanks to this partnership, Broughton tells The Media Leader that The Independent is on track to grow revenue by double digits this year.

But when asked if the organisation would consider a full acquisition of or merger with BuzzFeed, he replies coyly that The Independent simply “like[s] working with other brands”.

Landing a point

Since closing its print operation in March 2016, The Independent has sought a future-facing commercial and editorial strategy, embracing the opportunities of a constantly adapting digital environment, where traffic from search and social media cannot always be counted on (especially recently).

“Social media at one point was all about referral,” Broughton tells The Media Leader, implying this is no longer the case. Still, he views social as less a means to an end than an end in itself, akin to a marketing tool to help reach new audiences — especially in a growing, video-heavy market like the US.

What the Independent and BuzzFeed UK tie-up means

He adds: “You have to go with the big tidal flows of the time. You can’t only resist. You can’t just pine for how it was five to 10 years ago. There’s ton of opportunity.”

That includes opportunity overseas, where in the US Broughton claims the business is “above budget”, with the publication garnering a readership roughly the size of The Los Angeles Times. He believes Americans are increasingly turning towards the punchier headlines of The Independent: “If you can have a very characterful headline — if you can really land the point in the headline… There’s a certain kind of conservativeness with US news presentation sometimes.”

Revenue vs reputation

Eight years since the publisher went fully digital, the growth strategy is focused on six interconnected pillars: TV, ecommerce, the US market, what Broughton calls “anonymous to known” (or ATK) revenues, AI and the aforementioned publisher partnerships.

“There’s no static answer to the question of what it looks like to be a successful digital publisher,” Broughton explains, adding that Independent TV, the outlet’s video content available on its website, mobile app, YouTube and smart TVs, is something he “wouldn’t want to lose for the world”.

Like other publishers bootstrapping video and audio production arms, The Independent has and will continue to lean in to its video strategy. It has a studio nook in its London office, equipped with a camera and back screen, to help produce multimedia content, and Broughton is particularly excited to create hard-hitting documentary journalism.

“We believe in showing people as well as telling people,” he continues. “The ability to take our journalism to the world is powered by video.”

For Broughton, video is either “revenue or reputation”. In other words, some shows — such as travel programmes — are more “sponsorable” than others, like war documentaries. And while the commercial opportunities in video are promising, Broughton insists he doesn’t “just want to do stuff that there’s an immediate ROI on”.

“Doing a year-long documentary in Ukraine — that’s not the kind of thing you mention and an obvious financial reward,” he continues. “There’s a journalistic reward.”

Data is gold

Underpinning all of The Independent’s growth pillars is the importance of first-party data, which Broughton believes will receive renewed importance in a soon-to-be post-cookie digital environment. The title currently has 7m registrants, inclusive of subscribers, who are predictably more highly engaged — and therefore more directly valuable — than non-registered users.

Broughton calls the registration experience “light reg”, meaning generally non-obtrusive and without soliciting much personal information other than users’ content consumption habits, such as what email newsletters they subscribe to.

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This can be utilised to aid brands in contextual advertising or to push ecommerce offerings, such as through product reviews relevant to target audiences. One example Broughton lists as particularly successful is Waitrose’s sponsorship of the Indy Eats newsletter.

“If you trust us for telling you what’s happening in Gaza or the general election, why wouldn’t you trust us when we say we can produce an independent review of something,” asks Broughton, adding that sponsored content can be a “great win-win” when users get content that is relevant to them and advertisers piggyback on the editorial strategy with more targeted plays.

The importance of data is highly relevant to Broughton’s desire to continue pursuing more publisher partnerships. With BuzzFeed UK’s data integrated into The Independentthe group now has a larger degree of information on its readers to draw from, both to leverage in editorial decision-making and commercial partnerships.

AI dangers and opportunities

Of course, it’s hard to position oneself as a future-facing news operation and not consider generative AI will impact procedures, both in and out of the newsroom.

For his part, Broughton believes AI will unlock significant changes across the industry and people “are more aware of dangers than they are of opportunities sometimes”.

He says: “Yes, you have to be aware of the risks. You also have to be incredibly tuned in to where the opportunities lay for you.”

Last month, The Independent convened more than 50 people from across the business — including from BuzzFeed UK — to seek input on what the company’s AI strategy should look like. BuzzFeed, in particular, has aggressively leant in to AI to, for example, help design its quizzes and increase audience engagement.

Broughton admits the outlet — like other publishers — is already being negatively impacted by the introduction of generative AI into online search. “Let’s not be shy about that,” he says. “Why come to The Independent? Why come to any individual title? It’s an absolutely valid question.”

Under such pressure, brand values and the quality and character of the journalism on display are now more important than ever, according to Broughton. And from an audience perspective, it will be important to prioritise readers who are “really sticking to your brand”, as referral traffic risks declining further.

Can AI-generated content save publishers like BuzzFeed?

Broughton says The Independent is “talking with AI companies all the time”, but declines to confirm whether he would cut a deal with them to give their generative AI tools access to The Independent’s intellectual property, as some other publishers have.

“We’ll engage them,” he concedes. “Would we cut a deal? I don’t know. We’d have to see the specifics.”

Golden age of journalism

Regardless, Broughton believes if the industry can use AI to empower “human journalism”, we could be entering a golden age of journalism. He advocates a proactive approach, arguing that “AI is going to serve journalism better in the future if journalists lean in”.

It is this sense of optimism in journalism and an eagerness to defend its importance — not just for consumers, but for business — that increasingly feels rare in an era marked by declines in publisher business models.

“Journalism benefits the bottom line,” Broughton insists. “Journalism is not some sort of punishing factor on the business model. A mantra of mine I say time and time again is: we need great journalism that empowers our business and we need great business that empowers our journalism. We’re not here to have a business and then have this terrible chore of producing journalism.

“Our business model is built on trust and our trust is earned through great journalism. And it’s working for us.”

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