Ian Burrell: The News Business

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

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Press Association drops 150-year-old name to signify new era beyond legacy media

“We are not the press,” states Clive Marshall, chief executive of the Press Association, the UK’s historic national news agency, “…and we are not an association”.

This logic helps explain why, after 150 years, the organisation is undergoing a major rebranding exercise today and will henceforth be known as PA Media. The overhaul is designed to reflect a diverse digital business that is embracing artificial intelligence and voice-activated media to provide content not just to newsrooms but to non-media clients ranging from government agencies to transport companies, betting firms and charities.

“We had a brand that reflected our history rather than where the company is moving towards – which is a modern media company with a news agency and news information business at its heart,” says Marshall.

PA is trying to pull off a balancing act.

Its brand heritage rests on its intimate ties to the news industry. The publishers of The Sun, The Daily Mirror and The Daily Mail are among its biggest shareholders and the former Mail editor Paul Dacre, one of the most recognisable figures of old Fleet Street, was recently appointed to the PA Media Group board.

Yet the news business has suffered two decades of negativity on its financial prospects, as Google and Facebook have impinged on its profit margins. PA doesn’t wish to be seen as another legacy brand being dragged down by Silicon Valley’s giants. “In order to be able to grow we need to have a diversified group of businesses so that we are not tied to the need of traditional media to find a way in this much more challenged commercial environment where Google and Facebook are taking such a huge amount of the advertising dollars,” says Marshall of the wider PA Media Group, which now spans eight businesses and has 1,400 clients.

One of its subsidiaries, Stream AMG, which delivers live stream video of Premier League football and other sports such as netball, has doubled in size to nearly £7m in annual turnover since PA Media Group acquired it in 2017. Globelynx, another acquisition, allows hundreds of experts worldwide to be available for interview in broadcast-friendly environments. RADAR is a joint initiative with Urbs Media that uses AI to create thousands of news stories from public data sets. PA also does daily page production and sub-editing for The Telegraph and provides a news service for Amazon’s Alexa smart speakers.

Bet Engage, a product of PA Media, produces ready-made articles designed to help betting companies keep their audiences engaged in periods when no sports action is taking place.

While the economics of news are being fundamentally challenged, the importance of trustworthy information has never been better understood. “In an era of fake news I would like to think that news agencies are coming into a golden period,” Marshall says. “If you have that trust, pedigree and integrity of 150 years, people know that if it’s coming from the PA they can run the story, they can snap it and put it on their live news output without having any concern about veracity.”

That goes for the breadth of non-media private firms and institutions that take content from PA’s ready-to-publish Ready service and upload it to their platforms. Anyone can be a publisher today.

Marshall describes as a “beautiful coincidence” the PA’s brand shift - reflected in a new corporate motif – and the agency’s move into a new building in Paddington, west London. “The environment reflects what we aspire to be rather than where we came from – Fleet Street and then Victoria,” says Marshall. For 125 years of the hot metal era, PA was located in Fleet Street before it relocated to Vauxhall Bridge Road in 1995 as the national press splintered across London at the start of the digital revolution.

PA will this year launch new iterations of two of its major products. Its historic news wire will become Create, a multimedia service that groups together words, images and social media content on the same story. MediaPoint, PA’s news monitoring facility for non-media clients, is to be fully modernised.

“Nine years ago we had a business that was on its game editorially but needed to get on its game commercially,” Marshall says of the state of the agency when he joined. In its last set of published accounts (for the calendar year 2017), PA recorded an operating profit of £2.7m and an 8% growth in headline revenues to £62.3m.

While many of its traditional clients in national and regional news are facing financial difficulties, PA claims to have withstood this pressure. “It is interesting, given how stressed our customers are, that the revenue in the core content and editorial part of our business is growing a little bit, 6-8% over the last two or three years,” Marshall says.

The agency has benefitted from the changing needs of news companies, he says. “They want video, they want imagery, they want graphics, they want short bites so they can read them on mobile phones and other devices. We have put a huge amount of effort into that part of our business.”

The Radar (Reporters and Data and Robots) scheme is being used by 329 news outlets and is taking on more journalists to work with AI to produce locally-focused stories. It has signed its first paying customers and Marshall believes the model has great potential beyond the news industry. “I think there will be a great opportunity for Radar to apply those skills to the large public data sets to really capitalise in the business and government markets as well.”

Providing news for Amazon’s Alexa was a step into the unknown but the technology has become “almost ubiquitous in people’s homes and offices,” he says. “We didn’t know whether it was going to be a novelty or something that would have a life.” PA’s newsflash, he says, is complementary to other services on the platform (such as that from the BBC). "Amazon is the customer and their customer is the consumer."

PA’s future strategy is entirely focused on the B2B market. With the sale of its Victoria building due to complete imminently it should have money available to settle its pension deficit completely and concentrate on growth with further acquisitions.

“We have got huge growth ambitions,” says Marc Koskela, head of marketing for PA Media Group, who worked on the design of the new branding. “As we have a strategy to reduce our reliance on the traditional media sector, we are looking to diversify more,” he says. “This branding exercise is giving us flexibility for an umbrella brand to accommodate future changes for the make up of the group.”

The new hexagonal logo is consistent across the main brand and three divisions of PA Media, PA Images (which oversees a database of 20m images), and PA Training (which offers courses for journalists and communications professionals). “We have come up with a clear design that   reflects the modern, dynamic business we are today,” says Koskela. “We have created the honeycomb motif to reflect the creativity, immediacy, accuracy and collaboration that happen across the group.” He admitted that previous PA branding had not resonated across multiple environments. “We have created something that we believe works well on social (media), on our products, and when we are exhibiting on stands.”

The fresh design is “heralding a new digital future” for an agency that was first thought up during a journey in a horse-drawn Hansom cab in 1868. “Hopefully,” says Koskela, “it gives the thought that it’s not just words that we do. As a group we are so much more than that."

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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