City A.M.: From tube platforms to content platforms

Last week, The Drum reported on plans by City A.M. to transition to a new and controversial business model which will allow paying companies the ability to post directly on the paper’s website.

City A.M.’s “business with personality” brand has always challenged the status quo. The very idea of a business-focused tabloid freesheet was met with scepticism when it launched in 2005. The Guardian reported that the paper’s first edition consisted mainly of “a mixture of unsourced speculation and rehash” and predicted it would not last a year.

More than a decade later, City A.M. continues to be distributed outside tube stations across London. Meanwhile, it has become something of a stepping-stone for many young journalists looking to get one of the dwindling numbers of roles at national newspapers.

However, its latest plans are even more iconoclastic because they challenge the previously sacrosanct boundary between commercial and editorial objectives. City A.M will soon allow subscribing brands direct access to its content management system (CMS) , allowing brands to upload whatever they want. While many other publications – such as Guardian Labs or the Economist Intelligence Unit – have created bespoke content marketing offerings, the publication has still retained ultimate control over the creative strategy and what would appear on their website. 

Meanwhile a network of freelance “contributors” will also create content with fees determined by the number of page views they rack up. As The Drum pointed out, this distributed network business model is very similar to that of City A.M. COO Charles Yardley’s previous employer, Forbes (which itself has come in for stern criticism).

The intention is create a marketplace for ideas and content where quality is determined not by editorial decisions, but by the popularity of content – see my last Stocks + Shares blog for more on this. If brands write anodyne puff pieces, the theory goes, they will be rightly ignored in favour of more rigorous journalism and engaging content.

From the perspective of brands, this could certainly be an opportunity, but City A.M. will have to answer a number of important questions certain to be asked by its clients. Firstly, the publication needs to make a compelling case for the premium it will be charging to publish, compared to simply opening an account on Medium, Tumblr, WordPress, Blogger, or any of the dozens of popular and free self-publishing platforms.

City A.M.’s web presence has always been something of a mishmash of designs and is not a stranger to technical hiccups on any content other than simple copy and images. The publication will have to do quite a lot of work to ensure that they can guarantee a seamless experience for both brands and users.

While their journalism is competent and occasionally entertaining, it lacks the depth of thought and coverage of its more premium counterparts. The Economist Intelligence Unit is able to charge brands significant sums for research because The Economist magazine has built up a reputation as a genuine intellectual force over decades. It is less apparent what an association with City A.M. will achieve for brands and, therefore, the premium that should be paid.

Most importantly, though, it comes down to distribution and targeting. City A.M. is compelling to advertisers because it is mainly read by thousands of people working in positions of power and influence in financial services and business at a key time during their day. Unless the same can be guaranteed on its website, it will struggle to make a compelling case to advertisers.

Taking just the raw numbers, if every one of City A.M.’s 37,000 Twitter followers read an article it tweeted – the chances of which are slim to none – it would still not match the publication’s daily print circulation. Moreover, it would be impossible to measure how many of these clicks came from the key target audience, for example, people working in the City for finance companies. By contrast doing this through Facebook or Google would not only be easier, cheaper, and more efficient, it would also be measurable.

There has been an ongoing erosion of the distinction between a publication, a platform, or a medium in recent years. Publishers, broadcasters, brands and ordinary individuals are now posting and promoting Instant Articles and video directly onto social media. But if City A.M. is now a platform then it is no longer competing with other newspapers; it is competing with the likes of Facebook – a $340bn company with nearly 1bn daily active users!

Josh Glendinning

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search