Food Porn (and other ways to save newspapers)

February 11, 2013  |  Chris Powell  |  Comments

Food and fashion may be the brand extensions dailies need to find new readers

In her award-winning 1992 book The Rituals of Dinner, author Margaret Visser explored the rituals surrounding meal time throughout history.

In exhaustive detail, she described the practices of groups ranging from the ancient Greeks to Jesus and his last supper, all the way to Yuppies.

Nowhere in the book, however, will you find a mention of anyone taking a camera phone picture of a towering sandwich or homemade soufflé. Anyone writing that book today would have to include it, based on the growing “food for Facebook” trend which has been fueled by a cornucopia of food-specific photography apps bearing names like Foodspotting, Fiddme and SnapDish.

Media companies have taken note and it was into this food photo-friendly environment that Postmedia Labs, a newly created unit of Toronto-based publishing company Postmedia with a primary focus on R&D, launched its first product, the foodie-focused Gastropost, last year.

Gastropost is just one of a growing number of new content plays and brand extensions newspapers are launching as they attempt to offset declining ad revenues, attract new readers and engage existing ones by building deeper communities.

Some of the ventures involve traditional content plays as platforms for advertising, while others use a subscription model. And then there are products like Gastropost, an innovation where the revenue model is part of the experiment.

“The food lover community in Toronto was an obvious choice [for a new product],” says Duncan Clark, vice-president of strategic initiatives for Postmedia and head of Postmedia Labs. “There’s a thriving farmers’ market scene, regular restaurant openings and an emerging food truck scene. People are really passionate about great food in Toronto right now.”

The Postmedia Labs unit has adopted the approach of U.S. entrepreneur Eric Ries’ “Lean Start-up” movement, which relies on regular customer feedback and extensive metrics-driven testing to develop and refine products.

“It’s all about experimentation and really rigorous measurement of everything you do,” says Clark, noting that Postmedia Labs tends to eschew what he calls “vanity metrics” like unique visitors and page views, instead placing an emphasis on factors like growth rate and the number of people participating in challenges.

Gastropost is a primarily online play that invites its members—2,000 and growing—to participate in weekly food-themed photo challenges (recent challenges included “Holiday Treats” and “The Perfect Potato”). Some submissions are showcased on the Gastropost.com site, while the project is also linked with Postmedia’s flagship daily, the National Post, in its weekend edition, usually with a double-page spread.

Postmedia’s approach to Gastropost has “changed dramatically” since its June launch, says Clark, the result of “dozens and dozens” of experiments with the model. “We’ve been through three or four major stages where we were focused mainly on growth or engagement through one way or another,” he says. “More of what we’ve done has worked rather than not.”

After years of mostly bad headlines about the future of the newspaper business, efforts like Gastropost are evidence that Canadian players are perfectly willing to redefine what they produce and sell to readers and advertisers alike.

Other content plays range from the National Post’s gaming-focused site, Post Arcade, Montreal’s The Gazette’s perfect bound magazine, Urban Expressions, the Toronto Star’s new Wheels magazine and various e-book ventures to more esoteric offerings such as the Winnipeg Free Press’ News Café (a Free Press-branded physical space featuring a corner stage that doubles as an online studio, performance space and satellite newsroom).

Industry leaders say the starting point of such products is not with topics, but communities. “It’s going deep with core groups,” says John Hinds, president and CEO of the Toronto-based industry association Newspapers Canada. “You’re identifying communities of interest that have been part of the newspaper community and then giving them a deeper product that caters to their niche.”

With regular food and recipe sections, newspapers were already producing food content, but the statistics showed there was an opportunity for a deeper relationship with the food porn crowd. Want proof? Type in the hashtag #foodporn on the photo-sharing platform Instagram and up pop more than 9.3 million results.
But the products encompass a wide range of subject areas beyond food, from automotive to lifestyle, fashion and home décor, and are a natural byproduct of publishers’ expertise in content generation combined with well-established distribution systems, adds Hinds.

“Niche products have always been a long-life opportunity for the newspaper business,” says Andrew Saunders, vice-president of advertising sales for The Globe and Mail. “What we are noticing is that there is clearly a trend with advertisers and publishers working together to really identify and understand niche offerings that are highly relevant.”

Long renowned for its news and business coverage, the Globe has made a concerted effort in recent years to bolster its lifestyle content. One of the results of its efforts is the Globe Style Advisor, a bi-monthly oversized magazine that is an extension of its weekly printed style section. The product has proven so popular among readers and advertisers that the Globe is launching a men’s version in June. There are also plans to launch an as-yet- untitled travel/culinary product in April.
While newspapers stress that these content plays are primarily designed to foster reader engagement, making money in these uncertain times is never far from publishers’ minds.

According to the most recent ad spend data from Newspapers Canada, daily newspapers’ share of reported media—a group that includes TV, internet, radio, out-of-home and magazines—has fallen from 31.2% in 2002 to 16.5% in 2011. Revenues of $1.97 billion were down from $2.1 billion a year earlier, and have fallen from a high of $2.63 billion in 2006.

Clark acknowledges that there is a desire to make Gastropost a moneymaker. “We’ve never been given a hard timeline by Postmedia to establish this as a specific business, but we also came in knowing this wasn’t just about creating something that’s cool—it’s about creating a business,” he says. “We haven’t been actively out soliciting ads…we don’t even know that advertising is the right word to use for this.”

There is currently a slight advertiser presence on Gastropost; a recent challenge focusing on holiday treats featured the Philadelphia Cream Cheese brand. “It came out of a conversation with Kraft about the opportunity to engage with our community of food lovers,” says Clark. “We’re definitely approaching [advertising models] like we’re approaching the rest of Gastropost—an experiment.

“We’re excited by the opportunity to collaborate with brands to figure out how we can provide value to our members and those brands.”

Examples of more traditional ad-supported content vehicles abound within Postmedia. The Gazette’s Urban Expressions, which is published five times a year and earned third place in the Magazine category in Newspapers Canada’s 2012 Great Ideas Awards, delivered more than $560,000 in revenue in 2011, while the Calgary Herald’s Inside magazine, a one-off 50-page publication, generated more than $67,000 in incremental revenue and brought several new advertisers to the daily paper.

Postmedia competitors like Star Media Group, meanwhile, are using nominal weekly subscription fees—combined with a smattering of advertising revenue—to generate revenue from an expanding roster of content plays.

The unit of publishing giant Torstar has approached its 400,000 subscribers with a rash of new opt-in products that include a revamped Starweek TV listings book (which boasts 260,000 subscribers who pay 50 cents a week), a weekly puzzle book (40,000 subscribers) and a section in the Toronto Star’s Sunday edition featuring international news and book reviews from The New York Times (approximately 80,000 subscribers paying $1 per week).

“This was just really about opportunities to monetize content,” says Sandy MacLeod, vice-president of consumer marketing and strategy for Star Media Group. “It was us looking very hard at the marketplace and saying ‘There’s money to be made here.’” All three of the products mentioned are profitable, he says.

Star Media Group has also launched a new investigative journalism series called “Star Dispatches” built around long-form journalism content (ranging from 5,000 to 15,000 words) delivered in e-book format for approximately $1 a week. The product is relatively new, but MacLeod says the company has converted about 20% of the customers who signed up for a free trial of the product.

“The trick in this day and age is innovation,” says MacLeod. “It’s getting out there, trying new products in both print and digital.”

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 31 issue of Marketing

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