[Video] Exclusive Interview with Fran Wills, Part 1: The Marriage Between the Local Media Consortium and Outbrain

Fran Wills. CEO at the Local Media Consortium. Connoisseur of print and digital media. And member of a fourth generation newspaper family.

You might know of Fran from her extensive background in Marketing, Technology, and Retail. But, to dig a bit deeper — throughout her career, she has pioneered digital innovation — at the forefront of creating media partnerships with Google, Yahoo, Monster, and Cars.com to increase revenue and bottom line results. And today, she’s leading the LMC to help leverage the latest technology and partnerships (like the one with Outbrain!) to increase revenue and audience growth for its local media members.

Today, and every day, it’s crucial that we do our part in supporting journalism and local media — and no one understands that better than Fran. Which is why we’re thrilled to together announce that Outbrain has partnered with the Local Media Consortium as it’s exclusive native ads provider.

And we were even more excited to sit down with Fran (virtually!) to discuss what this partnership means to the LMC, the future of the publishing industry, tips for local publishers to continue thriving, and more.

You won’t want to miss this.


Q: Can you tell us a bit about the Local Media Consortium, and what you do to help support Local News outlets?


90 media companies. Over 4,400 outlets across North America. Endless support.


“We really appreciate the opportunity to partner with Outbrain.

The LMC, as you know, is an association of over 90 media companies representing over 4,400 radio, newspaper, TV, and online-only news outlets across the U.S., Puerto Rico, and Canada. And what we do at the LMC is we negotiate partnerships on behalf of our members that help provide cost-saving and revenue opportunities that they might not be able to get on their own.

So, we are constantly looking for ways that we can provide our members with partners that provide them with some sort of substantial economic benefit, whether that’s tools or technology that help support the digital side of their business.”

Q: And what about your background — from a family newspaper to a digital media leader, how did you grow into your role at the LMC?


From watching a linotype operator to offset print to digital technology, Fran’s seen it all.


“So, you know, I grew up with a 4th generation newspaper family. My great-great-grandfather founded a daily newspaper in Perry, Missouri, which is in the rural northeastern part of Missouri. In fact, I have the masthead — The Perry Enterprise — of my great-great grandfather’s newspaper that he founded. So, you know, I grew up in a family full of journalists and newspaper folks, and know the importance newspapers provide — newspapers and all media Outlets provide — to their local communities. 

You know, I started out my career on the advertising side and actually used media to promote and advance my role in Marketing for retailers. I worked for May Company, and then eventually, what became Sport Mart — so I grew up on the Retail Marketing side of the business. And then I joined media right around 2000 and have seen lots of transition and change happening in the industry over the course of the last 20 years.

If you look at, you know, where I grew up watching a linotype operator type in words into hot metal to offset printing to now, digital technology and distribution — there’s been a lot of change going on in the industry. And you know, one of the things the LMC does for publishers is that we really focus on the digital side of the business. We help publishers understand what tools and technology they need to support their digital business as well as what the new opportunities are, what the trends are, what the best practices are, what are some of the strategic partnerships or alliances we can form that provide them with more opportunity to support their digital business.
As we all know, legacy media has been impacted by the rise of the internet and so we’re trying to help our members navigate how to adjust and create new business models that will sustain journalists into the future.”

Q: Over the course of those 20 years, the transition from print to digital was huge, even within the digital transition itself. Any particularly eye-opening experiences for you during this shift?


There are so many players that the focus has transitioned from finding new audiences to ensuring the mass of audiences have credible sources to rely on.


“Well, if you look at the beginning of the digital business in the late 1990s – early 2000s, it was amazing how quickly digital businesses were growing.

I was at The Denver Post at the time and we grew our digital business from $2 million to $20 million in the course of about five years, so the rate of acceleration into digital was pretty substantial in the beginning. And, it was fascinating to see that growth and the adoption, not only by publishers, but also by consumers. And the fact that it grew so fast and then there started to be lots of disruption in the space with all kinds of online-only players emerging, and publishers trying to understand how they needed to adjust their businesses to adapt to changing consumer habits and changing the way businesses communicated with consumers — that’s been a long journey over the past 20 years.

And there’s actually some very positive outcomes to that transition in that consumers have lots of ways to connect with each other and with businesses, and to find out news and information. Now, we’re to a point where we’re trying to help consumers understand where they can get credible information. And also, help businesses better understand how to connect with quality audiences because, actually, not all audiences on the internet are desirable to have your brand associated with. We are starting to see some trends with advertisers in that they are trying to direct their dollars towards more credible local media outlets than they were apt to do even two years ago.”

Q: Diving more into the LMC, and how you work to support your members. Other than cost-savings, what are some of the attributes you look for in a partner that’ll best benefit your publishers?


Cost-savings are great, new revenue opportunities are better.


“We’re always looking for partners that are providing new, innovative tools and new, innovative approaches for our members. So, cost savings is always great — our publishers, as you know, have been impacted financially, particularly with COVID, so they are looking for ways to save costs. But they are also looking for ways to realize new revenue opportunities.

Are there new revenue streams? Are there new ways that they can engage audiences? Are there ways that we can better monetize their content for advertising? You know, advertising has seen such a significant decline. What are the next generation of opportunities around advertising? Because partners and brands are going to continue to advertise, so how can we as a publishing industry get a better share of those advertising dollars and create more opportunities through our partnerships for publishers to realize that?”

Q: That all said, what do local news publishers need to do to better adapt or be more nimble to those new technologies?


Partner with companies that help reduce the digital complexities of growing publishing businesses online.


“There’s a wide range of publishers. You know, we have very large, multi-market, sophisticated publishers that have teams of technologists, and developers, and product experts that can help them understand where the opportunities are and help them innovate. And then we have publishers that need our partners to help provide a very easy, simple way for them to innovate.

I think we need to rely on our partners to help reduce the complexity of managing digital technology. If they’re a small to medium-sized publisher — there’s the consumer stack, there’s the advertising stack, there’s how that gets connected to your backend billing, and your content management system — it becomes a pretty complicated set of technology and solutions that you have to navigate. For smaller publishers with limited resources, you need more out-of-the-box, bundled kinds of tools that can be easily implemented and can provide them benefit right away without having to invest a lot of time and resources against that.

So, I think where partners can help us is how do we streamline the kinds of technology that they need to manage? How do we ensure that we are providing simple tools that can help them increase consumer advertising revenue, and realize those results quickly?
I think there’s a need right now for us to try to uncomplicate the technology they need to support their digital business.”

Q: When you were considering Outbrain as one of those partners for you, what non-revenue products excited you most that’d benefit your members quickly?


From audience and subscription acquisition to providing publishers with more premium CPMs, there’s a ton of opportunity partnering with Outbrain.


“I think there is a big opportunity around further engaging consumers utilizing Outbrain for audience acquisition and also helping to generate email captures, and subscription or membership revenue. Because the consumer side of the business is growing at this time so if we can continue to accelerate that growth, that’s a trend that we need to capitalize on right now while there’s still a lot of consumer interest and consumer demand for it. And it will help offset some of the declines we’ve had in advertising revenue. 

I do think there’s an opportunity in collaboration with Outbrain to look at what are the upcoming advertising revenue opportunities that would provide publishers with more premium CPMs then they are able to experience through a lot of the remnant programmatic channels right now.”

Q: What’s the LMC’s biggest focus this year, both bringing on new partners and expanding opportunities with its existing partnerships?


Simply put, providing easy ways for local publishers to take advantage of scalable solutions that neither require too many resources nor too much technology investment.


“It’s a combination of utilizing our current partners and their current product offerings, and looking at ways that we can introduce new tools and technologies.

One of the things we’re really focused on from a strategic standpoint is how can we better help our members with scalable solutions? Solutions that work from a small publisher in rural Georgia to a large, multi-market publisher like Gannet or McClatchy. So, how can we look at marshalling the scale of all of our members, and what are some scaled opportunities we can bring them?

If you look at our combined audience, we deliver over 200 million monthly uniques across our network, which makes us number six amongst all news and information sites in the U.S. So, if you look at our combined audience, we’re a very large combined audience between all of our publishers.

So, we’re looking at — we just announced The Matchup, which is a sports content-sharing opportunity where we’re going to look at sharing sports content amongst our members, which will help all of our members further engage their audiences. So, if you could go to a local TV station or local newspaper and see content from across the NFL, that’s being produced by local reporters, you can get access to a lot of content that you wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. So, if you look at sports content-sharing, that’s a big opportunity — not only for audience engagement, but also we think there’s an opportunity for a network-wide advertising opportunity.

Also looking at, you know, how do we scale our ad inventory and how do we scale our first-party data? As the industry is evolving with the demise of the third-party cookie and the renewed importance on first-party data, how do we — as the advertising ecosystem evolves — how do we make sure publishers are at the table and that we’re making sure we have an opportunity to help frame what the new advertising landscape is going to look like when the third-party cookie goes away.

So, if you look at where we think there are opportunities in the short term, and also will inform the long term — how can we provide easy ways for local publishers to participate and take advantage of scalable opportunities that don’t require a lot of resources or technology investment on their part.”

Q: Header Bidding has the potential to give some of that control back to the publisher while allowing them to tap into the demand of many sources at scale. How are you helping your members with this opportunity?


Programmatic support comes down to the size of the publisher.


“We definitely are looking into programmatic strategies, particularly for our larger publishers — and exploring where the new opportunities are to optimize their programmatic strategy and their programmatic channels. For many of our small and community publishers, some of them are not even optimized for programmatic — they don’t even have programmatic on their sites. So, how do we create a really low-lift, low-cost solution for them to participate in programmatic to fill some of their unsold inventory.

So, I think when you look at how do we help publishers better optimize programmatic, we have to look across our spectrum of publishers in making sure we’re providing sophisticated solutions for our larger publishers and some easy-to-implement, low-lift solutions for some publishers that are just starting to explore how programmatic might increase their revenue.”

Local Media, Global Learnings

Whether watching the local news on TV each morning, or receiving mobile push notifications from your local newspaper, or following your feeds to your local news sites — staying connected locally has become absolutely essential.

Global pandemic or not, each and every one of us has the ability to help support our local media publishers — and while this partnership with the LMC is only a sliver of Outbrain’s constant focus on supporting sustainable journalism, it’s a continued step toward ensuring this pivotal pillar of society lives on.

Huge thank you to Fran and the team at the Local Media Consortium — can’t wait to see what this collaboration brings us!

Be sure to keep an eye out for Part II of our Video Interview with Fran as she shares how she will not let COVID-19 will break publishers!

And hey, if you’re a publisher — local news or mainstream media — be sure to check out how native advertising is not only a pillar for monetization, but further, for reader engagement and longevity.

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