Lots of speculation on the future of traditional news and digital media brands this past month… The big headline was obviously the loss of more than 1,000 jobs at BuzzFeed, AOL, Yahoo and HuffPost. Yes, even Buzzfeed. “Wasn’t this the company that was supposed to have it all figured out?” the Business of Fashion gasped.
Readerships are more fickle than ever, simultaneously saturated by information and suspicious of anyone that claims to report the truth. Attempts to build a mass audience through the power of social media aggregators such as Facebook have backfired. How many users trust what they see in their news feed in 2019? (No wonder Zuckerberg is dishing out $4.5 million to support local journalism. He cares, right?)
On this topic, it’s worth reading Journalism, Media and Technology Trends and Predictions 2019, a report from Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the University of Oxford. In it, Channel 4 editor Ben De Pear challenges social media platforms “to prove they they care about the truth and about paying for serious journalism, or be properly forced to do both by regulation.”
Publishers could shift their attention elsewhere – less than half of respondents (43%) say that Facebook is likely to be important or extremely important this year, a similar number to Apple News and YouTube – but far less than for Google (87%). Incidentally, the report also notes that the search giant will put a news feed (called Discover) on the main search page of all mobile browser for the first time. So SEO skills will become even more important.
Many in the industry are getting excited about podcasts – the daily news variety, in particular – with 75% anticipating that audio will become a more important part of their content and commercial strategies, particularly in the age of Alexa and other voice-activated technologies. According to Radio Joint Audience Research, 13% of the the UK population listens to a podcast each week. Perhaps this is a medium for our times.
You mean someone tells me what matters and why in a tight, eye strain-free digest? I’m all ears. Clippet app was on to something years before with its one-minute bulletins, but co-founder Grace Regan is off making vegan Indian food now..
The Daily, a one-story podcast by the New York Times, is flying with more than five million unique monthly listeners – lots of them under 30. The Economist recently launched The Intelligence, a 20-minute daily global current-affairs podcast comprising an analysis of a prominent news story, a more in-depth feature and a lighter item to end. Harnessing a team of eight new editors and producers as well as their current international correspondents, they hope to offer a truly global perspective and highlight stories that rarely make the headlines. The end goal is to encourage listeners to become Economist subscribers.
Podcasts are also good business in the short term. Speaking to Digiday, Tom Standage, head of digital strategy and deputy editor at the Economist, said that monthly revenue from podcast ads served by platform Acast has increased by 50% over 2018. “The commercial model for podcasts is really good, much better than video pre-roll, which is a horrible business,” he explained. “Video is expensive to make, and the CPMs are low. Advertisers want to reach podcast listeners.”
The paywall continues to stir debate. Not everyone can be the New York Times, bringing in $340 million in online subscriptions in 2017 according to Recode. And the jury’s out on the viability of donations, although the Guardian has managed to prise money from more than a million readers. The report by Reuters and the University of Oxford does suggest that NGOs and philanthropists could provide alternative support. Apparently, there are more than 146,000 ‘public-benefit’ foundations in Europe with an estimated annual expenditure of €51 billion. Journalism initiatives such as Far Nearer are using funding from Friends Provident Association to get out of London and “break the media bubble”.
How much content should a publisher give away for free? Le Monde has veered between 33% and 40% and realised that any more would have a negative impact on their non-subscriber traffic (in other words, quality leads). Speaking to Digiday, Le Monde president Louis Dreyfus said that subscriptions account for 55% of digital revenues. “The focus is more on subscription, not on audience, just for audience. When we started to understand who they were and what they liked, we understood what to offer them directly; that’s why a good push strategy is important.”
The questions remains: will subscriptions will encourage enough readers to pay for news? An alternate reality is that the cash-strapped public turns away, or that democracy is threatened as we hurtle towards a future where wealthier people have access to more better quality and more trusted reporting. Then sink further into a polarised world without nuance.
Rather than headlessly chase a mass audience or ape the newest digital media brand, legacy publishers should listen to Amy Odell in the Business of Fashion: “I wonder, too often, if they even remember the very thing that made them successful in the first place, which is in extraordinary demand today: quality storytelling with the distinct point of view of the expert editors they employ. The more media that exists, the harder it is to find that quality.” Add to that, the appeal of having a personalised feed – subject, format, frequency.
Finally, what about the robots? Well, Monocle reports that they won’t be replacing the news room any time soon. Talking at the Digital Life Design (DLD) conference in Munich, John Micklethwait, editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News, explained that rather than replacing reporters, AI is a useful tool for news organisations that allows them to analyse data, create headlines and translate reports faster. “News will get more personalised and AI can help create a world where we get more information and more truth,” he said. Micklethwait revealed that some 30% of Bloomberg News’ total content has some element of automation. And while AI focuses on breaking news and figures, journalists can devote their time to what really matters: on-the-ground reporting.
Can’t we have more of them though?