Journalism, media, and technology trends and predictions 2022

Published On:-2022-01-11

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1. The business of journalism is looking up for some

One of the biggest surprises in this year's survey is the growth in revenue reported by many publishers. Well over half our sample (59%), which includes both subscription and advertising focused publishers from more than 50 countries, say that overall revenues have increased, with only 8% reporting that things had got worse. This is despite the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and the further erosion of traditional revenue sources such as print.

In many ways this is testament to the adaptability of an industry that has accelerated new digital revenue streams such as subscription, e-commerce, and digital events over the past 18 months and also started to bring in substantial licensing revenue from tech platforms on top. For all publishers, a key element in this has been a strong bounce back in digital advertising, as consumers moved their spending online during the ongoing pandemic. Digital advertising grew at its fastest rate ever (30% year on year) in 2021 according to GroupM and now accounts for around two-thirds (64%) of all advertising spend.1

It is worth remembering that many publishers not represented in our survey still rely on traditional and declining revenue sources such as print and even broadcast. And for those without a clear digital path ahead of them, the outlook remains extremely challenging.

At the same time, overall consumption of online news has fallen significantly in some countries, including the UK and the United States, following the dramas of the Trump era, according to industry data. The relentless and depressing nature of the news has been a factor, with many consumers looking to social media and streaming services for entertainment and distraction.

In our own survey, covering a wide range of countries, we find a more mixed picture. Although the majority (54%) report static or declining traffic to online news sites, more than four in ten (44%) say their traffic has gone up.
Overall, the majority of publishers (73%) say are optimistic about the year ahead. Even if traffic is down in some cases, journalists feel that their role is more valued by audiences and the business side in particular is on a more solid footing.
Journalism is no longer being taken for granted. The industry is explaining itself better and money is flowing proportionately to economic growth. David Walmsley, Editor-in-Chief, Globe and Mail, Canada Levels of confidence in journalism more generally (60%) are a bit lower, especially in countries where there is political polarisation, economic weakness, and where journalists themselves are under attack:
The power of governments against free press or journalism is growing in Latin America (especially Mexico). The president can say whatever, even if he is openly lying, press debunking or explaining the lie has little effect [by comparison].

1.1 Subscription and membership models mature

A key part of publisher confidence has been the continued growth of subscription and membership models through the COVID-19 pandemic. The New York Times now has 8.4 million subscriptions, of which 7.6 million are digital, putting it on track to hit its 10 million target by 2025.2 For many of these early-movers, digital revenue now outstrips print and many upmarket titles can see a path to a sustainable future. But so too can a number of smaller digital-born publishers with significant reader revenues, such as Dennik N in Slovakia, El Diario in Spain, Malaysiakini in Malaysia, Zetland in Denmark, and the Daily Maverick in South Africa.

The opportunity for growth at the company level is there for us. We see the path and prospects clearly now with sustainable revenue model in place. Styli Charalambous, CEO, Daily Maverick, South Africa Subscription remains the number one priority (79%) for commercial publishers in 2022, according to our survey, ahead of display advertising (73%) and native advertising (59%), events (40%) and funding from platforms (29%), which has grown significantly over the last year.

The jury is still out on whether subscription models will work for all. Alternatives are being pursued by publications such as BuzzFeed and Vox, working across a range of brands to give them more scale. These brands still see a future with a mix of models from advertising, to e-commerce, and even reader payment too. Once again, our survey shows there is no one-size-fits-all model. Advertising continues to be the main focus for many, and commercial publishers cite, on average, three or four different revenue streams as being important or very important to them this year.

Free at the point of consumption models will also be important in ensuring that news is not just for elites. Almost half of news leaders (47%) worry that subscription models may be pushing journalism towards super-serving richer and more educated audiences and leaving others behind. Many leaders of PSBs and others committed to open journalism are amongst those who disagree with this statement, but our own research shows that even these organisations are struggling to build connections with younger and less educated groups online.

What will happen this year?
Open access initiatives: Expect more deals for those from disadvantaged backgrounds as a way of countering critiques about growing information inequality. The Daily Maverick in South Africa offers a 'pay what you can afford' membership and El Diario in Spain allows people to pay nothing at all. In Portugal, lottery funding has been used to fund 20,000 free digital news subscriptions for eight media outlets. The weekly magazine Visao gave some of these funded free subscriptions to older people attending the University of the 3rd Age while Publico targeted unemployed people as part of its allocation, and Correio da Manha decided to help older people living in care homes. Others, like Politiken in Denmark, are looking to extend schemes offering free access for students to educational institutions.

Countering subscription fatigue via product extensions and bundling:
This will be a key focus for many publishers looking to hang on to new subscribers gained during COVID. Cut-price offers and differential pricing will be one likely response, especially if the economy cuts up rough, but others are looking to develop new premium products to encourage tie-in. The New York Times has led the field with the success of its crosswords and cooking apps. Now it has moved its product review site, Wirecutter, behind a paywall and has also started offering previously free newsletters from star writers like Kara Swisher only to subscribers.4 Other publishers are looking to bundle paid podcasts and audio books.

1.2 The creator economy and the battle for talent Over the last few years, we have seen the coming together of two powerful ideas. The first is that online journalism needs to be paid for and the second that journalists may need to behave more like social influencers as they build relationships and communities.

These ideas are embodied in new platforms like Substack, which along with new product offerings from giant tech companies have enabled individual writers, vloggers, and podcasters to make significant amounts of money, injecting new life into the so-called 'creator economy'. In November Substack announced that it had hit the milestone of 1 million paid subscriptions, with top writers earning six-figure sums from its newsletter focused platform.5 Both Facebook (Bulletin) and Twitter (Revue) have launched their own competitors to Substack, along with a range of other features to incentivise creators. Twitter, for example, in September 2021 launched a Super Follows subscription feature (think bonus tweets) that helps creators earn money from their most engaged fans.6 Facebook introduced fan subscriptions and stars, both mechanisms that provide financial rewards for the most engaging content. Meanwhile podcast platforms are enabling similar features with a subscription or donation offer on top of a free service. These developments are setting up new dynamics around who gets attention and what content may be prioritised in years to come.

What will happen this year?

Mainstream media poaches back: If last year's trend was star writers setting up on their own, this year we may see more movement in the opposite direction. Not all writers have found it easy to grow an audience quickly on their own and traditional companies are looking to hoover up talent as a way of feeding subscription pipelines. The Atlantic, for example, is launching a suite of new newsletters including writers like Charlie Warzel, who previously operated his Galaxy Brain brand on Substack. Writers can continue to earn money independently from podcasts and personal appearances and existing followers get a year's free access to The Atlantic, after which they will need to subscribe.

Journalism collectives as a halfway house: This year we may see more companies that try to mix the infrastructure of a traditional news organisations with the freedom and financial rewards they can find on their own.

Puck is a start-up founded by a former editor of Vanity Fair Jon Kelly, who has brought together a set of writers to cover Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Washington, and Wall Street. 'There is an elite group of journalists who want to have a direct connection with the large audiences they've amassed on social channels', says Kelly.7 Founding partners own part of the business but also get bonuses based on the subscriptions and ad sales they generate. For an annual fee, consumers get access to emails across a range of subjects but can also pay a premium for events and personal access to writers.

Connecting writers pay to subscriptions: This is likely to become an increasingly contentious issue this year as media companies rely more on star talent to generate revenue from readers. Puck has an algorithm that works out how to reward those driving most revenue but transparency and fairness will be tested. Casey Newton, one of the current Substack stars, thinks that publishers will eventually need to offer shared revenue on newsletters or video sponsorships or podcast ads: I expect lots of thrashing from journalists who think they have the right to experiment with Super Follows and other creator monetisation tools and publishers who want to shut them down.

All this activity is creating more and more content, but the big question is whether there are enough people with sufficient interest to pay for all but the star writers and podcasters.

1.3 Make or break year for digital media brands

It wasn't that long ago that BuzzFeed and a few other digital native brands, such as Vox and Vice, looked like the future of the news business. Sky-high valuations were fuelled by a generation of writers comfortable with digital culture, who invented a set of formats that matched rising consumer enthusiasm for social consumption.
But this open access, ad-supported model has taken a knock following various Facebook algorithm changes, compounded by the shock of coronavirus. Some of the stars of digital media have defected back to old media companies and many venture capitalists (VCs) are looking to get their money back. The original disrupters are now caught in a battle with resurgent legacy media for general readers and with platforms for advertising dollars.

What will happen this year?

Digital natives go for scale: BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti has argued for years that digital publishers should consolidate to give them more leverage with advertisers and compete with the ad dominance of Facebook and Google. BuzzFeed's move to go public, completed in December 2021, provided the cash to acquire digital lifestyle publisher Complex, following last year's purchase of HuffPost.9 Now all eyes will be on Vice, Vox, and Bustle as they contemplate similar moves. Vox bought New York Magazine and its websites in 2019 and has just acquired Group Nine (owner of multiple brands including NowThis and PopSugar). By year end we can expect more M&A activity but perhaps not the mega-merger that was predicted some years ago.

Traditional media look to acquisition to fuel growth: The biggest players will be looking for digital brands that can add value to their subscription bundles and bring different types of audience. Axel Springer purchased Politico last year for around $1bn and the New York Times has agreed to buy subscription-based sports site The Athletic, in a deal valued at around $550 million. The Athletic has built built more than 1 million subscribers based on deep reporting in multiple sporting niches.10

Local start-ups fuelled by new models: At a local level, we can expect to see the growth of low-cost reader-focused start-ups this year, built on newsletter platforms like Substack, which help take out technology and infrastructure costs.

The Manchester Mill, which launched during the height of COVID lockdowns, has generated almost 1,000 paying subscriptions at 7 a month in the last year for a mix of slow journalism delivered mainly by newsletter. A certain amount of free content gives it a much wider readership and there is now an offshoot in print.11 Super users engage with the editorial team on a Facebook group providing ideas for stories. And there is a podcast too.
A sister title, the Sheffield Tribune has gained around 300 subscribers and a third, The Post, has just launched covering Liverpool.

Meanwhile in the United States, Axios has plans to expand its newsletter-led model to 25 cities by mid 2022 with 100 soon after. Axios reporters will break local news, hold local officials accountable and offer tips for navigating local areas and hopes that this reader-supported (membership) model can eventually reach 'every community in America'.