This will be a year of heightened concerns about the sustainability of some news media against a backdrop of rampant inflation, and a deep squeeze on household spending. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the increasingly destructive impact of global warming, along with the after-effects of the COVID pandemic have created fear and uncertainty for many ordinary people. In these conditions journalism has often thrived, but the depressing and relentless nature of the news agenda continues to turn many people away. Could this be the year when publishers rethink their offer to address the twin challenges of news avoidance and disconnection – to offer more hope, inspiration, and utility?
Big Tech platforms will also be under pressure this year and not just from the economic downturn. First-generation social networks like Facebook and Twitter are struggling to retain audiences as older people get bored and younger users migrate to new networks like TikTok. Amid this turmoil, there is some hope that the next set of applications will put more emphasis on connections and content that are good for society rather than those that deliver outrage and anger. With huge audiences up for grabs, we can expect (or hope) to see the seeds of something better in 2023 with a host of new networks and models emerging.
Meanwhile, the next wave of technical innovation is already here – and we are not talking about the metaverse. Extraordinary advances in artificial intelligence (AI) in 2022 have laid bare more immediate opportunities – and challenges – for journalism. AI offers the chance for publishers (finally) to deliver more personal information and formats, to help deal with channel fragmentation and information overload. But these new technologies will also bring existential and ethical questions – along with more deep fakes, deep porn, and other synthetic media. Buckle up for the ride.
Against this backdrop, news organisations that have not yet fully embraced digital will be at a severe disadvantage. The next few years will not be defined by how fast we adopt digital, but by how we transform our digital content to meet rapidly changing audience expectations.
How do media leaders view the year ahead?
- Publishers are much less confident about their business prospects than this time last year. Less than half (44%) of our sample of editors, CEOs, and digital leaders say they are confident about the year ahead, with around a fifth (19%) expressing low confidence. The biggest concerns relate to rising costs, lower interest from advertisers, and a softening in subscriptions. Even those that are optimistic expect to see layoffs and other cost-cutting measures in the next year.
- At the same time, we find evidence that most publishers (72%) are worried about increasing news avoidance – especially around important but often depressing topics like Ukraine and climate change – with only 12% not worried. Publishers say they plan to counter this with explainer content (94%), Q&A formats (87%), and inspirational stories (66%) considered important or very important this year. Producing more positive news (48%) was a less popular response.
- More publishers are investing in subscription and membership in 2023, with the majority of those surveyed (80%) saying this will be one of their most important revenue priorities, ahead of both display and native advertising. Despite the squeeze on consumer spending, over half (68%) still expect some growth in subscription and other paid content income this year.
- Publishers say that, on average, three or four different revenue streams will be important or very important this year. A third (33%) now expect to get significant revenue from tech platforms for content licensing (or innovation), significantly up on last year, reflecting the fruits of multi-year deals negotiated in some markets with a number of big publishers, often in the context of policies championed by those same publishers being introduced or considered by governments.
- With more legislation planned this year to restrict ‘harmful’ content on social media, many respondents (54%) worry that these new rules could make it harder for journalists and news organisations to publish stories that governments don’t like. Around a third (30%) are less worried and 14% are not worried at all.
- Publishers say they’ll be paying much less attention to Facebook (-30 net score) and Twitter (-28) this year and will instead put much more effort into TikTok (+63), Instagram (+50), and YouTube (+47), all networks that are popular with younger people. Increased interest in TikTok (+19pp compared with last year) reflects a desire to engage with under 25s, and experiment with vertical video storytelling, despite concerns about monetisation, data security, and the wider implications of Chinese ownership.
- The potential implosion of Twitter under the stewardship of Elon Musk has focused minds on its value to journalists. Half of our survey respondents (51%) say the potential loss or weakening of Twitter would be bad for journalism, but 17% take a more positive view suggesting it could reduce reliance on the views of an unrepresentative but vocal elite. LinkedIn (42%) has emerged as the most popular alternative, followed by Mastodon (10%), and Facebook (7%). Others struggle to see a like-for-like replacement.
- As the impact of climate change becomes more evident, the news industry has been rethinking how it covers this complex and multi-faceted story. Around half (49%) say they have created a specialist climate team to strengthen coverage, with a third hiring more staff (31%). Just under half (44%) say they are integrating dimensions of the climate debate into other coverage (e.g. business and sport) and three in ten (30%) have developed a climate change strategy for their company.
- In terms of innovation, publishers say that they will be putting more resource into podcasts and digital audio (72%) as well as email newsletters (69%), two channels that have proved effective in increasing loyalty to news brands. Planned investment in digital video formats (67%) is also up on last year, perhaps prompted by TikTok’s explosive growth. By contrast just 4% say they’ll be investing in the metaverse, reflecting increased scepticism about its potential for journalism.
- Media companies are quietly integrating AI into their products as a way of delivering more personalised experiences. Almost three in ten (28%) say this is now a regular part of their activities, with a further 39% saying they have been conducting experiments in this area. New applications such as ChatGPT and DALL-E 2 also illustrate opportunities for production efficiency and the creation of new types of semi-automated content.
Other possible developments in 2023?
- More newspapers will stop daily print production this year due to rising print costs and weakening of distribution networks. We may also see a further spate of venerable titles switching to an online-only model.
- TV and broadcast news will be at the forefront of journalistic layoffs as audiences are hit by news fatigue and competition from streamers. More TV broadcasters will talk openly about a time when linear transmissions might be turned off. Netflix’s partial switch to an ad-based model increases the pressure further on advertising revenue.
- In last year’s report we predicted an explosion of creativity in short-form video storytelling in youth-based social networks. This year we’ll see more publishers embracing these techniques while videos get longer in the search of sustainable revenue.
- Expect to see a correction in the creator economy this year. While many individual journalism businesses that have been started on Substack and other platforms continue to thrive, the pressure of delivering to constant deadlines on your own is relentless, and ‘creator funds’ and similar monetary incentives offered by some platforms can’t be relied on to endure. Collectives and micro-companies could be a new trend for 2023.
- It’s almost impossible to predict Elon Musk’s next move at Twitter, but there is likely to be an enormous gap between rhetoric and delivery as the complexities of running a creative and outspoken global community becomes clearer. Musk is likely to step down as CEO sooner rather than later and a further change of ownership can’t be ruled out.
- Meanwhile Smart glasses and VR headsets, building blocks of the metaverse, will continue to attract attention, especially with Apple expected to join the party with its first headset. The addition of ‘legs’ to Facebook’s metaverse has taken eight years and billions of dollars of investment. The roll out of these wholesome avatars this year won’t win round the internal or external critics or make the concept any more relevant for journalism.
1. Inflation, uncertainty, and squeeze on spending clouds prospects for journalism
This time last year few predicted Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, an event that has triggered an energy crisis and spiralling inflation across many countries. All this has reminded us of the value of on-the-ground reporting, and expert analysis at times of uncertainty, but it has also made the funding of such journalism more precarious. Journalism media and technology
Advertisers are pulling back at the same time as households reduce spending and publishers face rising costs on multiple fronts. Those that still rely heavily on print have been particularly badly affected, with the cost of paper doubling in some cases. Towards the end of 2022, this perfect storm led to a number of layoffs, spending freezes, and other cost-cutting measures.
In our survey, less than half (44%) of our sample of editors, CEOs, and digital leaders say they are confident about their business prospects in the year ahead, with almost as many (37%) uncertain and around a fifth (19%) expressing low confidence.
Less than half of news publishers are confident about the year ahead
In the United States, Gannett plans to cut its news division by a further 6%, losing around 200 staff. The Washington Post is discontinuing its 60-year-old print magazine, CNN is laying off hundreds of people, and NPR is preparing to make significant cuts as a result of a financial black hole. It’s a similar picture in many countries around the world.
Digital-born companies are not immune. BuzzFeed is losing another 180 employees, while Morning Brew is axing 14% of its workforce. Falling traffic from big social platforms like Facebook (Meta) and Twitter, which are both heading in new directions, has compounded the problem, especially for companies that have become dependent on social distribution.
Elsewhere many European publishers have seen a worrying decline in print-based subscriptions partly linked to breakdown in distribution networks and higher levels of churn overall. ‘[We see] a post Corona-slump, inflation, and troubles with print distribution, so there is less confidence than a year ago,’ says Philippe Remarque, Publisher and Director of Journalism at DPG in the Netherlands. It’s a similar story in France according to a CEO of one leading publisher: ‘News magazines are losing print and digital subscribers while the price of paper is rising’. Outside Europe, publishers large and small face similar pressures. ‘Reader revenue continues to grow although at a slower pace’, says Styli Charalambous, CEO of the Daily Maverick in South Africa. ‘Advertising and commercial sponsorships are expected to be tougher to grow, if at all,’ he says.
Any publication that still has a heavy dependence on print circulation or advertising revenue is likely to run into severe difficulties this year. Regional and local newspapers are especially vulnerable, potentially leading to more government intervention in some countries to support the sector.
Broadcasters also face increasing disruption with rapidly declining audiences – across all age groups – for linear news bulletins and opinion programming. It doesn’t help that most commercial TV and radio providers remain overly dependent on advertising or carriage fees and generate little direct revenue from viewers or listeners. Netflix’s decision to take advertisements will add further pressure while public broadcasters face funding cuts amid intensifying attacks by politicians and rival publishers.
What will happen this year?
Haircut for print titles
Expect more newspapers to slim down editions, stop seven day a week publication, and even close print editions altogether. Regional and local titles seem most vulnerable (Newsquest in the UK has recently converted five regional titles) along with a host of magazine titles that have already moved to an online-only model. Journalism media and technology With fewer copies being sold, distribution networks are also weakening and expect some to follow the example of US publishers in leveraging the public mail1 or even starting their own delivery businesses. Green consumerism could add further pressure to move away from print. Journalism media and technology
303 people completed a closed survey in November and December 2022. Journalism media and technology Participants, drawn from 53 countries and territories, were invited because they held senior positions (editorial, commercial, or product) in traditional or digital-born publishing companies and were responsible for aspects of digital or wider media strategy. The results reflect this strategic sample of select industry leaders, not a representative sample. Journalism media and technology Typical job titles included Editor-in-Chief/Executive Editor, CEO, Managing Director, Head of Digital, Director of Product, and Head of Innovation. Over half of participants were from organisations with a print background (53%), around a quarter (24%) represented digital-born media, a fifth (20%) came from commercial or public service broadcasters, and a further 3% came from B2B companies or news agencies. These proportions are similar to previous surveys.
The prevailing mood in the news industry is one of uncertainty and some concern about what the next year might have in store. Journalism media and technology The economic indicators do not look good, with rapidly rising costs and a squeeze on household spending expected to continue for some time. Journalism media and technology Issues such as news avoidance and news fatigue are widespread at the same time as some social platforms seem to be imploding or turning away from news, and emerging platforms seem largely uninterested in it – making it even harder to attract new customers.
Companies that have already completed their digital transition and have a robust subscription businesses or diversified revenue remain in the best position to ride out the storm, but those that are over-reliant on print or advertising have a tough few years ahead. In many parts of the world, this economic weakness will make some news organisations even more dependent on government advertising or well-connected proprietors, undermining their ability to hold the rich and powerful to account. Journalism media and technology Elsewhere we can expect extensive layoffs as well as a spate of mergers, acquisitions, and partnerships as industry tries to cut costs and bundle value in new ways. Industry consolidation sometimes creates more problems than it solves, but at its most effective, we’ll find companies looking to run portfolios of distinctive and complementary brands with a greater focus on specific audience needs and segments.
These shocks may also open up more radical thinking about the way news can be created and what a digital news organisation should look like. Lower cost models are emerging centred around distributed newsrooms and tools, helping to fill in gaps in local news provision for example. Some entrepreneurial journalists and news creators are pivoting to newsletters and podcasts, which enable deeper connection with specific audiences without the overheads that weigh down many traditional news organisations, but these are largely additional services that benefit those already interested in news. Journalism media and technology
Younger audience behaviours such as social search and vertical video are also helping to upset the old order in Silicon Valley. Journalism media and technology Together with the unpredictability of Elon Musk, this has reminded us that it would be a mistake to take these platforms for granted. Tech companies remain focused on how they can respond to TikTok and the creativity it has unleashed along with the threat to their business models. Journalism media and technology Long-standing platform companies including Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft are all focused on growing their advertising business. Concerns about the news industry are likely to take a low priority. Journalism media and technology
At the same time, we are on the cusp of a new wave of disruption as artificial intelligence technologies start to impact on the real world, driving greater efficiency and automation on the one hand, but also enabling content to be remixed in surprising and unpredictable ways. This will help media companies do more with less, as well as open up opportunities in the creation and distribution of smarter content. But it will also bring new dilemmas about how these powerful technologies can be used in an ethical and transparent way. Journalism media and technology
Some media companies are still on a journey to become more digital, but that increasingly feels like yesterday’s debate. The next few years will be defined more by how we can transform our digital content into something that feels more relevant and more useful to different groups. In this process new technologies can be our ally in tailoring content more precisely to different audience needs. Journalism media and technology But at the same time, journalism will need to emphasise its human qualities and its track record of delivering trusted content if it is to stand out from the flood of automated and synthetic media that threatens to overwhelm internet audiences.