Well. If nothing else, 2018 was eventful. It was a year of ups and downs for news media thanks to Facebook’s ‘meaningful interactions’ algorithm. Subscriptions and donations became major sources of income, with the Guardian announcing that one million ‘supporters’ (financial donors) put them on the brink of breaking even after years of losses, and old skills were framed with a renewed importance. Publishers reclaimed control of newsletters from marketing teams, and SEO skills became more important than ever with Facebook difficult to master.
The battle against misinformation will turn its focus to closed networks and community groups, where it is harder to control.
We’ll see a renewed focus on trust indicators for news.
We’ll see more users leaving social media and more users concerned about quality time online, as addiction worry kicks in.
Slow news becomes a theme with the launch of new journalistic enterprises like Tortoise; an antidote to the current glut of quick, shallow, and reactive coverage. But how many will join – and pay?
The rise of paywalls is shutting more people off from quality news and making the internet harder to navigate. Consumer irritation will build this year, leading to a combination of more news avoidance and the adoption of ‘paywall-blocking’ software.
Key Trends and Predictions for 2019
Platforms under pressure
In 2018, in response to the spread of false news, Facebook has…
Deployed advanced tech/increased human resources to identify and remove fake accounts
Introduced new authentication procedures for ad buyers and their affiliations
Continued to work with fact-checkers
Boosted the prominence of ‘trusted news sources’ in its algorithms
Imposed limits on forwarding from 250 to 20 people max
Prioritised trusted sources around breaking news
Attacked economic incentives by making problematic videos un-monetisable
Introduced new ways of identifying bots
Twitter now challenges around 9 million accounts a week to prove that they’re human.
So what might happen in 2019?
Social and search platforms will place increasing focus on the credibility and track record of publishers.
Around 120 news sites – including BBC News – have started to display ‘trust indicators’ on their pages.
It is hoped that these will provide some objective standards for news sites to pertain to, which will differentiate trustworthy sites from the untrustworthy ones.
Expect to see more labelling initiatives in 2019.
Publishers look to wean themselves off Facebook
Interestingly, Apple News is now considered as valuable as Facebook, with some publishers reporting sharp rises in traffic. Here’s how publishers rated platforms going into 2019, where % = saying the platform was ‘very’ important:
Google – 87%
Apple News – 43%
Facebook – 43%
YouTube – 43%
Instagram – 31%
Twitter – 29%
WhatsApp – 16%
Amazon – 16%
Snapchat – 8%
“Google maxes out on importance because of its pervasiveness as both technology and audience provider, and their willingness to engage on some key topics that matter to our business. I can’t say that about any other platform.” – Spokesperson for UK subscription business
Stories are used daily by 300 million people on Instagram, 190 million on Snapchat and 150 million people on Facebook (which recently announced it will now facilitate the direct upload of Instagram stories to Facebook stories). AMP stories debuted in 2017, sitting on top of some Google searches
Something gives at Snapchat
The network is set to lose around $1.5b in 2019 as it tries to self-right after a series of mistakes. Snapchat will need to grow “massively faster” than expected and cut costs aggressively. This could manifest as rushed growth paired with serious cutbacks on spending, which could compromise the quality of the app.
The Business of Journalism
Publishers focus on subscription, but limits become clear
In a survey conducted by Reuters, the following questions on 2019 revenue focus yielded the following spread of answers.
Which of the following digital revenue streams is MOST important for your company in 2019?
Which of the following digital revenue streams are important or very important for your company in 2019?
On these charts, we can see that the “pivot to subscriptions” has begun. Thankfully, with it seems to come an understanding that multiple revenue streams are required to thrive.
“Subscriptions is the key strategy, so the investment in driving subscriptions will be critical in 2019 and probably 2020 to create a sustainable news business.” – Sergio Rodríguez, Digital Editor-in-Chief, La Razón, Spain
For many publications this will require new skills, metrics and an emphasis on creating content that is of a quality that justifies payment.
The average respondent to the Reuters survey said that four different revenue streams are important to them.
Quality news is disappearing behind paywalls
Many are concerned about the wider implications for democracy if the rich end up with access to higher quality, more trusted information than those who can’t afford to pay. So what will we see in the year ahead?
Bundling and payment aggregation: publishers will bulk out their subscription packages with new features, as competition for users who are willing to pay for content intensifies.
Apple has acquired Texture, often described as ‘Netflix for news’. It will cost $10 a month, and revenue will be shared with publishers.
Broken news: could slow news help?
Could less journalism be better for society and create more impact? This is the question Tortoise Media wants to answer. The project, founded by former BBC Director of News James Harding and Katie Vannick-Smith, former President at the Wall Street Journal, will launch in April 2019, promising a ‘different kind of newsroom’.
It will largely ignore breaking news, but tackle four or five stories a day through its website, app and newsletter.
Tortoise is targeting 40,000 paying subscribers by the end of the year.
Collaboration on the rise
Below are the results for the following question in a Reuters survey:
Publishers are less willing to share sources and resources than advertising and tech.
“Broadly I think publishers should look to a model where we share technology which solves our common issues and then use our journalism to differentiate our output.” – UK publisher
Concerns about talent and burnout in the newsroom
These were the top concerns of newsroom leaders, according to a Reuters survey:
Burnout concerns were most keenly felt in editorial roles whereas talent attraction and retention issues applied particularly to product and technical roles.
“Leading a group of product, UX and tech, News and Media is a long way from first choice for most talented staff.” – Product Head, leading UK publisher
Diversity in the newsroom
It’s becoming increasingly apparent to publishers that they cannot afford to alienate a particular audience. In 2019, expect more awareness of the link between diversity and business success.
More newsrooms will start to use tools like Prognosis that monitor gender and ethnic diversity of content.
This awareness will in turn make editors aware of their own biases.
Personalisation and recommendation
“Personalisation of the news service is critical, but does not mean just handing over editorial judgement to algorithms…” – UK publisher
Traditional publishers must consider how to use AI responsibly and transparently. A good example of this in effect is the Finnish broadcaster YLE, as it develops its AI, the ‘intelligent assistant’, ‘Voitto’. Voitto collects feedback on AI-driven recommendations and presents them to user on their phone’s lock screen, aiming to build an ongoing dialogue around the habits and choices of users.
Audio and voice in 2019
Publishers think audio presents a big opportunity in 2019:
“Voice-activated technology/audio will be one of several platforms suited for certain types of news consumption (morning briefing, for example). The danger is a ‘pivot to video’ [transition, where publishers think video will become] THE dominant platform/journey.” – UK publisher
Easy access, better discovery and millions of new audio devices suggests there is considerable growth left in the podcast market.
Google will make podcasts a “first-class citizen”, meaning they will appear alongside the text, image, and video results you are used to seeing.
Podcast listening experiences will be seamless across devices and contexts thanks to Google Assistant.
Opportunities for publishers
While publishers recognise that voice will be a major disruption, they are not clear about whether now is the right time to invest. Reuters’ study suggests that the take up of news content was disappointing. Just 22% use news briefings daily in the UK and 17% in the US. Only 1% said that news was the most important feature, compared with 64% who cited playing music and 17% who said checking the weather.
To help optimise for voice, expect to see platforms pushing publishers to use a new metadata specification called ‘speakable schema’, which will make for a much better and more accurate voice search experience.
Next Generation Technologies
Folding phones could double smartphone screen size.
Phone companies will look to shift their business models away from volatile hardware sales towards subscription packages. Expect to see more phones essentially leased using services like the Apple upgrade programme. Leased phones could mean users upgrade more often, and subscription packages could lead to the bundling of content within these deals.
New startups to watch in 2019
Kinzen is a new subscription-based news aggregator app that is built on the premise that people want to spend time with more meaningful media, and it aims to create daily routines that are time limited, personalised and hopefully mind-broadening.
Curio is a paid app that curates high quality audio content from the Guardian, FT, The Economist and Washington Post, amongst others. There are no ads, and an annual subscription costs $59.
Agateis a digital wallet that allows you to pay for premium articles as you go, aiming to make it easier to consume content from multiple brands without hitting paywalls. The problem will be attaining a critical mass of publishers to take part.
Publishers are re-focusing on loyalty and building relationships with readers, whether paywall funded or advertising funded.
Startups like Tortoise and Kinzen are concentrating on building strong communities from the start, as well as emphasising values and principles that will underpin their journalism.
Audio is showing signs of promise with a younger generation that is discovering quality speech content for the first time.
Artificial intelligence offers the possibility of more personal and relevant news services, new ways to uncover stories, as well as more efficient ways of packaging and distributing content.
News organisations will need to be clearer than ever about that they stand for and the audience they are serving.
They’ll also need to find ways to combine their unique human resources with this new wave of technologies to maximise their potential to create more engaging and sustainable journalism going forward.