The media industry is more than ever in danger. The economic and social consequences of the health crisis we are currently experiencing worldwide are impacting a sector already profoundly affected by the digital revolution of the past 20 years. While, in our current reality, everyone realizes the vital importance of having access to qualitative and verified information — which in the context of a health crisis can save lives — the very existence of journalism itself is under threat.
At AREA 17, during our 17 years of existence, we have collaborated with many media companies — Condé Nast, The New York Times, The Hill, Quartz, Le Parisien, Canal+, ESPN, among others — to guide them in their digital transformation. We often say that by crafting brands and products that are fundamental to our interactions as people, we can make the internet an enhancement of our lives, not a distraction from it. This sentiment is more relevant than ever.
As we believe in the purpose of genuine journalism, we want to help create a new sustainable model for the media industry. Let’s address the happenings we’ve seen from the news industry during the pandemic, over the last 20 years, and what a shift for the companies might be.
Information in the time of a pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has been accompanied by a massive circulation of misinformation. The World Health Organization has described it as a “second disease,” an “infodemic: an overabundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” Misinformation (false information that is spread, regardless of intent to mislead) and disinformation (knowingly spreading misinformation) were an issue before the pandemic. But the difference now is that they are putting lives at risk in a much more direct and explicit way.
In response to this “infodemic,” and despite facing a massive drop in advertising revenue, many media websites have decided to remove their paywall on articles dealing with the coronavirus — living up to their mission to inform and educate the general public. As a result, news websites broke audience records and gained new paying subscribers.
In the US, titles such as the Atlantic and the New York Times have seen a significant increase in subscribers numbers. In France, the trend is the same for Liberation, Le Monde, and Le Figaro, for example, which all have seen a significant increase in digital subscriptions during the lockdown. A few months later, this rise in traffic and paying subscribers seems to be continuing.
However, media organizations are still highly dependent on print and advertising revenue generated, and the rise in paid digital subscriptions is not enough to overcome the financial difficulties triggered by the crisis. Even The Atlantic was recently forced to lay off nearly 20% of its staff despite their recent increase in paying subscribers. And the situation is even more critical for local news sites.
While the crisis is omnipresent and we are still not finished measuring all of its impacts, it is already accelerating structural changes towards an increasingly digital-based model, forcing media companies to speed up their digital transformation to a model less dependent on print and advertising revenues.
An unprecedented acceleration of digital transformation
The stakes are high for the news media. Even before this new crisis, the sector faced significant challenges as 20 years of digital revolution profoundly changed consumer behavior and the competitive landscape.
Initially, media companies tried to replicate a business model derived from print. They competed to capture online readers by offering their content for free, intending to generate profits later through advertising. But in this competition, Google and Facebook won the battle for readers’ eyeballs and captured the main share of digital advertising revenue. Some newcomers like Buzzfeed began to harness social media networks’ power getting content in front of millions of viewers. There was a thought that they would eventually outpace the print industry giants. But by 2018, this hypothesis hadn’t necessarily borne out in the long run.
As these models were proven not sustainable, many publishers decided to pivot to a paid subscription strategy in recent years: a plan that, for example, the New York Times initiated in 2011. And now, almost ten years later, for the first time in its history, the New York Times announced that in the second quarter of 2020, its digital offering surpassed its paper sales.
“We’ve proven that it’s possible to create a virtuous circle,” Mr. Thompson said in a statement, “in which wholehearted investment in high-quality journalism drives deep audience engagement, which in turn drives revenue growth and further investment capacity.”
In France, the success of Mediapart, a pure digital player that has charged for its content since its launch in 2008, also demonstrated that a specific editorial positioning supported by a strong brand is a viable model.
But while the New York Times and others have succeeded in creating a digital news subscription business, this transition to a sustainable digital model has not entirely been made by many yet. It is now critical for their survival.
Shaping the future of the news industry
According to the Reuters Institute’s 2020 digital news report, the next 12 months will be critical in shaping the news industry’s future and survival, and publishers must develop more robust and deeper connections with their online audiences. After years of designing digital experiences for the advertisers — sometimes at the detriment of the reading experience — it is now imperative to shift to a user-first approach.
To create deeper connections with their readers, media companies need to break away from their legacy print products and models and think first about how technology can truly enhance the value they deliver to their users. In times of continuous innovation, understanding the value you offer to your users and readers is critical.
By developing a strong product culture where journalists collaborate closely with designers and developers, publishers can leverage digital capabilities to create richer original content that will drive users’ engagement. Achieving a shared understanding of users’ needs and consumption patterns across the newsroom, coupled with an in-depth knowledge of digital technology, will allow publishers to diversify the range of editorial products provided by the media and create engaging digital products.
There are many opportunities for publications to leverage their intellectual property and turn it into innovative new digital products: stories, podcasts, interactive long-forms, morning email briefs, digital-only evening editions, mobile alerts, and data visualizations… To diversify their revenue across different models and develop user loyalty, publishers must continue and push further these product innovations in traditional journalism content — meant to inform and explain — and in new content and service — meant to guide or entertain.
Ultimately, we believe it is now time to put the reader in charge, which means we need to give them choices. We need to let users select the content they are interested in (with or without using the power of algorithms), choose how they want to have it delivered (with or without ads) and select how they would like to pay (through subscription, donation, or micropayment).
More than just a business problem
From the Reuters Institute:
“Despite this, there are some signs of hope. The COVID-19 crisis has clearly demonstrated the value of reliable trusted news to the public but also to policymakers, technology companies, and others who could potentially act to support independent news media.”
As we face this unprecedented crisis, we believe our collective response will define our world’s future. The crisis has shown us how journalism is an essential element of our lives and livelihoods.
In a world that is becoming increasingly complex and troubled, with extraordinary societal and environmental challenges ahead, we strongly believe in the need to defend authentic and quality journalism. As an agency, we want to participate in the invention of tomorrow’s journalism that we need so much today.