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January 10, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 10:54am

Almost six in ten news leaders worldwide say revenue grew in 2021 despite static or falling traffic

By Aisha Majid

News publishers’ revenues increased in 2021 despite falling or static traffic, a new report has found.

The Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends and Predictions 2022 report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism noted that of 246 news chief executives, editors and other managers surveyed almost six in ten (59%) said that their revenue increased last year.

Just 8% reported that income worsened in what the report authors said was “one of the biggest surprises” in the Google-funded survey.

More than half (54%) of the same group of news leaders from 52 countries reported that page views in the same period had either gone down or stayed steady. Some 44% said traffic had increased.

Although the pandemic has led to news fatigue among readers and continues to take an economic toll in many countries, surveyed publishers reported that digital advertising had boomed thanks to the pandemic’s shift to online spending.  Subscription revenue was also reported to have gone up.

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While the report acknowledged that many news leaders not surveyed face an uncertain future, particularly those reliant on traditional and declining revenue sources such as print and even broadcast, three-quarters (75%) of respondents said they are optimistic they can secure more money from multiple channels in 2022.

Topping the list of focus areas for the coming year was reader revenue with 79% of news executives saying that subscriptions and membership will be among their key income priorities.

However while publishers are buoyant about the revenue prospect of subscriptions, almost half (47%) worry that the focus on subscriptions may be pushing journalism towards more well-off audiences who can afford to pay for news.

Report author Nic Newman of the Reuters Institute said: "Covid has built confidence in the value of journalism and has focused minds on new digital revenue streams like subscriptions, but a key challenge for the news media this year is to re-engage those who have turned away from news – as well as to build deeper relationships with more regular news consumers."

Despite the dominance of reader revenue, there is no "one size fits all" approach with most commercial publishers on average saying that three or four different revenue streams will be critical for them in 2022.

Almost three-quarters of publishers said that display (73%), followed by native advertising (59%), will be a key focus in 2022. Publishers also expect to reap significant dividends from events with 40% of those surveyed saying it will be among their main revenue focuses as the sector recovers from the Covid-19 lockdowns, while philanthropic funds and foundations will be a priority for 15% - up on 2020.

Almost three in ten (29%) meanwhile think that licensing and innovation from tech platforms will be a key income stream in the coming 12 months.

“After a period where digital advertising revenue has leaked away to giant platforms, publishers have an opportunity to secure better results this year,” said the report, which also noted that more stringent data privacy rules and concerns over fake news and misinformation are tipping the scales in favour of trusted outlets.

While the overwhelming majority of surveyed news leaders feel optimistic about the income picture in 2022, fewer (60%) are confident about the state of journalism as a whole. Respondents cited concerns about the state of press freedom, social polarisation and the crisis in local journalism among the reasons.

Consolidating products and attracting audiences

When it comes to product development, consolidation will be key in 2022 with most efforts going into tried and tested and habit-forming products. Most newsrooms will be putting their attention on podcasts and other digital audio (80%) and newsletters (70%). Only a minority of publishers plan to increase investment in more experimental technologies such as voice platforms (14%) and VR/AR (8%).

Artificial intelligence will however remain an important way to deliver more personalised experiences to news consumers and make production more efficient. The vast majority (85%) of the sample plan to focus on AI to develop content recommendations (85%), newsroom automation (81%) and help attract new customers (69%).

Another focus in 2022 will be audio, with respondents saying it will likely offer more opportunities for engagement and monetisation over text and video. Publishers and platforms will in the year ahead battle out how to control the full customer experience when it comes to audio, said the report.

Visual platforms - in particular native video services- are also expected to attract more attention from publishers in 2022.  Respondents said that they will pay less attention to Twitter and Facebook, putting more effort into platforms such as Instagram in a bid to attract younger audiences. The platform likely to be the focus of most increased efforts this year is Instagram (net score of +54), followed by TikTok (+44) and YouTube (+43).

Remote working and focus on diversity and inclusion

"Assuming that the virus is finally brought under control, this will be the year when hybrid working – with some people in the office and others working remotely – becomes the norm," found the report.

However many organisations are still grappling with how best to manage hybrid newsrooms. Seventy per cent of those asked said that the experience so far has been good for efficiency, but publishers worry about the implications for creativity, collaboration, and communication with half (48%) of respondents saying that remote working has led to a decline in creativity.

More news organisations are also expected to go fully virtual following the example of business publisher Quartz which in 2021 announced it was becoming a "fully distributed company".

Following the increased attention on the lack of gender and racial equity within the media which in the UK reached a head in 2021 following Prince Harry’s assertion that the UK tabloid media was bigoted, the report found that more publishers are starting to acknowledge the damage to public trust and audience.

Reporting on climate

Reporting on the complex issue of climate change will be among the key coverage challenges for the industry in 2022, according to the report.

One-third (34%) of those surveyed said that general coverage of climate change was good, with a further third (29%) saying it is poor as the news industry struggles with how to cover this complex story. Two-thirds (65%) of those asked said that their own coverage is better than that of others.

The slow nature of developments, depressing outlook and lack of money to hire specialist reporters who can explain the science are among the barriers to better coverage, according to the report.

Respondents said that building more scientific expertise in newsrooms, and collaborations between newsrooms to address the lack of funds for original reporting, are among the ways publishers could improve coverage in 2022.

The report said the coming 12 months are likely to see increased debate around the extent to which news organisations should actively campaign for climate solutions rather than just report on the topic.

Other findings and predictions from the report

  • Increased regulatory and privacy efforts are expected to take on the platforms. The EU’s Digital Markets Act, which aims to curb anti-competitive behaviour amongst the biggest players, and Digital Services Act, which aims to regulate online content, are set to come into law in 2022. The UK plans to introduce the Online Safety Bill which will give new powers to sanction web platforms which fail to curb illegal or harmful content.
  • Media companies could get bigger in 2022 through further acquisitions as subscription and advertising businesses favour scale and value. Digital natives such as Vice, Vox and Bustle could also scale up to compete with the likes of Facebook and Google.
  • Content produced by celebrities and influencers will compete with news media for audience attention, while platforms will make it easier for individual journalists and cooperatives to monetise their content
  • There will be a pivot to video with the comeback of short-form social video  - publishers will adopt more of these techniques in 2022.
  • 2022 could see publishers collaborate more to counter audience and platform challenges through joint lobbying on policy, advertising and common login initiatives, joint investigations, and content sharing.
  • More publishers will move to open access initiatives for less well-off audiences (such as pay what you can afford memberships) to try and counter critiques about information inequality due to paid subscriptions.
  • Publishers will focus on product extensions and bundling as well as reduced rates to try counter subscription fatigue particularly those seeking to retain subscribers gained during the pandemic.
  • A more diverse set of editors will question traditional assumptions about how to cover the news with for example explanatory, fact-driven formats as alternatives to divisive columnists and confrontational talk shows.
  • Opinion-led media will challenge impartiality rules with, for example, Rupert Murdoch’s TalkTV set to launch in the UK.
  • Newsrooms will likely step up support for journalists who face abuse and harassment (online and offline).

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