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December 30, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:52am

The 2021 media industry in charts: Ad spend bounces back, digital subs grow and press freedom declines

By Aisha Majid

After an often dismal 2020, 2021 has felt like a much more positive year for the media industry.

While the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the urgency of a number of long-standing trends such as the decline of print and the hunt for new business models, despite the obvious challenges the data reveals there have been plenty of bright spots in the past 12 months.

Below, Press Gazette looks back at the year in media in nine charts to reveal how 2021 panned out for publishers.

Advertising spend bounced back 

After a difficult 2020 for publisher finances, particularly print brands whose circulations were hard-hit by several lockdowns, ad spending bounced back strongly in 2021.

Online publishers saw a particularly strong start to the year. Digital magazine publishers led the way with year-on-year ad spend for the first half of 2021 up 78%. 

Although full-year data is not yet available, the Advertising Association and WARC forecast that overall UK ad spending will increase by 25% this year to reach £29bn. This is the largest annual rise since the records began in 1982. 

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Big names recovered market values

Although few sectors were spared the economic fallout from Covid-19, the media sector was badly hit as advertising and print sales were dealt a hammer blow. News Corp, the New York Times, Reach, Gannett, DMGT and Future lost a combined 26% of their value in the first three months of 2020.

But despite a challenging 2020, Press Gazette research suggests that publishers’ market capitalisations are bouncing back.  

The same group of six publishers are currently worth $30.7bn (£23.2bn), 60% more than the $19.1bn (£14bn) they were at the end of 2019. 

More English-language publishers broke the 100,000 subscriber milestone

The leading English-language publishers added around eight million subscribers in 2021, proving that for some publishers at least, the news industry is not broken.

According to Press Gazette’s latest findings, at least 30 news publishers and publications have 100,000 or more digital subscribers. This leading group together counts more than 28m paid readers.

Yet, while digital subscriptions are yielding big successes for some, most publishers still find themselves part of a very long tail. Even among the top 30, just three publishers account for half of the 28m.  The New York Times, which tops the list, currently counts 7.6 million subscribers while second-and third-placed Washington Post and Wall Street Journal count 3 million and 2.8 million paid readers respectively.   

More women won and were nominated for British Journalism Awards

In 2021, more women than ever before made it onto the shortlist at Press Gazette’s British Journalism Awards. More than four in ten (43%) of shortlisted journalists this year were women - beating 2020's previous record when 38% of finalists were female.

The situation for women journalists has come a long way from 2012 when the awards first started. That year just 24% of names on the shortlist were women.

This year, more women than ever also scooped up a prize - an area where historically there has been an ever bigger discrepancy between men and women. As of last year, male journalists had scooped up 151 awards since 2012, compared to 68 women. This year however, equal numbers of men and women walked away with prizes.  

Several publishers all claimed to be Britain’s most-read newsbrand

Audience metrics are a hotly contested area for publishers. Battles between newsbrands over which metrics matter more can mean that the data itself sometimes sparks debate.  

Data from Ipsos iris, which replaced Comscore as the UKOM-endorsed UK standard for online audience measurement in April, reveals that The Sun's group of sites were the most-read online newspaper brand in November (25.7 million visitors),  followed by The Mirror (24.8 million) and the Mail Online (22.5 million). 

Sometimes, however, several brands claim the top spot. In October, The Sun claimed this after the last Pamco data for total brand reach revealed that the News UK brand reaches 28.4m people in the UK each month. Page views however, tell a different story - as does engagement.

When it comes to engagement The Mail dwarfs The Sun with 5.4bn minutes of engagement across print and digital versus only 3.1bn for the Sun. Not surprisingly, The Mail maintains that engagement is what counts.  "Overall reach is just about the most meaningless metric there is," a Mail Online spokesperson told Press Gazette.

Earlier in the year, The Mirror and The Sun both claimed to be the UK’s most-read online newspaper brand with The Mirror announcing it had overtaken the Sun in April based on the number of multi-platform unique visitors from previous official data provider Comscore. The Sun however was ahead of the Mirror based on the entire brand score.

GB News rose and then fell

"Anti-woke" news channel GB News burst enthusiastically onto the scene in June with lead presenter, channel chairman and former BBC presenter Andrew Neil pledging to cover “the stories that matter to you and those that have been neglected”.

Fast-forward less than six months and viewership figures suggest that the hype and indignation over the channel were possibly bigger than the channel itself. Ratings - never spectacular -  have plummeted and Neil resigned less than three months after helping launch the channel citing technical problems and other issues.

The latest weekly viewership data from BARB shows that just 1.9 million people tuned in at the end of November although some programmes including Nigel Farage's flagship evening show seem to be attracting steadier audiences. 

Most people think the UK media is racist or bigoted 

The industry was forced to reflect on its own biases and racism following Prince Harry’s revelations to Oprah Winfrey earlier this year. In that interview the Prince told Oprah he believed that the UK tabloid media is "bigoted" and creates a "toxic environment" of "control and fear".

The Duke’s comments triggered much soul searching among the industry.  The Guardian’s Katharine Viner called for the media to be more "representative and more self-aware" while Financial Times editor Roula Khalaf noted that "editors must ensure that our newsrooms and coverage reflect the societies we live in."

To take the industry's pulse, Press Gazette conducted a reader survey to understand the extent of racism and bigotry in the UK media. Two-thirds of 1,000 mostly journalists who responded to our survey said that they believed that the UK media is bigoted or racist in some way.

We also uncovered some important differences between sectors and ethnic groups. White respondents were much less likely to say that the UK media was racist or bigoted (62%) than people of other ethnic origins (82%). Only 52% of people working for national tabloids thought the media was racist or bigoted compared to 81% of people working for broadsheets. 

Press freedom continued to decline

Continuing what seems to be becoming an endemic and worrying trend, 2021 saw further declines in press freedom for many countries. The pandemic continues to serve as a pretext to block access to information and increase obstacles in news coverage.

Only 12 of the 180 countries evaluated (7%) for their press freedom by Reporters Without Borders were deemed to have a good press situation - the lowest number since 2013 when the non-profit adopted its current methodology. Our own index similarly revealed that 70% of the world's population live in countries where the press has critical freedom issues. While large swathes of the world have recently seen the operating space for media erode, there were particularly worrying declines in the 2021 index in Iran, Germany and Yemen. India, the world’s largest democracy meanwhile, maintains its reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists with at least five murders of journalists in 2021 so far according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The CPJ similarly recorded 293 journalists worldwide behind bars in 2021- a global high. 

Freesheet Metro recovers circulation

While newspaper circulations continued to decline in 2021, there was at least a little good news for the printed word. Although rival freesheet Evening Standard’s circulation has not recovered and remains at March 2020 levels, Metro has bounced back. The paper’s average circulation crossed the 1 million threshold in May this year after falling to an all-time low of 313,248 in June 2020 during the first lockdown.

While the DMGT-owned title's numbers have some way to go before they reach the average 1.4 million copies that were handed out last February before the pandemic took hold, circulation has continued to rise throughout 2021. 

Substack hits 1 million subscriptions

Last month, newsletter platform Substack crossed one million paid subscriptions - twice as many as it had in February this year. The independent newsletter model has recently gained in popularity as a number of high-profile names including Glenn Greenwald, Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias and former Digiday editor-in-chief Brian Morrissey have jumped ship, leaving traditional newsrooms behind.

Although several platforms exist, Substack is probably the best-known and the number of paid subscribers has surged since it launched in 2017. There are even entire news outlets, such as US title The Discourse, that use Substack to monetise their audience. 

But while Substack has seen impressive growth in a short space of time, as Press Gazette reported earlier this year, not everyone can expect to benefit from the platform.

"It is a minority making a reasonable amount of money – ones that can command large audiences – and then there’s a very long tail,"  Alice Pickthall of Enders Analysis told Press Gazette in September.

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