Less than half of news leaders feel confident about their company’s prospects for the next 12 months for the second year running, according to a report looking at news media trends and predictions for 2024.
The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism survey, which was carried out in late 2023 and received responses from 314 media leaders in 56 countries, found widespread concern over the “sharp decline in referral traffic” from Facebook and X (previously Twitter).
The Reuters Institute survey also found few media leaders are optimistic that licensing deals with generative AI companies will benefit the industry – but newsrooms are nonetheless adopting the technology en masse.
Media trends and predictions for 2024
Media leaders not confident about prospects for 2024
Almost half (47%) of the survey’s respondents said they were “confident about journalism’s prospects in the year ahead”, compared with 12% who were “not confident” and 41% who were neither. This was broadly in line with last year’s figures.
The Reuters Institute cited “a slower ad market, the imminent demise of remaining third-party cookies and less reliable traffic from big tech platforms” as likely causes for low confidence, as well as “an erosion of media trust” globally.
The authors said: “Overall, the mood in our survey responses is one of strong belief in the value of journalism but great uncertainty about the year ahead, fuelled by the knowledge that another huge wave of technical disruption is on the way.”
Publishers pivot away from Facebook and X towards direct audiences, Whatsapp and video
Almost two-thirds (63%) of survey respondents said they were worried about the decline of referral traffic from Facebook and X.
Asked how their companies will deal with that decline, 77% said they focus more this year on the distribution channels they have direct control over, for example websites, apps, newsletters and podcasts.
Just over a fifth (22%) said they will likely need to cut costs to cope, while 17% said they will spend more money on marketing.
A fifth of respondents said they will respond by putting more effort into alternative platforms, with Whatsapp standing out as the biggest beneficiary of that shift.
Taking advantage of the messaging app’s Channels feature, 61% of those surveyed said they would be putting more effort into Whatsapp in 2024. The Meta-owned platform is not the only social network publishers are interested in, with a net of 55% of respondents saying they will put more effort into Tiktok, 49% Google Search, 44% Youtube, 41% Linkedin and 39% Instagram.
In contrast, a net of 38% of leaders surveyed said they would put less effort into Facebook and a net of 39% would put less effort into X.
As well as these specific platform changes, most media leaders told the Reuters Institute they will lean into video in 2024 - with net 64% of respondents saying their newsroom will produce more visual content.
Similarly, a net of 52% of respondents said they will increase newsletter production and net 47% will boost podcast output. A net of zero news leaders said they would increase output of written articles.
Publishers worry money from AI deals will not be equally shared
Despite some publishers, for example Axel Springer and the Associated Press, successfully minting deals with ChatGPT owner OpenAI, the news leaders surveyed were downbeat on how lucrative generative AI copyright agreements will be for the industry.
Asked what was most likely to follow licensing deal negotiations with AI companies, 5% of respondents said “the money will be relatively evenly shared between all media companies”.
Instead, 35% said it was most likely that most of the money “will go to big media companies” and nearly half (48%) said there would be “very little money for any news company”.
Most subscription publishers saw modest or major digital subs growth in 2023
Eight in ten survey respondents said recurring subscription or membership payments would be important in 2024 - a six percentage point increase on 2020.
Among the 216 respondents who use a subscription model and answered the question, a clear majority said they saw digital subscription growth in 2023. Although 2% saw a large subscription decline and 7% a small one, 43% said subs were “up a bit” and 30% said they were up “a lot”.
Advertising remained a significant but diminishing revenue source, with 72% of the media leaders saying display advertising or sponsorship would be important for them in 2024 and 61% saying sponsored content would be important. Those figures were down from 81% and 75% respectively in 2020.
How publishers plan to tackle news avoidance trend in 2024
News avoidance has emerged as a major trend in recent years, with 41% of Britons telling last year's Reuters Institute Digital News Report that they often or sometimes avoid the news these days.
Doomsday narratives on climate change are one possible source of news fatigue, according to the institute. However it notes that some publishers are responding not by turning away from difficult topics, but addressing them with deeper explanation or so-called "solutions journalism".
"Some newsrooms have been upping their specialist coverage of green tech (Bloomberg Green) or creating eco-tips and inspiration for greener living," the Reuters Institute said.
"Earthtopia’s Tiktok round of ‘Good News’ is consistently their most engaged-with content. Irish public broadcaster RTE runs a positive climate series called ‘Climate Heroes’, showing how individuals and businesses are making a difference."
Generative AI in the newsroom in 2024
The survey revealed that more than half (56%) of news leaders think using AI to automate back-end tasks will be very important in 2024.
Various publishers have experimented with using AI to create summaries that appear at the top of an article and have been found to boost engagement, for example Aftonbladet in Sweden and Verdens Gang in Norway.
AI tools have also been used to suggest SEO-driven headlines, to aid note-taking and transcription and to assist with translation. AI illustration tool Midjourney is widely used by publishers.
The German tabloid Express.de has a virtual journalist who now writes 5% of published content (after it has been first reviewed by human editors). The site has also automated website curation and selection of suggested links, the Reuters Institute reported.
However, the survey found 56% of news leaders felt deploying AI in content creation carried a risk of reputational damage.
AI, elections and the news in 2024
With 2024 set to be an election year in the UK, US and many other countries around the world, concerns have been raised about how AI will be deployed to create misinformation and fake news.
The Reuters Institute noted: "The Israel/Gaza conflict has also thrown up countless examples of fake, doctored, or stylised images being used for propaganda purposes – from supporters of both sides. Recent versions of tools like Midjourney can conjure up hyper-realistic and detailed images of any situation that are hard to distinguish from real-life photographs, using simple prompts."
Overall, 70% of respondents said they felt AI and generative AI will lower trust levels in news.
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