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Web Summit 2022: Five takeaways for publishers

We’ve just returned from a week in Lisbon attending the Web Summit. We will be posting a number of in-depth features from the event in due course, but below are some key ‘front of mind’ takeaways. Bottom line: Publishers need to rebuild audience trust and micropayments could soon have their day in the sun.

The Web Summit 2022 took place last week at the Altice Arena in Lisbon. The sold-out tech event was nothing short of colossal, with 71,033 attendees from 160 countries all converging on Portugal’s capital city. To get a sense of scale, the event space covered the equivalent of 1,000 tennis courts and featured 2,296 startup companies. It was simply monstrous.

The publisher track featured presentations and panel interviews with a raft of publishers including Vice, Axios, Washington Post, TechCrunch, Teen Vogue, The Atlantic, Fast Company, and more. Here are five key front-of-mind takeaways:

  • Micropayments are back in vogue

After many false dawns, micropayments could soon be in the spotlight. We spoke to a number of newsgroups, who requested to remain anonymous, that were either launching micropayments next year, or were looking very closely at the tech.

From the tech vendors’ perspective, the arguments are clear: micropayments add another revenue stream whilst simultaneously opening up a publisher’s content to a much wider audience, some of whom will also become subscribers.

Publishers are not so convinced – one newsgroup told us that they were concerned that it would cannibalize existing subscriber revenue and become a zero-sum game – for every single subscriber lost, they would need to generate hundreds of micropayments. However, the same newsgroup also said they were looking very intensely at the tech, with reams of statisticians and data scientists pouring over the possible permutations.

Moreover, publishers and tech vendors are evolving away from simple per-article offers, and are instead looking at cheaper, themed bundles (“follow your favorite sports team”, “receive news about your U.S. State”; “read all the election coverage for one month”; “follow your favorite columnist”; etc)

At a time when the most recent data shows we might have hit peak subscription, 2023 could be the year that micropayments emerge as a serious force.

  • Serve your audience as your #1 priority, the revenue will follow

A consistent theme was the need for publishers to stop looking at products to build and then hoping that they’d be successful after launch. Instead, publishers were urged to focus on their readers as their #1 priority and, using research and data, simply serve their readers’ needs better.

Nicholas Johnston, Publisher at Axios, stated, “We haven’t figured out a magical secret, we just have a diverse mix of revenue and we’re very rigorous on building around that. The mistake a lot of publishers make, especially new startups, is to build first and then think that the money will come after.

The theme was picked up by Joy Robins, Global Chief Revenue Officer of the Washington Post, who said, “If you are a news publisher, you must decide you’re a business, and – once you’ve established that – you must align your organization along shared goals and accountability. The business must then be rooted in your reader and whilst advertising, subscriptions, events, etc, can be a by-product of that, it must start with the reader.”

Johnston added, “A key part of this is owning the relationship with your audience. If you are reliant on Facebook, Google, or other social platforms for delivering your readers, you are at their whim and they are not in the news business. They are running their business.”

I loved being Editor-in-Chief of Axios because if I had an idea and the sales team could sell it, I got to hire as many journalists as I wanted to. We’re now at 200 journalists.

Nicholas Johnston, Publisher, Axios
  • Gen Z is losing trust in mainstream news

Following on from the WAN-IFRA World News Media Congress 2022 where Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of Reuters Institute, highlighted a catastrophic decline in media trust, the same theme echoed around the Web Summit.

Ominously, Gen Z in particular are avoiding news media and instead are looking to their friends for trusted information. Journalist Ann Curry stated, “Gen Z are a smart generation and don’t trust people my age, they are looking to each other for information.”

Judith Nwandu, Political Reporter at the Shade Room, added, “Gen Z are prominent on TikTok and Snapchat, and they are concerned that there are a few very rich men – for example, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos – who have sole ownership over influential media platforms. That’s concerning to them.”

TikTok is now the only platform where news consumption is dramatically increasing for news organizations. However, only last week, Federal Communications Commission’s Brendan Carr said, “I don’t believe there is a path forward for anything other than a TikTok ban”.

It is a mess, and news organizations must become aware of just how quickly their young audiences are deserting them, and find out why.

  • News publishers are hovering around the Creator Economy

The Creator economy is on an upwards curve – think Substack, Patreon, YouTube, etc – with more than one news publisher telling WNIP that they are looking at hiring creator economy ‘names’ in order to attract new and more diversified audiences.

It’s nothing new – publishers for centuries have harnessed famous names – however, where before it was the news media itself that created many of these household names, now the trend is reversed and news organizations are looking outside their own four walls for established creator economy talent.

As if on cue, last week the Guardian launched its ‘Pop Culture with Chanté Joseph’ weekly podcast to entice a new generation of readers. Speaking at the Web Summit, Joseph said, “As a creator, the secret if you are working for a publication is you must retain your integrity. That’s of paramount importance.” Publishers take note.

  • Events are back with a vengeance

The sheer scale of the Web Summit is enough to convince even the most hardened skeptic that events have now fully recovered from the Covid pandemic. However, with wider society plagued by soaring inflation as well as facing a host of black swans (namely war and energy shortages) it would take a brave publisher to double down on events that can often take years to plan ahead. Robust insurance and contingency strategies are a must.

In addition, as people become more selective in what they spend their money on, the key is to create events that are simply unmissable. As the Web Summit proved, if you get the content right, people will come, often thousands of miles.

WNIP would like to express its thanks to the organizers of the Web Summit, especially Sarah Jane Allen and Katherine Farrell, for looking after us so well. We would also like to thank the numerous publishers and tech vendors who took valuable time out to be interviewed. Finally, we would like to thank Sovrn, the publisher technology platform, for sponsoring our visit and empowering everything we do.