Digital Publishing
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Beyond news: New opportunities for publishers to connect with audiences

Technology is catching up with publishers’ ambitions, enabling new opportunities around payments, apps, and new content types. As part of our Media Moments 2019 report, Chris Sutcliffe looks at what we’ll be keeping an eye on this year.

In the Opportunities for 2019 section in this report last year, we pointed to some recent tech developments and argued that they had increased the number of touchpoints by which publishers could reach audiences. We said that would allow them to deepen relationships with their readers, and ultimately foster much greater engagement.

What we should have done, in hindsight, is gone further still. The reality is that while engagement is desirable, it’s only one step along a process to making money from audiences. A necessary step, absolutely, but not a destination in and of itself. 

Happily, looking in 2020 it’s obvious that most publishers knew that, and have had their eyes on the prize for some time. We’ve already seen some of the touchpoints we referred to last year bear fruit; just in terms of audio we’ve seen companies using podcasts as the tentpole of some subscription strategies, and the New York Times has seen enormous success with its podcast The Daily, and has pushed ahead with its ambitious subscription plans as a result. 

In this section, then, we’ll take a look at some of the most notable successes around new technology in 2019, and explore how publishers are set to build on them next year and beyond.

Where are we now?

Even as many publishers took the plunge into subscription models (even local titles that arguably do not suit digital subscriptions, such as those JPI began to trial in May) 2019 saw a growing realisation that a) subscriptions are not the answer for all publications, and b) technology could be the enabler of some alternative solutions.

The recently renamed Axate, for instance, is a digital wallet that allows users to pay for access to individual articles on the sites of publishers that allow it. The success of the scheme – and any similar ones – relies on the ability of the provider of the ‘wallet’ to attract a broad enough network of sites that users can see the value in signing up, thus making it worth their while to cross the hassle gap. Given the company’s success in signing up a raft of publishers to date, it’s likely that will accelerate this year, lending weight to the likelihood of similar solutions appearing in the future.

However, the fact that some titles have audiences that are unlikely to want to pay to access wider content was underscored when early adopter The New European dropped the scheme in July.

Similarly, some tech providers are attempting to take ownership of subscriptions and memberships away from the larger tech companies. In the rollout of its 3.0 update, CMS Ghost included membership tools aimed at medium-sized publishers who are potentially priced out of other sophisticated models. Given the urgent need for medium-sized publishers to find ways to support themselves, we predict we’ll see more bespoke membership tools rolled out this year.

In April, 5G mobile technology began to be rolled out across the United States. Never one to be backwards in coming forwards, the New York Times almost immediately launched its 5G Lab and began experimenting with what mobile internet speeds up to 20 times faster than 4G might mean for journalism and news dissemination. The Times Open Team wrote on Medium

“Over the past year The Times has honed its ability to tell immersive stories, allowing readers to experience Times journalism in new ways. As 5G devices become more widely adopted, we’ll be able to deliver those experiences in much higher quality – allowing readers to not only view more detailed, lifelike versions of David Bowie’s classic costumes in augmented reality, but also to explore new environments that are captured in 3D.”

While those examples might seem fanciful and even a little flippant, the reality is that younger audiences are already accustomed to video and interactive content due to the rise of livestreaming platforms like Twitch and Mixer (even if Mixer’s big gamble this year failed to pay off). Investing early in 5G will enable publishers, who are often behind the curve when it comes to owning new technology, to appeal to those young audiences that are paramount to their success.

The value of the app was proven again this year, after a few years in which investment in apps was left fallow. Towards the end of the year publications including the Independent, the Atlantic, and even The Information went all-in on apps.

But the big success, which we didn’t see coming last year was the unstoppable growth of the non-news app by news publishers. While news publishers and broadcasters like the BBC have run separate apps for subsections like recipes for a while, the most notable success when it comes to driving subscriptions is undoubtedly the New York Times’ Crossword app, which continued to launch new features over the course of 2019.

In February the paper reported that “in the first three months of 2018, 40,000 of the 139,000 new digital subscriptions originated from the Cooking and Crossword products, with total revenue from subscriptions now bringing in 60 percent of the Times’ total revenue”.

Small wonder then that even free-to-access publishers like the Guardian are spending significant time developing their own non-news related sections, the better to retain lucrative audiences that don’t necessarily fall under the ‘news consumer’ demographic.

Speaking of the NYT and the Guardian, 2019 saw a glut of media giants investing heavily in podcasting. The reasons are readily apparent; thanks to the rise of ad platforms that have transformed how ads are bought, updated, and sold, and the continued rise in podcast audiences, there is non-incidental revenue to be made, as reported in the Multimedia section of this report. 

One sad note in 2019 was a relative lack of any especially notable investment in VR or AR at any of the major publishers, with the BBC announcing in October that it was closing its VR hub after two years. Though it had produced some fantastic work, the sense is that VR is not yet widespread enough to warrant significant investment, particularly at a time where spending is scrutinised.

So while last year we wrote that “…the marketing industry is steaming ahead with investment in VR experiences, suggesting that publishers emboldened by reader revenue success might try to re-enter the space in 2019”, we’re hedging that it’ll be a few years yet until most mainstream publishers take another run at the technology, even as more entertainment powerhouses continue to invest.

What can we expect beyond 2020?

We’re happy to report that – inevitable fallout from the relentless march of M&A aside – we’re more confident about the ability of some publishers to start making serious money in 2020, and to really cement their new sustainable status. Those titles that seriously invested in direct reader revenue over the past half decade have proven themselves willing to invest in both infrastructure and formats, to the extent that many are rediscovering rich seams of revenue they’ve been neglecting for years.

Nothing is ever certain in media, and it’s very possible that some vital tech provider will suddenly turn a spigot and turn publishers’ plans on their head again. But the reality is that most of the publications we’ve discussed in this report are more hale and hearty than they were this time last year, with many having proven the doubters wrong.


To read more from this chapter, including case studies, download the full Media Moments 2019 report.

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