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Business as usual? The media outlook for 2023

A summary of NiemanLab’s predictions on the future of publishing

As the world enters 2023, we took a look at the annual report by NiemanLabto explore the predictions for the coming year.

As usual in the media industry, change will be constant in 2023, forcing news outlets to continuously adapt in order to survive – and thrive.

The past year marked the acceleration of ongoing trends, such as the increased use of new technologies like AIevolving consumption habits, but also the growing threats to press freedom worldwide

In this unpredictable context, where disruption has become the new normal, resilience will be the key driver in order to make journalism sustainable in the long run – both for journalists, and for their audiences. 

This is one of the most important takeaways from the annual report by NiemanLab, which features forecasts from thought leaders within the industry expect for the coming year.

We analysed these predictions and summarised the main challenges ahead as well as possible solutions. One is already clear: 2023 will be at least as interesting as 2022. 

Countering attacks on press freedom and rebuilding trust in journalism

Democracy and free press have one in common: They are both directly threatened. It’s mostly by populist governments and authoritarian regimes, but  tech giants have also had a negative impact on the news media. As the recent developments show, this trend is far from being limited to developing countries, and affects Western democracies as well. Reflecting on challenges in South American countries like Mexico or Brazil, Mael Vallejofrom the Post Opinión goes as far as stating that “Being a journalist is becoming a heroic profession in the Americas”.

In this context, supporting financially the work of journalists will become crucial if we as a society want to defend democracy. As Julia Angwin from The Markup bluntly puts it: “If democracy is going to survive, we’re going to need to fund its watchdogs.”

That being said, it would be naive to assume that financial support could be the only solution to the many challenges the media industry is confronted with. Rather than relying on a short-term solution, news outlets could use the current crises as an opportunity to reflect on the reason why the level of trust in news is so low in order to get closer to their audience: “We will all have to answer to our readers as to why our work matters, and why our readers should pay for us to keep doing it” suggests Alan Henry from Wired.  

The next step would be to go even further by starting to actively promote journalism as a vital function for democracy. According to Ayala Panievskyfrom the University of Cambridge, one of the side benefits of this advocacy would be “re-orienting the news media to the real-world concrete value that they contribute to society”. 

The case for sustainable business models 

In 2023, the saying “follow the money” will make more sense than ever before. The growing costs of publishing, especially for print outlets, will force media to advance new business models in order to balance budgets and generate a net income. In other words, a wise management of the available resources will be critical if news outlets are to make it through this year. 

While one of the obvious solutions to manage this increased cost pressure would be to accelerate the digital transformation of the media industry, it will be far from enough, and media will have to become even more user centric to engage their audiences – a real challenge in times of a recession. As Snigdha Sur from The Juggernaut sums up: “Journalism in 2023 will be about super-serving your audiences, going back to the basics, and asking for help”.

In this context marked by economic uncertainties, journalism philanthropy could play a major role by increasing its financial support in order to ensure that news outlets prevail, but also innovate. Barbara Raab, a senior program advisor at the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, even predicts an unprecedented window of opportunity: “Given that philanthropy is uniquely unaccountable for its performance, funders have great freedom to take risks and to experiment. Now is the time”.

But all these trends will not remove the elephant in the room – the commercial incentives that underpin many of the problems journalism faces. “It is capitalism that incentivizes the degradation of our news media — disinvesting in local journalism, weaponizing social media to capture our attention and data, and devaluing media workers’ labour conditions, believes Victor Pickard, Professor of Media Policy and Political Economy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.

Will 2023 be the year that sees media professionals rise up to foster real changes in the industry? One can only hope, but for Christoph Mergerson, prudence is advised: “Repairing the rot requires us to imagine a media system that isn’t centred nearly as much around profit motives — and then insist that our elected officials help to bring it about”.

When artificial intelligence meets human genius

While new technologies such as artificial intelligence have experienced a boom over the last few years, 2023 will mark a turning point, because they have the potential to actually change the media industry – from the inside.

Until now, many news outlets have mostly used AI to write brief stories and help with basic copy editing, but with recent rapid advancements like ChatGPT, this year news outlets will have to figure out how to make the best use of AI tools, whether it includes aggregating news, finding ideas for new stories, or even partially writing longer features. 

These new ways of working will force media professionals to get back to basics and reflect upon how good content is created, hence encouraging their creativity. This is at least what Al Lucca, the head of design and creative at Semafor, hopes for: “I’d like to think 2023 is the year we can go back to when everything was new and unexplored, where we take risks and make choices that could reshape the way we experience news online”.

But with new powers come new responsibilities… and new problems. That is why, according to Burt Herman, co-founder of Hacks/Hackers, “journalists will become even more essential to society as AI enters the mainstream, where we will help set standards, track potential abuses, and bring our ethics and standards to the technology”.

Regardless of what we may think of the impact of artificial intelligence, it’s worth acknowledging that it is a major shift, and that the trend is here to stay. So, the question is more how to make the best use of these new tools. Eric Ulken, a product director at Gannett, suggests that “applying these powerful tools surgically to narrowly-defined use cases, while keeping humans in the loop and providing needed sourcing transparency (and credit!), will enable us to wield them for good”.

The increased use of artificial intelligence also questions the posture journalists should adopt towards these technologies, considering that in many cases humans cannot compete with robots. Instead of competing, we must learn to work together with themLaura E. Davis from the University of Southern California is convinced that “if we adopt a posture of collaboration and lean into both what machines can do and what humans excel at, it will allow journalists to use their human abilities to greater potential”.

Working for and with the people

Press freedom under attack, economic crisis, disruption by new technologies… The connecting dot between all these challenges is the longing for connection and meaning in an ever changing environment. Reaching out to the audiences and engaging them, both where they are, and how they expect it, will be another major issue for the media industry in 2023. 

Many news outlets haven’t fundamentally changed the way they share news, despite the fact that users’ habits have been transformed by the emergence of the internet and social media. That is why the most important challenge ahead this year might be to work for and with the people. Masuma Ahuja from Freeda English drives the point home arguing that “it’s time for journalism to change our approach. We work for our communities: our followers, listeners, viewers, and readers. And it’s time we started listening to them, putting them at the center of everything we do and make from the very beginning”.

This shift would have multiple advantages, such as increasing the quality of produced coverage and its outreach, but also empowering individuals. On top of this new mindset, actually working on the ground with local communities would be a major game changer for news outlets. As Leezel Tanglao from The Dallas Morning News underscores, “partnerships and collaboration with both traditional and community organizations are key to building multidisciplinary and intersectional coverage that goes beyond surface-level reporting. They lead deeper connections and relationships with audiences and are true to journalism’s mission of providing readers with the information they need to make informed decisions”. 

In the end, a key challenge ahead this year will be nothing less than placing humanity at the core of everything we as media professionals do, because as Eric Nuzum, the cofounder of Magnificent Noise, notes “journalism has the ability to inform, educate, and entertain. Entering into 2023, there’s an opportunity to expand our understanding of what ‘inform, educate, and entertain’ can mean — moving away from power and more into the lives of those underserved by current journalism”.

While these challenges collected by NiemanLab have been ongoing trends over the last years, 2023 will mark both their intensification and their acceleration, so this year will be crucial for the media industry.

We might not know which future lies ahead, but we can already experience on a daily basis the profound shifts that are at play, whether we like them or not. Rather than fighting these changes, we would be wisely advised to embrace them as they come along – because the only way out is through.

Amélie Reichmuth

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission.