Audience Engagement Guest Columns
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Newspaper readership is on the rise, and more consumers are paying for online news

OPINION

The pandemic has thrown publishing a lifeline – let’s not squander it.

For those in the publishing industry who are keen to seek out a silver lining to the horrors of the past few months, I suspect we may have found it. 

Reports over the past week or two show newspaper readership is on the rise more or less across the board and, what’s more, a greater number of consumers are now paying for online news. According to PAMCo data released last month, national news readership soared by an extra 6.6 million in the year to March 2020, while national daily readership over print and digital has surpassed 30 million for the first time. 

This news came as little surprise to me, as The Conversation’s own data shows a recent surge in readership – up 185% YOY to 9.7m unique users between March and May – as readers sought out expert opinion, insight and analysis about Covid-19 as it ravaged communities indiscriminately. 

And I am delighted to see others enjoying similar fortunes. I’m confident there has been a noticeable shift in people’s attitudes to the news in this country, and to the traditional purveyors of said news. Perhaps people are no longer comfortable solely sourcing their news from social media, or perhaps our collective change in pace afforded more time to digest longer form news articles. 

Either way, the pandemic has impacted the way people consume news and saw people turn to the press in droves. It was their connection with the outside world; it offered hope that things were improving or were set to change; it was a lifeline people could cling to as they were stuck inside for weeks on end praying for some good news. In a world of absolute and complete uncertainty, the news offered a small window onto the outside and the public pounced on it. 

But what happens next is critical to the future of the publishing industry, and to the future of journalism. The British public may have a renewed appetite for the news, but now it is up to us all to harness that interest and keep these new readers engaged sufficiently that they stick around. And, crucially, that they give us an opportunity to monetise their presence. 

It is no secret that the old model of print newspapers with a mirrored online presence is no longer financially sustainable as competition in the form of online news, rolling TV news and social media steals attention. This is simply the painful reality of modernisation, but the future of the sector depends on the acceptance that the way people consume news has changed forever. 

I predict the fallout of the pandemic on publishing is that we will see more publications drop their printed presence. Printing newspapers is an expensive process and it’s hard to see that there’s much additional value in getting editions into people’s hands. I wouldn’t be surprised if publications who were on the fence before Covid-19 use this as a moment to land on the side of digital-only. 

One of the underestimated secrets of reader loyalty is in building communities, be it through extra content online, subscriber-only content, forums, offers and loyalty programs. As we grapple with the challenge of how to monetise news readership, these are all important revenue streams. And they are all best achieved online.

Advertising has slowed across the board through the pandemic, but it has not gone for good. However, today advertising value is measured by engagement so if publishers want to improve their ad offering, they must devise a successful engagement strategy first. 

Our own title, The Conversation, is ad-free – we are a charity largely funded by universities and research institutions and, to a smaller degree, through reader donations. While we are not impacted by the downturn in advertising, we are by no means free from risk as the institutions that support us are set to suffer a significant blow to their own finances as the number of overseas students are predicted to fall dramatically in the coming academic year. 

We only publish content written by academics and experts in their field and we share it for free under a Creative Commons licence as part of our charitable mission to democratise knowledge. To that end engagement is key for us because it allows us to tell a university that an article written by one of their academics has been read 100,000 times, has been republished or cited by half a dozen national newspapers around the world, and as a result the profile of the author and their university has been raised internationally – all of which helps the university get much-needed funding. We offer something that gives real value to their world – and while the approach is different with consumers, the desired outcome is the same.  

However, the methods used to achieve engagement urgently needs to be reviewed. Dominant media platforms are exerting a disproportionate hold on how the sector is evolving, with SEO and algorithms helping to skew what gets seen and by whom. I am not the only person who would like to see some form of top level intervention that levels out the playing field to give less powerful but equally as important platforms a chance of survival. 

There has been talk on and off over the years of a funded public interest publishing platform, the detail of which has been hard to define and so the concept largely dismissed, but I think there is merit in revisiting some of these ideas. Imagine what just a fraction of the tax properly levied from the tech giants could do if injected into the UK’s publishing industry. 

Covid-19 has served to draw out the things that really matter to us all on a personal level, while accelerating the changes in all consumer-facing industries that were predicted to have taken place over the next three years or so. Publishing has not been thriving for some time but the past three months have handed us a lifeline in the form of a revived fanbase and a renewed appreciation. Let’s not squander this opportunity to breathe new life back into a vital, and dare I say essential, industry.

Chris Waiting
CEO, The Conversation

About: The Conversation is the only news media operation whose core function is to disseminate accessible content by academic voices to explain unfolding events. Since its UK launch in 2013, more than 700 million visits have been made to The Conversation’s UK articles, written by 16,000 expert authors. 

The Conversation UK is a registered charity and is funded by its member universities and donations from readers, and its editorial independence is set out in its Charter and Standards Code. All stories are published under a creative commons licence, with articles free to read and republish.

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