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Opportunities for publishers in 2021

A moment to reflect and reset on long-held strategies and beliefs

The swerves publishers take in 2021 are likely to be much sharper than we can predict. But despite the many challenges on the horizon, there’s reason for hope. Chris Sutcliffe rounds up the year as part of our Media Moments 2020 report.

Over the course of our report you’ll have read how the pandemic has destabilised the foundations of many media business models, and drastically accelerated trends that we expected to play out over many years rather than months. It has, frankly, been a terrible time for many publishers.

However, publishers – bereft of their traditional channels – have found themselves in desperate need of new means to communicate with their consumers. Some, mainly those who had already made investments in those new channels, have found it easier than others. But there are still new opportunities emerging all the time.

For as busy as it’s been, 2020 has also provided publishers with something very rare: an opportunity to reflect on long-held strategies and beliefs. That makes our job in rounding up the opportunities much harder – the swerves publishers take in 2021 are likely to be much sharper than anyone could have predicted.

What happened in 2020?

At the beginning of the year things looked promising for news publishers. After years of it having been mooted, the UK government ditched the 20% VAT charge on the online editions of the Times and Sunday Times. It was a sign that legislation was beginning to catch up with the realities of digital publishing.

Google also announced its plans to ditch the third-party cookie, which had the dual benefits of bringing user privacy to the fore and also allowing publishers to capitalise on their own first party data. Since between 10 and 25 cents on every US dollar in programmatic is spent on data, that returned a tremendous amount of revenue potential to publishers’ hands.

Small wonder then that most pundits were predicting that the few digital-only media companies not to turn a profit in 2019 would do so in 2020. Even the long-dormant The Markup seemed poised to make a splash. It all seemed extremely positive.

By March, however, that optimism had evaporated. The reality of national lockdowns was beginning to bite, and niche and alt-weekly titles that had barely been scraping by suddenly found themselves facing an existential crisis. In the UK, many local newspapers foresaw what was about to occur and doubled down on their mission to support (and be supported in turn by) local businesses with a joint campaign.

Unsurprisingly given the annihilation of footfall and brands severely trimming their marketing spend, advertising revenue was effectively wiped out at many publishers. In Germany it was reported that up to 80% of advertising revenue had vanished, which was echoed across the US and much of Europe. It was especially bad for freesheets like The Evening Standard, which had not adequately transitioned to digital publishing, and for who the worst is yet to be reported. 

Despite all that bad news, many outlets took the opportunity to buck conventional wisdom around the hardness of paywalls and put their valuable coronavirus coverage outside paywalls. Notably, publishers like The Atlantic and The Financial Times saw a notable uptick in engagement and subscribers despite the loosening of their paywalls. One thing that we absolutely don’t want to get lost among the noise is that, in 2020, a fast food chicken franchise paid to remove paywalls for a number of local newspapers.

“Covid-19 is provoking a crisis for many players, but it also presents a unique opportunity to accelerate the internal digital transformations organisations have been implementing for nearly two decades.”

Professor Lucy Kueng, Senior Research Associate, The Reuters Institute

It was also an opportunity for publications to prove their journalistic mettle: LadBible was praised by the World Health Organisation after announcing its mission to approach pandemic coverage objectively and without sensation.

Effectively, this pandemic provided publishers with an opportunity to prove what they really stood for. Those like The Atlantic which broke with conventional wisdom to serve their readers have done better than expected. John Burn-Murdoch, Senior Data-Visualisation Journalist at The Financial Times, told us:

“So it’s hard to know, it’s pretty much impossible to know, I think, whether we’ve got subscribers based purely on these pieces. But anecdotally, I can absolutely point to specific examples where people have emailed or tweeted to say, ‘I’ve subscribed to the FT because of this piece of work,’ or we’ve had people who’d let their subscription lapse and have re-subscribed.”

That has proven to be true for editorial coverage around the US election as well, with many newspapers demonstrating that they are on the public’s side. Even the traditionally pro-Trump outlets like Fox News proved to be capable of countering the president’s falsehoods.

Despite that, almost every publishing company has had to take advantage of furlough schemes and job cuts to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on their bottom lines. BuzzFeed was among the first to go public with those measures, announcing a tiered system of salary reductions. While some have had the good fortune to be able to pay those back, not all have – and at the time of writing another national UK lockdown makes it vanishingly unlikely there won’t be ongoing reductions for some time yet.

Beyond subscriptions and advertising, ecommerce trends have perhaps accelerated the fastest of all. It has been reported that in the first three months of lockdown, ecommerce leaped five years in terms of consumer spending and adoption. That was especially true for fast-moving consumer goods, with groceries and alcohol being among the biggest beneficiaries. Cosmo, though it had planned to do so before time, took advantage of this by launching Uncorked, a retail line of wines.

BuzzFeed, which had been making trails into ecommerce over the past few years with food-based Tasty and other launches, similarly made a leap when it announced its Sex and Love ecommerce play. That was based on a significant uptick in both searches and sex toy purchases made through the platform, an example of having been in the right place at the right time. 

Where are we now?

At time of writing, we are still in the midst of the pandemic. In many European countries, hard lockdowns have returned, which have continued to impact the freesheets and advertising revenue. Many publishers are therefore hedging their bets, favouring a bearish approach to the next few months.

We’ve always been suspicious of the term ‘rightsizing’. To us, it feels like a euphemistic way of cutting jobs without having to admit to a strategic misstep. However, this moment has proven to be a time for publishers to step back and reflect on their own cost bases. Some media companies have proven they can produce print editions entirely remotely, while others have cut back in areas they don’t see as driving significant revenue over the next few years.

It is, effectively, a time for publishers to write off any investments or outdated structures. That’s far easier said than done – a recent report from Lucy Kueng on behalf of the Reuters Institute demonstrates that cultural change is hard to force through newsrooms at the best of times. Despite that, it is demonstrable that just as the pandemic has accelerated trends, it’s also forced publishers to be stricter with themselves in terms of which areas they should and should not be focusing on. That is especially true for organisations like Quartz, which bought itself back from Uzabase late in 2020.

“The pandemic has tested long-held assumptions about how business is conducted and challenged companies, including our own, to take a long-term view in the face of acute financial pressure. It’s a put-up-or-shut-up moment. At Quartz, we are ready to put up.”

Zach Seward, CEO, Quartz

What can we expect this year?

We’d be lying if we said that publishers will come out of the pandemic as leaner, more specialised organisms better suited to the new digital-first environment. Some will, but just as the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction gave rise to birds and smaller mammals, it also killed a lot of dinosaurs along the way.

Not all media companies – especially the local newspapers – are coming out of this, or at least not in the same shape. We expect that, unfortunately, there will be many closures of local titles. The news deserts will grow more vast. We also expect that there will be far more titles going from a daily to a weekly model.

We’re also expecting a downturn in the rapid rise of subscriptions that 2020 birthed. The combination of a lack of flag-waving subscription purchases and the first raft of renewals leading to increased churn will almost certainly lead to a wobble. Despite that, the outlets that proved themselves to be of value to the public with their pandemic and election coverage will outperform the rest.  

Despite those challenges, however, we believe that publishers are set to invest more heavily than ever in alternative revenue streams. That might take the form of paid-for newsletters, investment in verticals conducive to ecommerce, or a flurry of membership-focused events once we can all safely interact in person again. To go back to our K-T extinction metaphor – in the aftermath of major extinction events you typically find an explosion in the diversification of lifeforms.

We expect that, in 2021, more publishers will be experimental and carve out even wilder, more valuable niches than we’ve seen for many decades.


This article is an extract from our Media Moments 2020 report. To see the case studies for this chapter and to read the full report, download it here.

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