Digital Publishing Reader Revenue
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The 10 biggest stories in media: Recap 2021

1. Nobel peace prize awarded to 2 journalists 

In an era of increasing authoritarianism and swirling misinformation, Maria Ressa and Dmitri A Muratov, who lead independent news outlets in the Philippines and Russia, were honored for their work to hold leaders to account, wrote the NYT.

“They are representatives of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions,” the committee said in a statement released after the announcement in Oslo.

Multiple journalists have received the award in the Nobel’s 120-year history, signifying their contribution to the peace movement. Rappler has a list, though it’s not very long.

2. Substack, platforms and creator economy on the rise 

Recently, I have published my yearly rundown of the biggest subscription and reader revenue-related stories in 2021. ‘Creator economy’ has been a buzzword for tech platforms and media alike.

Tech praises the creator economy and builds tools for creators because they realize the new generation of creators are looking for monetization options from the get-go. On the other hand, the media has been worried about losing writers to this new world.

From the point of view of media, perhaps no other company has been so closely watched as Substack, the paid newsletter platform, for which high-profile journalists left their newsrooms, but then in the end some returned.

Of course, Substack is just one of those platforms, there are several building tools for the creator economy as are big tech companies like Facebook, with its Bulletin newsletter platform, or Twitter which acquired and integrated Revue, another newsletter company.

3. Newsletters everywhere 

It might seem this was covered in the point above but I really want to stress how important newsletters have become for keeping and gaining digital subscribers. Just look at the list of big media that revamped or updated their newsletter strategies:

4. Paid podcasts and audio on the rise 

For The Fix I wrote a piece called The wonderful year of 2021 in podcasting. I looked at the most important developments in audio – and the rise of paid podcasting was definitely one of them.

Both Apple and Spotify introduced tools for podcasters who want to directly monetize their shows by easily setting up subscriptions. That’s a big deal. It doesn’t mean the tools weren’t available before or that 2021 was a golden year for paid podcasts, but it is a focal point from where the consumer (listener) revenue can grow.

2021 also featured many news outlets adding audio versions to their articles using tools from Google, Amazon, Microsoft and others. The Wall Street Journal ran a few experiments to retain new subscribers and the biggest success was ‘Listen to this article’ feature that turned out to be more habit-forming than crosswords and was praised by all age categories. So expect more and more news outlets adding audio versions to its articles next year.

Of course, if you are the New York Times, you can build your own stand-alone audio app for all your audio ambitions.

5. Video streaming services hit a plateau 

2020 was a wild year for video streaming platforms, Disney+ grew like no other VoD before, Netflix added a record number of subscribers and others also did very well.

2021 was different mainly because production problems in 2020 which affected the 2021 movie and TV shows.

It’s true that Disney+ hit 100M and Netflix crossed 200M in 2021 but otherwise looking at the helpful chart from Axios below, this year was more-less about keeping those new subscribers which was hard as production in 2020 froze.

Source: Axios

6. NYT hit 1 million subscribers outside US 

In November, the New York Times announced it had more than 1 million digital news subscriptions outside the United States, an all-time record for the company. International subscribers are the next frontier of growth for NYT.

This news is also significant for any news outlet in Europe. Just look at the daily news podcast landscape – NYT’s The Daily seems to be beating European English-language news podcasts in popularity. Out of the 10 biggest US- and UK-based English-language news podcasts, The Daily from The New York Times ranked highest in Apple Podcasts and Spotify charts.

In other words, the competition from NYT in Europe is getting real.

Also, NYT recently announced that Cooking and Games have each reached one million subscriptions.

7. Mega mergers and acquisitions (Amazon, Warner, Vox) 

There were some big shake-ups happening in the media industry in 2021, in terms of deals. These three stood out to me (OK, they were the ones I watched most closely).

Amazon acquired Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM Studios) for $8.45bn. With this move, Amazon has secured for its streaming platform the rights to James Bond, Pink Panther, The Rocky movies, The Handmaid’s Tale TV show and others. It was another sign of how Hollywood has been changing in recent years and tech companies pulled ahead. Vox published a good explainer of the deal.

AT&T decided to finally spin off WarnerMedia, forming a new media behemoth with Discovery. Executives weren’t particularly creative with the new company name which ended up being ‘Warner Bros. Discovery’. Discovery CEO David Zaslav will become the CEO of the merged company.

Vox Media agreed to acquire Group Nine Media (the publisher behind outlets like The Dodo and NowThis), a deal that unites two of the biggest players in digital publishing.

8. Axel Springer, Schibsted, The Guardian joined the 1M club 

Everyone has been watching the success of NYT, but in Europe two big legacy publishers hit an important milestone, the German Axel Springer and the Nordic Schibsted both crossed 1M digital subscribers across their news media operations.

The Guardian also has more than 1 million subscribers and regular contributors, after support from online readers grew by 43% in a year. Digital recurring support rose from 632,000 in November 2019 in what is an impressive run considering the Guardian doesn’t have a paywall.

In my opinion this is good news for reader revenue support in Europe. But let’s not forget about one of the biggest media scandals in Europe – the explosive revelation about sex, lies and secret payment at Axel Springer brought forth by the New York Times.

9. Media vs. Tech 

NYT tried to paint a picture of Silicon Valley and US media falling out of friendship. It’s not just bit tech companies and the increased media scrutiny, but also the VCs, investors and various “tech gurus” who have increasingly looked at the media as an enemy.

Alphabet, Meta and Amazon have doubled their share of ad revenues in past 5 years, industry estimates. Three tech giants control 80-90% of the digital ad market outside of China. That doesn’t help the relationships with media.

One of the bigger stories in the ‘media vs. tech’ fight has been Facebook vs. Australia (a quote from Casey Newton’s article):

Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code threatened to splinter the internet. On Wednesday morning, the splintering arrived: Google cut a deal with News Corp. that will ensure its services continue to be provided in Australia, and Facebook walked away from the bargaining table and began preventing people from sharing news links from Australian publishers around the world.

In the end, Facebook agreed to pay and allowed links.

10. Peak Clubhouse hype 

Source: Google Trends

You might vaguely remember the buzz around Clubhouse, the live audio invite-only social network that everyone wanted to join and all social networks quickly announced they would make their own clones.

Well, it was a big news story in the beginning of the year, so big that today Facebook has live audio rooms (which no one uses and FB is paying creators to host them), Spotify acquired a whole company to launch Spotify Greenroom, a social audio app that lets you host and participate in live discussions, and Twitter built Spaces.

Since a $4bn valuation, Clubhouse’s downloads have fluctuated but its founders and investors apparently aren’t giving up on the idea even though downloads fell from almost 10 million per month to 1 million.

Business Insider published a good piece a couple of weeks ago: Inside the rise and fall of Clubhouse, a pandemic poster child of VC-backed hype now hobbled by ‘drama rooms,’ unhappy creators, dwindling users, and dubious advertisers.

David Tvrdon

Editor’s note: This article was originally published by David Tvrdon in his FWIW newsletter. ‘For what it’s worth’ (or FWIW) is a weekly tech, media, and audio digest curated by David. We enjoy it and encourage you to try it out as well. You can learn more and subscribe here.

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