There is a hope that publisher prospects will revive as consumers look for trust and context and first party data takes on greater importance in the advertising landscape. 

 Luciana Gurgel, MediaTalks London

Nic Newman was a founding member of the BBC News Website in 1997,  he led international coverage and as Head of Product Development and Engineering for BBC News he helped introduce innovations such as apps, blogs, and podcasting. 

Now, as a Senior Research Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, he is lead author of the annual Digital News Report, the world’s largest on-going study of consumer behaviour around news. And has published recent research on trust, paying for news, video, podcasts, and the rise of voice technologies.  

Much of the data in the publication this year was collected before the virus hit many of the countries featured in this survey, so to a large extent this represents a snapshot of these historic trends. But to get a sense of what has changed, the Institute repeated key parts of our survey in six countries (UK, USA, Germany, Spain, South Korea, and Argentina) in early April. These responses confirm industry data which show increased consumption of traditional sources of news, especially television, but also some online news sources.

In this interview to MediaTalks, he shared thoughts on the challenges faced by the media industry after the pandemic of Covid-19. 

What are the main consequences of the pandemic the media industry?

The pandemic has brought record levels of interest in journalism, but it has also made the economics much more uncertain. Advertising is down by up to 50% for some publications and print distribution has been badly affected. This on top of structural changes that had already reduced revenue streams – with most digital advertising going to giant tech platforms like Google and Facebook.

The shock of coronavirus will further accelerate these trends, hasten the decline of print and encourage media companies to focus more on new business models such as digital subscription and membership. 

We’ll also see a new round of layoffs, consolidation and cost cutting – and part of that will be the reduction of office space and new ways of working. Journalists have got used to creating newspapers and TV programmes from home and news organisations will seek to make savings here. 

Many journalists will not want to go back to rigid ways of working while the barriers to using video conferencing, and online collaboration tools have disappeared overnight. Digital workflows will never be the same again.

In light of the effects of the pandemic, which business models offer most potential for success in the media industry?

There is no one single solution in terms of business models, partly because news organisations look increasingly different these days. The New York Times is having huge success with susbcription, but so too are small niche publishers with very different models and cost bases. But subscription can’t work for all and many will continue to bet digital advertising. There is a hope that publisher prospects will revive as consumers look for trust and context and first party data takes on greater importance in the advertising landscape. 

Most media companies are pursuing multiple revenue streams (reader payment, advertising, events, licensing, foundation funding, affiliate income and e-commerce). Increasingly we’ll also see more non-profit media and direct and indirect subsidy from governments around the world.

In more polarised societies we have increasingly seen the public choosing news channels aligned with their political thinking – and attacking those who are against it. Could  this turn into a business trend – vehicles clearly taking sides to ensure audience and advertisers? 

In some countries many newspapers have a long tradition of association with one set of political beliefs or another – even if the news coverage itself has been largely impartial. In the United States, as you say, cable TV channels like CNN (left) and Fox News (right) have openly taken more strident political positions in recent years – attracting more partisan audiences. The internet has also enabled a range of new hyper partisan opinion driven websites to emerge in some countries, for example espousing anti-immigrant and far right views in parts of Europe and these sites have specifically attacked mainstream media practices and independent journalism. It is hard to know if these trends feed into greater polarisation or if media changes are a product of these wider changes in societies.

Either way we are seeing more financial and traffic rewards for opinion based and partisan news. Social media algorithms have encouraged this type of content in the past when compared with fact-based or impartial news. But our research shows that in many countries – including Brazil – the silent majority would still like news coverage ‘without a particular point of view’ rather than content that shares your views. This is especially true in parts of Europe that have a strong tradition of public service broadcasting.

In many countries (UK, Brazil, US) successful initiatives of independent journalism emerged recently, but many are struggling to survive after the pandemic. Is there a future for them in terms of the ability to monetise, secure audience significant enough to attract sponsors or people willing to pay for content? S

The pandemic has reinforced the need for trusted independent journalism – and in that sense this crisis has already strengthened some of these news organisations. Both El Diario in Spain and the Guardian in the UK have promoted the idea of trust and independence to increase membership numbers in the last year. El Diario has almost doubled its numbers while the Guardian added 50,000 ongoing members in April alone. 

On the other hand, these approaches are likely to be limited by the relatively small number of people willing to pay for online journalism. Most newer independent journalistic initiatives tend to speak to elite audiences that are interested in news and are prepared to pay for it. They have struggled to appeal to hard to reach demographics.

Some independent news channels have been taking advantage of polarisation. How dangerous it is for democracy due to the potential to increase social tensions? 

In terms of threats democracy, the key challenge is around media capture and other threats to media independence. We see trust in the news falling in many countries with political polarisation a key factor. Rebuilding trust by restoring the value of facts and evidence will be a key part of the job of all journalists over the next few years 

Some countries offer state support to the media industry. But organisations fear effects on independence, citing the case of Austria. Is there a mechanism to combine state support and independence?

In Europe there is a long tradition of state support for public broadcasting and that has extended to online provision in the last few decades. In Northern Europe in particular arms-length governance has ensured a high level of editorial independence – with public media remaining the most trusted media in these countries. 

Denmark and Sweden also have provided long standing subsidies to the commercial media which have largely delivered plurality of provision, high quality media without affecting independence. Both countries have relatively high levels of trust in our surveys. I would expect more public subsidy of commercial media in the next few years especially to support local media that is challenged – and there are good models of governance to build on here. I think we’ll see a combination of tax relief along with subsidies to encourage the production of public interest journalism – and innovation funding too

But you are right to highlight the dangers. There are many other examples around the world where politicians use state money – directly or indirectly – to influence or control the media agenda and avoid scrutiny. 

The way journalists use Twitter has come under criticism in some countries, and  TikTok faces the risk of being banned in some countries.  What threats and opportunities do social networks represent for quality journalism? Are there good examples of use of social media to engage new audiences?

Tik Tok is just the latest manifestation of a user generated platform where people can say what they like and where publishing information has been democratised. It is not a journalistic platform but it is one where people discuss now issues like coronavirus, #blacklives matter and climate change. Along with Facebook and YouTube, news is often incidental and the experience often lacks context. This has raised challenges for consumers in knowing what or who to believe but also for journalists to know how to interact on a platform which does not always feel comfortable for them.

My view is that media companies need to focus more on what value they bring to consumers and on building deep relationships with consumers over time. The issue of how they interact with social networks and how they might use them for sampling or distribution is then secondary. I think we’re seeing more publishers recognise that shift (witness the New York Times pulling out of Apple news and others coming out of Facebook itself). Using platforms will remain important but publishers should not be dependent in the way they sometimes have been 

There’s a concern on the future of jobs in the news industry as a result of economic crisis and technologies, accelerated by the pandemic. Are media professionals and organisations looking in the right direction in their search for solutions, aligned to the new context? 

The need to cut costs will accelerate the moves to automating parts of the journalistic process but we are also seeing the greatest value coming from the most distinctive content, areas that cannot be automated by machines. 

The trick will be to use technology to streamline workflows and make it easier for consumers to find content that is relevant to them – enabling journalists to focus on telling even better and more compelling stories. Journalism needs to embrace technology to raise quality not reduce it

Luciana Gurgel, is a Brazilian journalist based in London. She begun her editorial career at O Globo, one of the leading Brazilian media organisations. Later she founded (along with Aldo de Luca) Publicom, a successful corporate communications agency, acquired in 2016 by Weber Shandwick (IPG Group). In London, she has been working as news correspondent for Brazilian media – MyNews Channel, J&Cia – to which she writes a weekly column on trends and issue related to the news industry. The column originated  a separate platform, MediaTalks, headed by Luciana from London as Editor-in-Chief, in association with Jornalistas Editora.  | @lcnqgur

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