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Digital transformation of the news industry

Digital transformation crucial for the news industry

For the news industry, the next few years will be defined by how it transforms digital content to meet rapidly changing audience expectations. News organisations that have not yet fully embraced digital will be at a severe disadvantage, are conclusions in a Reuters Institute survey of editors and CEOs.

With the economic downturn and the war in Ukraine, publishers are much less confident about their business prospects than this time last year. The biggest concerns are rising costs, lower advertising, and a softening in subscriptions. Even those that are optimistic expect to see layoffs and other cost-cutting measures in the next year. And many worry that people increasingly will avoid the news reports because of all negative developments.

44% of editors, CEOs, and digital leaders say they are confident about the year ahead, with 19% expressing low confidence. 72% are worried about increasing news avoidance – especially around important but often depressing topics like Ukraine and climate change. Only 12%  say they are not worried about news avoidance. 

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“Publishers say they plan to counter this with explainer content (94%), Q&A formats (87%), and inspirational stories (66%) considered important or very important this year. Producing more positive news (48%) was a less popular response”, Reuters Institute says.

Key findings:

  • More publishers are investing in subscription and membership in 2023, with the majority of those surveyed (80%) saying this will be one of their most important revenue priorities, ahead of both display and native advertising. Despite the squeeze on consumer spending, over half (68%) still expect some growth in subscription and other paid content income this year.
  • Publishers say that, on average, three or four different revenue streams will be important or very important this year. A third (33%) now expect to get significant revenue from tech platforms for content licensing (or innovation), significantly up on last year, reflecting the fruits of multi-year deals negotiated in some markets with a number of big publishers, often in the context of policies championed by those same publishers being introduced or considered by governments.
  • With more legislation planned this year to restrict ‘harmful’ content on social media, many respondents (54%) worry that these new rules could make it harder for journalists and news organisations to publish stories that governments don’t like. Around a third (30%) are less worried and 14% are not worried at all.
  • Publishers say they’ll be paying much less attention to Facebook (-30 net score) and Twitter (-28) this year and will instead put much more effort into TikTok (+63), Instagram (+50), and YouTube (+47), all networks that are popular with younger people. Increased interest in TikTok (+19pp compared with last year) reflects a desire to engage with under 25s, and experiment with vertical video storytelling, despite concerns about monetisation, data security, and the wider implications of Chinese ownership.
  • The potential implosion of Twitter under the stewardship of Elon Musk has focused minds on its value to journalists. Half of respondents (51%) say the potential loss or weakening of Twitter would be bad for journalism, but 17% take a more positive view suggesting it could reduce reliance on the views of an unrepresentative but vocal elite. LinkedIn (42%) has emerged as the most popular alternative, followed by Mastodon (10%), and Facebook (7%). Others struggle to see a like-for-like replacement.
  • As the impact of climate change becomes more evident, the news industry has been rethinking how it covers this complex and multi-faceted story. Around half (49%) say they have created a specialist climate team to strengthen coverage, with a third hiring more staff (31%). Just under half (44%) say they are integrating dimensions of the climate debate into other coverage (e.g. business and sport) and three in ten (30%) have developed a climate change strategy for their company.
  • In terms of innovation, publishers say that they will be putting more resource into podcasts and digital audio (72%) as well as email newsletters (69%), two channels that have proved effective in increasing loyalty to news brands. Planned investment in digital video formats (67%) is also up on last year, perhaps prompted by TikTok’s explosive growth. By contrast just 4% say they’ll be investing in the metaverse, reflecting increased scepticism about its potential for journalism.
  • Media companies are quietly integrating AI into their products as a way of delivering more personalised experiences. Almost three in ten (28%) say this is now a regular part of their activities, with a further 39% saying they have been conducting experiments in this area. New applications such as ChatGPT and DALL-E 2 also illustrate opportunities for production efficiency and the creation of new types of semi-automated content.
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Other possible developments in 2023, according to the report:

  • More newspapers will stop daily print production this year due to rising print costs and weakening of distribution networks. We may also see a further spate of venerable titles switching to an online-only model.
  • TV and broadcast news will be at the forefront of journalistic layoffs as audiences are hit by news fatigue and competition from streamers. More TV broadcasters will talk openly about a time when linear transmissions might be turned off. Netflix’s partial switch to an ad-based model increases the pressure further on advertising revenue.
  • Last year’s report predicted an explosion of creativity in short-form video storytelling in youth-based social networks. This year we’ll see more publishers embracing these techniques while videos get longer in the search of sustainable revenue.
  • Expect to see a correction in the creator economy this year. While many individual journalism businesses that have been started on Substack and other platforms continue to thrive, the pressure of delivering to constant deadlines on your own is relentless, and ‘creator funds’ and similar monetary incentives offered by some platforms can’t be relied on to endure. Collectives and micro-companies could be a new trend for 2023.
  • It’s almost impossible to predict Elon Musk’s next move at Twitter, but there is likely to be an enormous gap between rhetoric and delivery as the complexities of running a creative and outspoken global community becomes clearer. Musk is likely to step down as CEO sooner rather than later and a further change of ownership can’t be ruled out.
  • Meanwhile Smart glasses and VR headsets, building blocks of the metaverse, will continue to attract attention, especially with Apple expected to join the party with its first headset. The addition of ‘legs’ to Facebook’s metaverse has taken eight years and billions of dollars of investment. The roll out of these wholesome avatars this year won’t win round the internal or external critics or make the concept any more relevant for journalism.
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