If 2020 was the year of pivoting and disruption, 2021 is the one “of profound and rapid digital change,” writes Nic Newman, Senior Research Associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. For its latest report, Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends Predictions 2021, the institute surveyed over 200 publishing industry representatives (editors-in-chief, CEOs, managing directors, and heads of digital) from traditional and digital-born media companies across 43 countries.

Following the report, there are four trends the publishing industry will need to take on in 2021 to leverage the shock delivered by COVID-19.

Digital transition will accelerate

Three quarters (76%) of respondents confirmed that the pandemic accelerated change in their digital plans. Just 21% said that it didn’t make any difference, and only 3% put back plans for change. At PressReader, we registered a record-high number of requests from publishers interested in partnering with us for their digital editions and fully digital publications, like the Denver Gazette. A fully interactive newspaper published seven days a week, the Denver Gazette was launched in September by Clarity Media Group.

Just two weeks into 2021, USA Today’s publisher Gannett announced it aims for 10 million digital subscriptions within five years. The company, owner of more than 260 daily publications, surpassed the 1 million mark in the third quarter of 2020, with a 31% growth over 2019, and is now transitioning to a subscription-led business model. Historically, the publisher has relied mostly on advertising, print subscriptions, and marketing services.

The goal echoes the one made by The New York Times, which in 2020 brought in more revenue from online readers than from its print subscribers. In the first quarter of 2020, the newspaper broke any previous record with 587,000 net new digital subscribers. It took them 18 months after the paywall’s launch in 2011 to sign up its first 566,000 digital subscribers, and with the steady growth of digital subscriptions, The New York Times is less than 3 million short of reaching its goal (which, in this case, includes both print and digital subscribers.)

In 2021, publishers intend to focus more on optimizing and extending existing products and brands (70%) or launching new products that open up entirely new markets (28%). Improving user experience and design is critical to increase satisfaction and avoid churn.

Publishers acknowledge that websites and apps’ core experience “increasingly lags behind consumer expectations,” writes Newman. “Publishing, in general, has a lot of basic catching up to do on ease of use, customer service, etc.,” said one publisher involved in subscriptions for many years.

Others point to poor user experience overall and the need to focus more on interaction and visual design. “We believe that design has great potential to improve user experience, engagement, and subscriber lifecycle,” noted Goetz Hamann, Head of Digital Editions at Die Zeit.

What’s New in Publishing’s Media Moments 2020 report goes beyond and warns on media companies’ incumbent risks – especially for local newspapers. “We’d be lying if we said that publishers will come out of the pandemic as leaner, more specialized organisms better suited to the new digital-first environment.”

While WNIP foresees many closures of local titles and growing news deserts, it also expects that there will be far more titles going from a daily to a weekly model. In a way, this is the direction that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is taking.

After reducing its print edition to three days from five in 2019, Pennsylvania’s second-largest newspaper and region’s most visited website recently announced it would only print the Thursday and Sunday editions.

While some publishers are opting for fewer printed editions, others put more eggs in their digital basket. Main Street Media of Tennessee, a publisher of local print and digital media products in the Nashville area, is launching a new online daily newspaper – powered by PressReader’s Branded Editions.

Main Street Media of Tennessee saw there were room and appetite for a new publication in Nashville, and a turn-key digital solution allowed them to cut costs and timelines and provide a higher value proposition for subscribers.

Starting March 1, they will receive the Main Street Media electronic, fully interactive newspaper from Monday to Friday, in addition to having access to all the content on the website.

“Many readers prefer a curated and well-edited package of news, which is exactly what the e-edition will be,” explained Dave Gould, owner of Main Street Media of Tennessee, in a recent announcement.

Last year, another US local news outlet made waves thanks to a sharp shift to digital before the pandemic hit. In January, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette announced the drop of Monday-through-Saturday home delivery in 63 of the State’s 75 counties.

The decision came not because of circulation cuttings but because the newspaper converted 79% of its print subscribers over to its interactive digital replica.

Even some Sunday-only subscribers upgraded their subscriptions to include the digital replica. This bold initiative won the 200-year-old newspaper the 2020 Mega-Innovation Award in Fort Worth, Texas.

Leaning into technology also shielded it from challenges like delivery, print production, and transitioning readers from print to digital. The business kept running smoothly, without significant changes or challenges, and subscriptions numbers went up.

Revenue diversification will be key

While subscriptions are now considered the most critical revenue stream and ahead of advertising, these are just two of the streams publishers are using to ensure a sustainable future. “On average, four different revenue streams will be important or very important this year,” predicts Newman, who asked its poll to pick all those that apply to the publishers.

The winning mix will heavily rely on subscription, display advertising and native advertising, events, and e-commerce. The Independent is the leading example of a balanced mix of revenue streams that includes digital advertising, e-commerce, affiliate revenue, premium subscription, and a contributions model that can sustain and propel a news organization forward.

“The Independent has been profitable since going all-digital, and nearly four years in it continues to grow substantially on the top line,” declared John Paton, Chairman of Independent Digital News, in 2020.

Revenue diversification will be even more crucial in 2021, as new subscribers will be asked to renew their commitment. To avoid churn, publishers will need to focus more on content and leverage interactive functions to give subscribers and advertisers more value.

Without that, the industry is set to face a potential downturn in the rapid rise of subscriptions that 2020 birthed.

To be successful, media companies will need to leverage brand and product value, and invest in e-commerce, paid-for newsletters, podcasts, and membership-focused events – both digital and in-person, as soon as we can all safely interact face to face again.

“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,” echoes the Media Moments 2020 report. Adding multimedia content to ads is just one way publishers can make the most of advertorial space.

With Branded Editions, ads can link directly to the advertiser’s marketplace or pop up after the reader has consumed a certain number of articles.

Audio offers significant growth opportunities for publishers – even now that lockdowns have slashed commuting time. Pop-up podcasts around the pandemic were very successful in 2020, and there still is room for growth.

According to Deloitte, the podcast market could exceed US$3.3B globally by 2025, about three times the current size. “Much of this will continue to come via advertising, but we’ll also see a significant shift to paid models in 2021,” writes Newman.

Audience and data insights will propel innovation

Having your audience top of mind will be even more crucial in 2021. Quality content and engaging, personalized experiences like those offered by Branded Editions will become the starting points for data gathering and analysis. According to the Reuters Institute report, 74% of publishers found that the best innovation ideas come from audience and data insights, followed by multi-disciplinary teams (58%) and other media companies (48%).

Understanding what keeps readers engaged and willing to spend more time with your content is why PressReader developed the Reading Map technology, available for publications distributed on PressReader and digital editions with Branded Editions.

Reading Maps provide behavioral intelligence on how users consume content by dividing each publication’s page into a matrix and then tracking their interactions and time spent with each element, whether it’s a column, a cartoon, an advertisement, or an image.

Launched in 2015, PressReader’s Reading Map provides actionable insights to create more engaging layouts for editorial and advertorial content.

“The pace of innovation will remain strong this year as media companies accelerate their digital plans,” writes Newman in his report for the Reuters Foundation. However, there’s caution about creating entirely new products. “With little money available for big investments, companies are likely to focus on improvements to existing products and brands (70%),” reads the report.

Media companies that can’t get a product manager on board will work to break down silos and get the best out of multi-disciplinary teams, explains Newman. If content is king then, product is queen, and the future of news will heavily depend on product.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) will lead to growth

Technology and its integration in business strategy will power growth. AI is the technology 69% of publishers surveyed by Newman see as driving smarter recommendations, better workflow, and automatic translations.

Many publishers are already using AI technologies such as machine learning, Natural Language Processing (NLP), and speech recognition to help find new stories and customers, deliver content relevant to the reader, speed up production, and improve distribution.

BBC is already experimenting with automation tools to convert a text news story into visual content for mobile; The Globe and Mail uses an AI-based tool to select stories for its homepage and other landing pages. The list of excellent examples goes on, and it mostly includes big groups.

At the same time, most respondents see AI as a potential divider between small and large media companies; 65% feel that big publishers will end up benefiting the most given the costs associated with embracing AI.

At PressReader, we are working to make AI a feature accessible to all publishers. With Native AI, PressReader’s proprietary technology, publishers will be able to understand their audience at a deeper level and adjust their editorial strategies by harnessing the power of Natural Language Processing (NLP) technology.

Learn more about how a digital edition can help create more revenue opportunities. Visit the Branded Editions solutions page, or click below to book a demo.

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