US publishers tend to set the agenda for international media markets. The combined benefits of accessibility through the English language and brand recognition on a staggering scale means that, whether they like it or not, publishers in other countries often dance to US publishers’ tunes.
But they’re just as susceptible to changes in technology and habits as anyone – more so in a lot of cases, due to widespread early adoption of technology among US citizens. So as we start preparing to grapple with the implications of those changes in the run-up to Digital Media Strategies USA, we’ve put together a quick list of US media trends that we’ll be keeping our eyes on.
The local newspaper shake-up is coming
In comparison to the UK, where the situation facing local and regional publishers looks increasingly dire, local papers in the US are faring relatively well compared to their metro counterparts – at least for now.
Local papers, which University of Virginia assistant professor Christopher Ali defines as any paper with a circulation of under 50,000 per day/week, account for 97 percent of all newspapers in the US. His research has found a sense of “guarded optimism” among local newspapers, in part because they’ve managed to transition to service provision in a way that most large-scale publishers cannot:
“We found that the most successful small-market newspapers were the newspapers that brought people together physically, in a room, hosting events. Events to talk about community issues, hosting local awards shows, fostering roundtables to talk about what matters to the community and also opening up their editorial meetings to people in the community.”
And, as Ali noted, those advantages can have a significant effect on a local paper’s bottom line, with one respondent saying that his paper makes between $500,000 and $750,000 a year just doing events. Consequently, for the period the study looked at, those local papers lost significantly less revenue than their national and metro counterparts.
However, that’s not to say that US local papers are immune to some of the existential threats that face their international counterparts. As our own contributor Kevin Anderson pointed out in his latest piece for us, as newspaper groups take costs out of the local titles, that negatively affects their ability to adapt to those threats:
“In its coverage of the local journalism crisis, CJR called Gannett the “last great local hope”. I disagree. Large groups like Gannett are now running regional strategies that don’t deliver dramatic cost savings at smaller sites and damage their ability to deliver truly local content. Indeed, strategies designed for the metros caught us coming and going: the cost efficiencies didn’t really amount to much for us, while the ad strategies often priced us out of the local market. So any savings were quickly offset by declines in revenue because we had fewer sales staff selling less ad space, and new digital strategies didn’t scale down to our communities.”
There’s a shake-out coming for local newspapers in the US, and while doubling down on the services they provide to local audiences is a great start, there’s still a vital need to understand exactly what local papers can add to the lives of their audiences that other organisations cannot.
The battle for TV is about to begin
Everybody wants to be the future of television. I’ve argued that everybody is going to be the future of video, but one thing that is absolutely true is that the traditional players in the lucrative TV market are fighting tooth and nail to cling onto that ad spend. As Mathew Ingram has pointed out for Fortune speaking of this year’s upfronts:
“With that as a backdrop, the message from TV networks this year boils down to: ‘Forget about the Internet! TV is still what matters.'”
The idea that digital views are worth less than those on traditional platforms doesn’t really hold all that much water, but it seems to be the message that most networks are doubling down on. Ingram notes:
“TV has its own measurement problems, however, which has led many insiders to question the numbers they get from viewership and ratings agencies such as Nielsen.
“In addition, no matter how much bravado the traditional TV industry indulges in at the Upfronts, the reality is that ratings for network shows have been falling across the board, and that is unlikely to stop. The peak viewership numbers of even a few years ago are just a memory.”
Digital ad spending overtook traditional TV ad spending for the first time last year, with much of it going towards digital video.
And as audiences become accustomed to more choice on digital platforms, we’re seeing broadcasters begin to break out their most valuable services in an attempt to keep up. ESPN, which has had a bad couple of weeks, is more amenable to this kind of unbundling than most, and is making strides towards making a combined live-streaming/linear viewership measurement available, in an attempt to strengthen its advertising position.
Writing for Digital Context Next, Mark Glaser breaks out the winners and losers of the first skirmishes of this new fight, noting:
“The four major broadcast networks lost 8% of their audiences this TV season, adding to a four-year trend of declining TV ratings. TV networks have also increased their ad prices in these last four years in an effort to offset declining viewership — which doesn’t necessarily bode well for marketers. The ad-buying agency Magna has announced it’s shifting $250 million of its budget originally allocated for TV toward YouTube.”
Despite that, traditional TV is still a valuable ad proposition, as seen by the propensity for properties like VICE to launch their own channels.
Facebook, Facebook everywhere
I’m sure this will come as a surprise to a lot of you, but Facebook’s relationship with publishers might be on the agenda come September. I know, I know, call me crazy. It’s just a hunch.
And while Facebook is so omnipresent that you can fully expect access to it to be considered an inalienable human right by 2020, and consequently international publishers are just as affected by it as US publishers, its relationship with US publishers will continue to act as a template for its relationships elsewhere.
Following the disastrous US elections and EU referendum results, Facebook’s unparallelled ability to highlight emotive posts regardless of veracity came under the spotlight (we discussed just that in our interview with Facebook’s Nick Wrenn). As a result Facebook took steps to combat ‘fake news’ – but those initiatives don’t seem to be working.
Facebook said that relationships with publishers was a priority, and that products like Instant Articles would help ameliorate the homogenisation of content on its platforms. But they don’t seem to be helping publishers monetise, and we’ve seen a few high profile publishers cease publication of their articles that way.
So, apologies to anyone who’s sick of the endless Facebook v Publishers discussions that have been going on for years. Questions around its power over distribution and monetisation are bound to still be around in September (we also want to ask them about cloning).
Direct monetisation of the user is the priority
Much ink has been spilled about the need for digital publishers to begin monetising their users through subscriptions and paywalls. Now, with even the Guardian euphemistically launching content exclusive for its members, we expect a lot more discussion over the next few months on how to gain and, crucially, retain subscribers.
For publishers, the fact that over 50 percent of adults in the US this year are still paying for news products will come as a relief – but should that figure dip below that magic halfway mark the sentiment might well change, particularly since last year’s Reuters Institute ‘Digital News Report’ found that less than a tenth of people in the US are paying for news online.
But as the Media Insight Project’s introduction to its ‘Paying for News’ report explains: “The future of journalism will increasingly depend on consumers paying for the news directly, as content distributors like Facebook and Google take up the lion’s share of digital advertising dollars.”
Reinvention of the old guard
There are a few publishing brands that, if they disappeared, would leave a hole in the collective consciousness. Even for those of us outside the US, titles like the New York Times, The Atlantic, Washington Post, National Geographic and others are instantly recognisable.
Happily, none of the old guard are exactly resting on their laurels, content to dwindle into non-existence. Even Playboy is reinventing itself (then rereinventing itself).
Take The Atlantic, for instance, which is more agile than ever, spinning off a bunch of sister brands and being just on the cusp of its first major international expansion. Now, with a “high watermark” of 28 percent of its digital audience coming from outside the US, the title has decided to make the leap. Its president Bob Cohn explains:
“I don’t think there was a single moment, just a growing ambition that we have at The Atlantic to play a role on the global stage and deliver our journalism to a bigger audience.
“It was the realisation that we’ve had organic international growth that made us say we need to be a bit more deliberate about this.”
At DMS USA ’17, we’re looking to hear more from other legacy publishers about how they’re building on preexisting strengths to thrive in the new era of publishing.