Publishers Enter 'a Year of Uncertainty' With Concerns of News Avoidance and Subscription Fatigue

Less than half of news leaders feel confident about revenue with the oncoming recession

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Publishers are feeling the burden of a tumultuous year ahead, with many news publishers much less confident about their prospects than last year.

The University of Oxford and Reuters Institute released a report outlining publishers’ woes ahead of the expected recession, and their plans to push through what’s sure to be an uncertain year.

Responses from 303 news leaders across 53 countries found only 44% say they feel positive about 2023, with rising costs, expected low ad revenue and softening subscription demand. The report also found 72% are worried about audience news avoidance, especially on political topics like the war in Ukraine.

“What’s surprising is so many people are optimistic about the year ahead,” Reuters senior research associate and report author Nic Newman, told Adweek. “If you look at the combination of factors and rising costs to softening advertising and subscriptions, it’s surprising that 44% say they’re quite optimistic.”

Signs of stress were already showing towards the end of 2022. In December, Buzzfeed Inc. laid off 11% of its staff, impacting nearly 180 employees. In that same month, CNN laid off hundreds of its staff and Gannett cut 200 employees across its properties, months after eliminating 400 roles, per Insider Intelligence.

The report surveyed respondents across editorial, commercial and product from traditional or digital media companies from late November to early December 2022. Over half of the participants were from companies with a print background (53%), around a quarter (24%) represented digital-native media companies, a fifth (20%) came from commercial or public service broadcasters and 3% came from b-to-b companies or agencies, according to the report.

Publisher revenue and the decline in attention

While less than half surveyed feel positive about the year ahead, 19% say they have low confidence in the growth of publisher revenue, with factors like inflation and tightening household spend impacting publisher revenues.

Beyond the recession, news avoidance is also on the rise. While a lack of trust in the news was a leading reason for news avoidance in recent years, much of the avoidance now stems from negative emotions towards areas of coverage like the war in Ukraine and climate change, the report found.

To counter this, media companies plan to produce more explainers, breakdowns of current events, Q&As and inspirational stories.

When it comes to the climate, rather than avoidance, the report shows publishers plan to cover it more in 2023. Almost half (49%) have created a team that specializes in the topic for news coverage, 44% say their companies are incorporating climate debates into their coverage and 30% have developed a climate change strategy for their company.

Focussing on subscriptions

The report shows nearly 80% of respondents find that subscriptions and membership will be the most important revenue priority in 2023, with display advertising second and native advertising third. Newman told Adweek that based on conversations, publishers plan to attract subscribers through more bundle offerings, more content that aligns with their mission and offering subscriptions at cheaper prices.

Revenue areas at the other end of the scale include micropayments and related businesses like selling tech solutions and print distribution.

Besides subscriptions, the report shows 72% of publishers will allocate more resources to podcasting and audio and 69% say it will go to building their email newsletters. Incorporating more artificial intelligence (AI) is creeping up there as well, with almost three in ten (28%) using AI regularly to give their audience a more personalized experience, and 39% saying they’ve been conducting experiments.

The slow digital duopoly demise

According to the report, news publishers will focus less on Facebook to engage their audience via posting content, earning a -30 net score and Twitter, a -28 net score, and focus on TikTok the most, which has a +63 net score. Publisher interest in Google (search) follows directly after with a net score of +52. The net score is made up of the surveyors who said they’re going to put more into a platform with the amount of those who said they will put less into it taken away, according to Newman.

For the first time since 2014, the duopoly made up less than 50% of U.S. digital ad spend and was expected to bring in nearly 48.4% of online ad revenue end of 2022, per Insider Intelligence. Amazon, and to a lesser extent, TikTok, are snapping up more of that ad spend.

Meta laid off 11,000 employees in November, marking its first lay-offs in 18 years, Adweek reported.

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