The digital revolution has forced traditional print news publishers to cut their journalist numbers to stay profitable while they waited for the online ad revenue bonanza that never came. Now that getting readers to pay for their news is back on the cards, many publishers find themselves with emaciated newsrooms.
First, let’s take a look at the recent developments in the news publishing industry that brought us to this point. That will set the scene for discussing how content publishing solutions can help publishers to do more with fewer journalists as they produce the kind of news that digital subscribers will pay for.
Print’s death by a thousand clicks
Per capita spending on magazine advertising in the USA has dropped from $65 per reader in 2007 to just $22 in 2017. Weekday newspaper circulation has declined from 60 million in 1994 to a combined print and digital figure of 35 million.
The picture in Europe is just as bleak. Consumer magazine circulation in Western Europe is projected to decline by 10% from 2015 to 2020.
Where have all those readers and all that ad revenue gone? Online, of course. It’s very difficult to get people to pay for news printed on the pulp of dead trees when they can get it for free on their computer and mobile screens.
Losing out on digital’s growth
The ad revenue followed the audience online. Global digital ad spend is expected to grow between 12% and 17% per year between 2016 and 2018. It is expected to surpass 50% of all ad spend for the first time in the USA by the end of this year.
The traditional print media have not had a proportionate share of this growth. Digital ad revenue for national newspapers in the UK is expected to increase by a measly 3% – from £221 million to £227 million – between 2016 and 2019. On the 2017 figures, digital makes up only 25% of overall advertising revenue, which is falling. The picture is the same elsewhere.
How did this come about? Two new types of competitor entered the advertising market.
It used to be that you had to own a printing press or have access to one to publish news. The World Wide Web demolished that barrier to entry. Net-native news publishers such as Buzzfeed – nimble, lean and with low overheads – started giving traditional outfits a run for their money.
Secondly, non-news players disrupted the advertising market. Platforms such as Google with search and Facebook with social media have been gobbling up the ad revenue at an even faster rate than the overall digital ad pie has been growing. Here are the year-on-year 2018 Q3 ad revenue growth rates for some of them: Facebook 33%, Alphabet (Google’s parent) 20%, Twitter 29%, and Amazon (admittedly off a relatively low base) 122%.
Newsrooms take a hammering
Meanwhile, back in news publisher land, something had to be done to remain profitable while print revenues plummeted and digital revenues weren’t filling the gap. That meant staff cuts.
From 2008 to 2017 the number of newsroom employees in the USA dropped from about 114,000 workers to 88,000. The picture on the other side of the Atlantic was more or less the same.
Quality news that readers are willing to pay for
Slowly but surely news publishers realized that they can’t compete on quantity – in terms of the number of news items produced and the number of resultant eyeballs – with the likes of Google and Facebook. Quality news that readers are willing to pay for had to become part of the offering and would create an additional digital revenue stream.
The debate in the news publishing industry shifted from “how can we get back our advertising revenue” to “how can we make more money from digital subscriptions”.
A 2018 survey among 194 leading editors, CEOs, and digital leaders found that 44% of them see subscriptions as a very important source of digital revenue in 2018, compared to 38% for digital display advertising and 39% for branded and sponsored content.
Deloitte predicts that the split between subscription and advertising revenue for publishers will be 50:50 in digital by the end of 2020. In 2012 the split was 10:90.
So, it's becoming apparent that serious news publishers need to invest in good quality, unique and trustworthy content to survive, and thrive.
Having to do more with fewer people
Unfortunately, the growing subscription revenues across the news publishing industry doesn’t mean that publishers can now go and hire back all those journalists they got rid of during the past decade or so. Total revenues are still way below what they used to be because subscription revenue growth hasn’t offset the fall in advertising revenue.
But fortunately, the digital revolution that indirectly cost so many journalists their jobs has also created opportunities for news publishers to do more with fewer journalists. How? By using modern digital content production systems to break down the traditional print media silos between news content creation, management and publication.
We’ll now take a look at six ways in which digital content production can help publishers to run a more efficient news operation, and then we’ll consider a totally different strategy: outsourcing.
1. Ease of use
Journalists and the production team used to work in silos to a large extent because the skills sets demanded of each role used to be so different. Journalists wrote, and the production people would do the lay-out and add visual elements such as graphics and photos, all of which required a certain level of technical skill which no one expected journalists to have.
But nowadays digital content production systems are so intuitive and user-friendly, with drag-and-drop functionality, pre-prepared templates, and access to central digital asset management (DAM) systems that “even” journalists can be trained how to use them.
Therefore, it becomes more feasible for news publishers to upskill their journalists to do at least some of the production work rather than to maintain a full team of production staff. And multichannel publishing means they can do it for the print version and the various digital versions of the story they wrote. There are also other strategic reasons to do so, as we shall see in the next point.
2. Adding value to written content
The internet had commoditized news to a certain extent. With commodities it’s very difficult to compete on price, so you have to find some other way to beat the competition. One way is to add value.
In the digital age, people – especially those who have grown up with the internet – have come to expect more from their news publisher than just text and static images. Video, podcasts, infographics, interactive tools and data visualizations all add to audiences’ understanding and experience of the news, not to mention their willingness to pay for it!
In the 24/7 news cycle, and especially with a fast-developing news story, journalists are now able to use content creation workflows to add value, context and understanding to written news content as the story unfolds. If journalists were to depend on technical staff to do this, it would add extra steps in a publishing environment where you often need to get your content out as fast as possible to beat your competitors.
3. Selling content many times and in many ways
Channel-neutral publishing has made it possible to monetize the same story many times over. Once the content has been created, it can be pushed onto various publishing platforms as well as repurposed for later use.
Then again, there may be different sections of a publication’s audience that each demand their content in a certain way. This is where multichannel publishing comes into play. For example, a news publisher’s print media audience may be older than its website and app audience, so you can use multichannel publishing to create different approaches to the same story, depending on which channel it will be published in.
4. Centralized systems
Local and regional publishers have been hit harder by the demise of print than their bigger, national and international counterparts.
However, for a group of regional publishers, multi-channel publishing and a DAM makes it possible to centralize the creation and production of some national content that each regional can then access and use.
In their study The Digital Transition of Local News, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that a relationship with a parent company that gives them access to a centralized digital content production system was one of the ways in which regional publishers were able to streamline their digital editorial and commercial efforts.
5. Remote work
When a publisher only has so much money to invest in journalistic talent, it helps if they can cast their net wider than just within the area that’s commuting distance to their newsroom.
Content creation workflows combined with a DAM means that your journalists can work from anywhere and they all can access the same digital assets wherever they are to work together to get the news content created and published.
6. Native advertising
Native advertising isn’t news, of course, but it straddles the space between display advertising and news content because it’s meant to give the reader the same experience as reading a news article. It’s also big business. It’s projected to make up nearly 60% or display advertising spending in 2018 in the USA.
Some publications have a separate team to create the native advertising for their clients, others use their editorial team. The thinking with the latter approach is that the reader experience is so much better if the paid-for piece of writing reads the same and has the same look-and-feel as a news item.
For publishers that use their editorial teams to create the content for native advertising, content creating workflows make it easy to manage this alongside the news content, while maintaining style consistency for both kinds for content.
...or do you outsource it all?
A totally different way for news publishers to be more cost-efficient would be to outsource their editorial lay-out and creative processes. That would allow the journalists to focus on their core competency – which is writing unique, high-quality content that readers are willing to pay for.
Whether this is a feasible option depends to a large extent on the news publication frequency and how niche the publication is.
A publisher that reports the kind of news that constantly needs updating on their digital platforms and whose print publication goes out daily or weekly would not be wise to outsource their digital content production. You would lose out on all the opportunities for enhancing your content that we set out above and you would risk falling behind the news cycle on developing stories.
However, if you’re a monthly publication with long lead times in a highly specialized niche, outsourcing may be something to consider.
Looking ahead: digital content production for everyone?
In addition to new content publishing solutions making it possible for journalists to add new roles to their job description, we could also see more non-journalists doing what only journalists did previously.
We’re already seeing some news publishers crowdsourcing information from their audiences and working with community groups to help them gather news. Expect this process to accelerate – maybe to the point where non-journalists get some access to publishers’ content creation workflows to provide unique and valuable content that journalists can then process for publication.