INMA President Maribel Perez Wadsworth shares news industry outlook for 2023

By Paula Felps


Nashville, Tennessee, United States


INMA President Maribel Perez Wadsworth is hopeful that in 2023, “Flat is the new black.”

In an interview with INMA's Mark Challinor on Wednesday, Wadsworth discussed where the news industry stands now and what’s important going forward. And what would make 2023 a great year, she said, is for news publishers to find level footing after experiencing audience declines in a post-pandemic world.

“Leveling off from what was a really tough 2022 would, I think, feel very good for most publishers in this industry,” Wadsworth said in the INMA Webinar. “And finding equilibrium with the cost picture going forward would be a good thing. So yeah, I’m going to stick with ‘flat is the new black of success’ for 2023.”

INMA's Advertising Initiative Lead Mark Challinor and President Maribel Perez Wadsworth discussed what is on the horizon for news media companies in 2023.
INMA's Advertising Initiative Lead Mark Challinor and President Maribel Perez Wadsworth discussed what is on the horizon for news media companies in 2023.

During the hour-long conversation, Wadsworth discussed several challenges and opportunities facing the industry. She acknowledged 2022 was a challenge for many and said her feelings about 2022 paralleled her feelings for her favourite football team: “It tends to start out strong only to break your heart in the end.”

By the second quarter of 2022, she noted, the world was feeling the effects of rising inflation, which included rising labour, newsprint, and distribution costs. By the end of the year, both businesses and consumers were feeling the economic squeeze, which directly affected spending, she said. And just because 2022 is over, it doesn’t mean its impact has vanished: “Really, I think that’s going to be with us well into 2023, like a bad hangover,” said Wadsworth, who recently stepped down as president of Gannett Media in the United States.

That could affect publishers who are depending on subscriber revenue — particularly if consumers start cutting back spending. Ultimately, though, it provides an opportunity for publishers to rise to the top:

“I think in the end, the publishers who do the best job of focusing on the customer offering unique content [and] a superb user experience are going to do far better in weathering the storm. And the big question will be how much do they need to compromise — or will they compromise — on quality and user experience as they manage their own costs through this downturn?”

Publishers are going to feel pressured to incorporate more advertising into content but will have to balance that against the user experience. The most important thing for them to do is “prioritise and really lean into data, to the sophistication of their product teams, to strike an elegant balance that helps optimise for both the user experience and revenue,” she said.

Here are seven other important topics for news publishers she addressed:

E-commerce growth

As part of a re-evaluation of revenue, Wadsworth said she believes e-commerce will continue growing. However, she doesn’t see that revenue channel being led by advertising.

“It’s a very different skillset set than selling advertising,” she noted. “What you’re doing is looking to strike important partnerships. The economics of those deals, the commissions for the products and services that your publishing platform will help to create — that’s a very different approach than selling advertising.”

Product and content will be critical to help connect the audience to whatever product or service is being offered, she said: “It’s really a data-driven product, content-driven enterprise, in my mind, to be successful. So optimising for the most lucrative partner economics is really going to be key.”

Work from home and tech trends

Among the many things changed by the pandemic was the rise in work-from-home and a demand for greater flexibility to provide a work/life balance. Wadsworth doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.

“During COVID, it was clearly proven that we could not only get by but also thrive in a remote environment,” she said. “And younger generations of workers in particular embrace that flexibility. They demand that flexibility from their employers. So I just don’t see us going fully back to a world where everyone is in the office all the time.”

Ultimately, that could change what skillsets are needed in workers. And, as technology evolves, those needs will change:

“The thing is always going to be, ‘What are the things that we uniquely need our people to do and to focus on and our customer relationship and the unique content and product offerings that we have versus the things that we can absolutely lean into technology?’ We’re already seeing that, especially in the rise of Artificial Intelligence in everything from customer service to content creation. And I think we’re going to continue to see that.”

Impact of the third-party cookie

The demise of the third-party cookie and increasing privacy regulations have implications for all types of businesses but are particularly impactful for news publishing. Now it will come down to how publishers can gain the trust of customers “so that they feel good about the data they are sharing with us,” Wadsworth said.

“Our careful use of that data in order to create more personalised experiences [and] offer more relevant content and advertising, and making sure that we’re safeguarding that for the customer, is going to be critical going forward.”

The future of print

The one-two punch of a pandemic and economic disruption have accelerated the declines of print, but Wadsworth said the print business still holds plenty of revenue — and it will for a while longer. However, shifting consumer trends and the cost of newsprint will continue pushing print publishers in the digital direction.

“So while different parts of the world are at different stages of that transition, every publisher must be doing more to proactively realign their businesses to a digital-dominant reality,” she said.

The power of journalism

Across the globe, the pandemic gave journalism an opportunity to shine — and the industry rose to the challenge. Journalism’s response to the pandemic reinforced the “incredible importance and the critical nature of journalism to our communities, to keeping people safe, to giving people vital information,” Wadsworth said. That resulted in tremendous audience growth and bodes well for the future.

“[That] speaks to the high value that people have in journalism as something really vital to their lives and to their wellbeing,” she said. “It just underscores for all of us how critical it is that we continue to evolve and build sustainable models for journalism as a business going forward.”

Regaining trust

The entire news ecosystem depends on trust and credibility. That means considering how everything from partner content to e-commerce integrations to advertising content that surrounds news content is received, Wadsworth said.

“All of those things have implications for trust and credibility as well,” she said. But when considering the news content itself, leaning into greater transparency around sourcing, processes, and the backstory of the behind-the-scenes of content creation will help build more trust and confidence with audiences.

“To demystify that for readers, I think, is really, really important to credibility and trust.”

Future outlook

The last couple of years were filled with rapid, often dramatic changes. In addition to the pandemic, a rise in fake news, climate change, and economic uncertainty, the industry is wrestling internally with topics like automation, sustainability, and diversity and inclusion issues. Wadsworth said she is “absolutely optimistic” about the industry’s future.

“There are certainly many, many challenges to the business. All the economic pressures that we talked about earlier are still there, but we’re a resilient bunch and what we do truly makes a difference in the world. And I think that definitely sets us apart.

“It’s incumbent upon us to continue to evolve, to remain relevant and vital to the communities we serve,” she continued. “And that mission and purpose, I think, is a real driving force for all of us to make it through these challenging times and to find innovative ways in which to continue to do this important work.”

About Paula Felps

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