Philosopher and novelist George Santayana once said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I sometimes think that the publishing industry has taken this advice to the extreme, not only remembering the past, but dwelling on it. I was reminded of this recently as I put together my retrospective on 2015 with a look forward for 2016.

Media executives have obsessed over the past, often causing them to trip over the same problems.
Media executives have obsessed over the past, often causing them to trip over the same problems.

It seems to me that some publishers’ obsession with their history and what worked before digital is causing them to make the same mistakes over and over again – putting profits before people because it was successful in the print era of monologue journalism. Let’s take a closer look at how the continuing saga played out in 2015 …

Able but not willing

In 2011, 18% of readers in the United States said they would be willing to spend US$10/month for online access to local news; 23% said they would spend US$5/month.

In 2015, only 3% of readers were willing to spend US$10/month, with only 6% open to paying US$5/month!

Meanwhile, paywalls kept bouncing up and down like yo-yos as publishers watched revenues plateau much earlier than they had hoped. Sure, The New York Times reached one million subscribers last year, but it’s hard to cheer too loudly when one compares the iconic newspaper to Netflix’s 69 million subscribers and Spotify’s 20 million.

So why are people willing to pay for music and video content, but not news? Sure, the value propositions are different between ephemeral news content versus evergreen music/video that tends to be consumed multiple times. No doubt the abundance of free news has something to do with it as well, but it’s more than that.

Regardless of form, the common theme across all three media types is that people value frictionless discovery of content that feeds their passions – two fundamental needs not served by paywall-protected newspaper and magazine silos because they don’t give readers the content they want in a convenient way at the right price.

Mistrust in media magnified

In 2012, trust in media started to move from traditional to online sources and social media, but it was still the most trusted source for general news and information.

Only three years later, search engines overtook traditional media, with social and owned media trending with a hockey stick trajectory. Traditional media continued to travel in the same wrong direction along with the brand equity publishers have been investing in for decades.

Trust in social media  has been increasing while trust in traditional media has dropped.
Trust in social media has been increasing while trust in traditional media has dropped.

What’s particularly concerning is that the largest generation in the U.S. labour force, Millennials, are the ones who continue to lose faith in these traditional institutions year after year.

Trust in traditional media is particularly low for Millennials.
Trust in traditional media is particularly low for Millennials.

2015 saw more and more readers choosing to read content curated by those they trust, rather than by traditional news editors. Media Insight found that young Millennials:

  • Tend not to consume news in discrete sessions or by going directly to news providers.

  • Are drawn into news because peers are recommending and contextualising it for them on social networks.

  • Get news from Facebook regularly (88%); more than 50% do so daily.

Given these disturbing trends, one can only wonder if the trust barometer for social media and search will spike even higher in 2016 at the further expense of mainstream media. Who in the publishing industry is paying attention to this, and what are they doing to reverse the trend?

Killing comments and pushing the growing population of participatory readers to social media to talk about the news may be publishing’s easy solution to trolling, but it’s also sending all the advertising dollars they could be making from those readers to Apple News and Facebook – the social giant that just reported US$5.8 billion in revenues in Q4 2015.

These tech titans don’t even have to try to compete with mainstream media for those dollars — media executives are handing it all to them on a silver platter, which led to …

Frenemy frenzy

For centuries, publishers refused to play nice with each other, seeing content syndication as sinful. And when digital disruption had readers rebelling against paying for news, they overreacted to Google’s sharing of snippets of their content that actually drove traffic to their Web sites.

In 2015, publishers were literally flocking to give away their content for free, trusting the untrustworthy to compensate them with advertising most users want to block.

Just like publishers’ parade to paywalls, The New York Times’ decision to strike a deal with free aggregators (e.g. Facebook and Apple) had many publishers standing in line to jump from the frying pan into the fire.

I once read that Apple Newsstand was where apps went to die. Will sleeping with these new frenemies help resurrect the cadavers or will it be the final nail in their coffins?

Advertising apocalypse finally arrived

Ad blocking has been around since at least 2006 (the birth of Ad Block Plus), but no one gave it a second thought when planning and designing newspaper and magazine Web sites and mobile apps.

It wasn’t until Apple announced support for ad blocking in iOS in 2015 that the bits really hit the fan, and, suddenly, with a click, publishers’ rubbish was being eradicated along with all the earnings media executives so desperately needed to stop the hemorrhaging of paper money.

Publishers cried foul, blocking readers who used ad blockers or begging them to put up with their digital debris. Few are dealing with the root cause of the problem by cleaning up their acts.

The growing epidemic of banner blindness, ad blocking, fraud, and malvertising is much more than a wake-up call for media execs. It’s an urgent call to action for publishers to immunise their digital properties against these diseases by serving up content and advertising that would be missed if it were gone.

Media executives are blindly following others in the industry.
Media executives are blindly following others in the industry.

Too many leader-sheep

When I think about prophesies as they relate to publishing, the Chinese almost got it right last year, calling 2015 The Year of the Sheep. In reflecting on the publishing industry, it’s too bad it wasn’t called The Year of the Lamb. Maybe things would have worked out a bit differently.

Lambs are highly curious creatures and very active in group play when young. They have also been known to bond closely with people.

But when lambs grow up and become sheep, they exhibit fervent flocking behaviour founded mostly on fear. Banding together for protection, these adults become highly agitated when separated from the rest of the flock. Follow-the-leader is their modus operandi, even when it’s not in their best interest.

I wonder sometimes if the future of our industry would be different if today’s media executives were more like the curious lamb, embracing the disruption sparked by the advancements in society and technology with the free, unfettered, and open-minded spirit of youth.

But when one looks at the “who’s who” of publishing, one can’t help but wonder how these veterans of the print-age could ever envision a future with youthful, inquisitive eyes, when they seem to view digital as more of a curse than an opportunity, continuing to blindly follow The New York Times’ of the world like sheep.

Looking forward to 2016

Predictions are a lot like New Year’s resolutions — we know they won’t all work out, but we’re programmed to make them. So instead of fighting the inevitable, let’s dust off our crystal balls and prognosticate about what 2016 might bring.

Most of my predictions fall into two overriding themes: continual disruption and people-centric publishing.

Here’s a quick snapshot of what I think we have in store for the future:

  1. The double-edge sword of advertising automation will continue to be wielded by publishers as they look to harness its huge potential, but all they’ll end up doing is further alienating their audiences.

  2. Big Data and artificial intelligence will blur into smarter data to exploit behavioural analytics so publishers can better predict how people will discover, consume, and engage with content. It won’t solve the problems of prediction No. 1 this year, but it’s a good start.

  3. To adapt to a world that is moving from a knowledge-based economy to a passion-based one, more publishers will look to segmenting their content based on people’s passions.

  4. More publishers, particularly in the magazine industry, will diversify their businesses to try and attract and engage with audiences between page flips.

  5. After dabbling in gamifying news for a few years, larger publishers will look to integrating unique content with immersive entertainment, including virtual reality (VR) and escape games.

  6. More experimentation will emerge, but the gap between those publishers willing to experiment and those just riding the wave will widen.

  7. Publishing will continue to make for strange bedfellows as more transnational and cross-industry consolidations occur, further disrupting the publisher-journalist value equation, mostly for the better.

Curious about what lies underneath these forecasts? Stay tuned for the second part of this article, 2016: The year of the person, coming soon.