3 questions news publishers need to consider to stay relevant today

By Bente Zerrahn

Axel Springer

Berlin, Germany


Newspapers used to be revolutionary — in the 16th century, when print was invented. Another leap was made in at the turn of the millennium. Now, newspapers can also be found online, and every publisher is a “digital publisher.”

But is that as innovative as we think it is? No.

Accelerating the time to publish is not the same as transforming our business. The only thing that’s changed is that the same print products are now in a browser with a search feature at the top (with wildly varying result qualities). That’s all.

A look into market trends confirms this: According to Reuters Institute, publishers’ ad revenues have fallen by up to 50% last year alone. Where is that digital revenue heading to, you might ask? Or perhaps not, as it is quite obvious: Google and Facebook.

Big Tech companies are built for digital natives while legacy publishing companies have attempted to lay digital products on top of existing models.
Big Tech companies are built for digital natives while legacy publishing companies have attempted to lay digital products on top of existing models.

All of us have been forced to shift to paid content. Subscription news increased by up to 110% during the pandemic in 2020. This is now considered to be the most important revenue stream, ahead of both display and native advertising.

However, looking at Germany as an example, only 9% of those surveyed reported paying for digital news subscriptions that year. Massive growth from barely anything simply doesn’t equal great subscription numbers. The success stories out there inevitably are about the aforementioned native digital companies.

However, the publishing future isn’t totally doomed. If we realise the paradigm shift (aka digitalisation) isn’t yet over and act accordingly, publishers can become relevant again. Some publishers have shown that it can be done.

For example, before Amazon founder Jeff Bezos invested in The Washington Post, the only thing it had going for itself was that it used to be successful. Through a tech mindset, the team experimented freely — without any presumptions of what a newspaper of the future looks like. Additionally, it hired and invested in a tech team that was integrated deeply into the editorial operations.

Today, apart from being somewhat of a software company (by licensing out its CMS), The Washington Post is also are one of the few successful publishers targeting Gen Z through its TikTok channel.

Another example — though less drastic — is The New York Times. This 170-year-old news media company has a very strong digital strategy that not only includes a nice app and newsletters, but also a focus on data journalism as well as new visualisation formats.

What did these two newspapers do right? And, how can we learn from the tech giants like Google and Facebook that we love to hate? These three questions offer some insight.

1. What does “media company” even mean today?

It might be silly to pose such a fundamental question, however it is necessary.

Google, Facebook, and others are native digital brands. But, is that their only advantage? No. They also don’t even consider themselves publishers. More accurately, they’re tech companies that just happen to also be in the media space.

Traditional publishers, on the other hand, seem to define themselves through their history and now try to add some tech on top. That won’t work in the long run.

2. Is your own definition of your product still up-to-date?

Currently, most publishers seem to assume people still want the same portfolio of solutions but are simply consuming it through other channels. This results in that solution basically being shoved down people’s throats.

However, does that offering solve your users’ problem at all? The world has become smaller than ever, with insane amounts of information being generated every second. How much information do readers truly need?

Everyone’s individual life situation makes for different priorities regarding information. I’d argue that we’ve reached a point where less but higher-quality news is more relevant than quantity and speed.

The technology to understand individual users deeply already exists, although it’s perhaps not used most ethically. TikTok recognises within less than two hours how a user ticks by analysing watch time alone. Even after setting filters, most newspaper subscriptions don’t compare.

3. How closely are your tech and journalism departments connected?

Coming back to the amount of information being generated, even a journalist’s brain can’t keep up. Luckily for us, tech and journalism are not mutually exclusive. Computers can help editors with dull reporting topics. Large data sets help with research. Good data-sharing workflows between departments improves everyone’s life, because data is (un)surprisingly worth more the more you have.

These are all just examples, most of which you likely already do in some way. However, how closely tied is that to an actual strategy as opposed to some erratic decision to “just do that thing” because it’s trending or other publishers are doing it?

At Axel Springer, for example, we founded the FreeTech Academy to achieve this: Tech and journalism talents are learning and working together from the start to become better together, thus building a sustainable future for our journalism.

When answering these questions, I suggest you don’t just do it by yourself in an ivory tower. Involve people who already have partial answers. Sit down not only with your tech team — the makers of the future — but also true digital natives (Gen Z) to understand users of the future.

Of course, these questions are just an impulse. But fundamentally challenging our business model is what the media industry desperately needs — to preserve democracy and (if you’d like a little less gravitas) simply create offerings your readers truly want.

About Bente Zerrahn

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