As 2024 begins, news publishers worldwide face a busy year filled with big stories, big opportunities, and big challenges. To kick off this week’s Webinar, Greg Piechota, INMA’s researcher-in-residence and lead of INMA’s Readers First Initiative, set the stage with an overview of the year ahead.
Using data INMA has collected from more than 180 newspapers worldwide over the past five years, Piechota showed how he was able to predict how brands had grown by the end of 2023 and what INMA expects for the coming year:
“By the end of the third quarter, we expect publishers to have 14% more subscribers than in the first quarter of , and 13% more revenue from digital subscriptions,” he said. That prediction does not factor in world events or individual publishers’ plans — and those could greatly affect how 2024 plays out.
In 2023, consumer engagement with the news returned to pre-COVID levels, and while that was a 54% drop, it wasn’t as dramatic a loss as it might have seemed. Piechota emphasised that while online sessions are down today compared to 2020, they are still higher than in 2019. That directly illustrates how the demand for online news depends on the news cycle.
“We can see the COVID pandemic outbreak, [and the] U.S. presidential elections were important for people across the world, not only in the States. And we can see the new face of war in Ukraine,” he said as he shared a graph showing the average monthly number of online sessions.
That gives publishers good reason to expect more traffic as the world experiences a “much richer and more eventful news cycle than in the past three years.”
A look into the future
Among the events driving interest in news during 2024 are:
- Major elections around the world. “We have 76 elections across the world impacting 4 billion people, including in the United States,” Piechota said. “We can expect that the demand for news will be not only high during the campaigns, but maybe even after.”
- Conflicts in Ukraine and Israel, with the potential for the conflict to spread into other countries.
- Big sporting events, including the Summer Olympics in France, a football championship in Germany, and the ICC World Cup in the Caribbean and the U.S. “We can expect the buildup during the games and then, of course, a drop after the final,” Piechota said.
But that’s not all that will drive news consumption in 2024; Piechota also noted potential drivers of interest in the news involving advances in science, such as climate change, obesity, space exploration, and Artificial Intelligence.
“This all suggests this is the year potentially where publishers will be growing subscriptions faster than last year or two years ago,” Piechota said.
Beware of potential threats
Despite the good news, Piechota said there are still plenty of pitfalls for publishers to look for in 2024. And one of the biggest threats has already been on the minds of the news media industry for over a year. As AI-generated content proliferates, it allows false information to be published on a massive scale, which will continue to be a threat.
“Content generated by AI allows some publishers and bad actors to publish content at scale without actually having any kind of journalists,” he said.
In the past seven months, the number of known AI-generated news sites increased 13-fold, with more than 620 “news” Web sites now offering articles written either largely or entirely by bots in more than a dozen languages. In addition to providing unreliable information, these sites can produce it quickly and outpace credible newspapers.
“Some of these Web sites publish more articles than The New York Times or Le Monde,” he said, noting that one top AI-generated site produces an average of 1,200 news articles per day, compared to the 250 news stories published online by the New York Times.
This flood of unreliable content will create more competition for news brands, but Piechota found a possible silver lining for the long term: “Maybe it’ll basically frustrate people so much that they will turn to trusted brands like they did during the pandemic.”
Either way, he said, publishers must prepare for a much more competitive landscape in 2024.
What it means for subscriptions
The competitive landscape isn’t the only challenge publishers will face this year, however. Acquiring new subscribers requires reaching new readers and casual readers.
Since the dawn of social media, news companies have benefited from referrals from Facebook and social media, but in the past year, Piechota said Facebook-referred traffic to news sites was cut nearly by half. Referrals from Google searches held steady, and the share of total search traffic to news Web sites saw a slight increase.
As AI-driven experiences take over search, Piechota said there’s cause for concern. While generative search experiences can give users a faster, easier search experience, it will mean fewer clicks and visits to the source news sites.
For example, searches via Microsoft’s Bing already allow users to switch from traditional search results and engage with its Copilot AI chat feature, which will summarise the most important news.
While that’s cause for concern, Piechota said the more significant concern is what Google will do.
“In terms of traffic, Google is 50 times bigger than Bing and OpenAI together. But when you look at patterns from Google, you can see that they are actually considering serving most of the answers with AI-generated summaries,” he explained. Those summaries will allow users to see the source of the information, but only if they click on a button to expand it.
“And we can expect it might significantly reduce the traffic referred to news sites.”