End-of-year specials are a media standard, even if they don’t draw more engagement

By Emmanuel Naert

Mediahuis

Brussels, Belgium

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Around this time of year, most newsroom editors get together and prepare special end-of-year editions and long reads. It’s time to close the year, select the best and the worst of the past 52 weeks, and draw some conclusions. What can people learn from the past year? I have no knowledge of any traditional news media that don’t participate in this fixed end-of-year rendezvous.

Time Magazine has one of the best branded selections called Person of The Year. This year’s laureate was the young Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg. Her nomination caused commotion and provoked shocked reactions from English broadcaster Jeremy Clarkson and U.S. President Donald Trump. It makes this selection by Time Magazine an even stronger statement.

While many publications pull from already-published content to create their end-of-year special editions, The Economist creates a carefully considered edition.
While many publications pull from already-published content to create their end-of-year special editions, The Economist creates a carefully considered edition.

In Belgium, there’s also a long-standing tradition of listing the most striking events. For example, Humo publishes a well-read questionnaire of famous politicians, actors, writers, and opinion leaders. It gives its thoughts on the most striking event or trend in the year. And it mentions the best book, album, and concert of the year. So the list also reads like a suggestion for Christmas presents.

Newspapers pay a lot of attention to photography this time of year. The Guardian Weekly publishes an overview with a shortlist of the best pictures. They are selected by the photography editors and contain work by the “most astonishingly talented and ... astonishingly brave photographers of the world’s news agencies.’”

De Standaard will do the same in an issue of dS Weekblad, our Saturday supplement. However, our compilation comes from the whole newsroom and contains a lot of work from our national journalists as well. I heard there was a row among colleagues over who got to comment about the striking Associated Press picture of the traffic jam on Mount Everest.

This year marks an even more special ending as we are closing a decennium. I saw a celebration of the decennium on the Belgian edition of Vice, which noted 50 events that marked Europe in the past 10 years. It started with the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland and the shutdown of European airspace. The most recent event for the honourable people at Vice was the women’s World Soccer Cup, which broke viewing records.

How do we evaluate this annual tradition? Are we providing something due to an explicit demand, or are we looking for comfortable solutions for understaffed newsrooms during the holiday season? Do we offer inspiration?

Statistics do not indicate higher viewing rates over the holiday season.
Statistics do not indicate higher viewing rates over the holiday season.

Looking at some of the publication download figures during the last weeks of December 2018 , I don’t see a higher interest with our readers during the winter holidays. Our special efforts don’t seem to be rewarded in the digital edition. Perhaps the print version does better as our readers have more time to consume the content.

My guess is the end-of-year specials are an institutionalised format. They can be prepared well in advance, there’s a fixed publishing scenario, and they’re cheap to make because they run on content that has been used before — except at The Economist, a publication that makes a very nice online special edition.

Though they may be institutionalised, I think these end-of-year pieces and editions are appreciated by the public. News brands don’t prove a point of difference by making an end-of-year special edition, but it would be quite dissonant not to publish a year-end overview for your audience. In that case, I’m sure that, simply based on the idea of loss aversion, a lot of the audience look for this content elsewhere.

About Emmanuel Naert