What 2021 looks like for news publishers

By Paula Felps


Nashville, Tennessee, United States


By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, United States


If, as Milton Friedman said, actions taken in times of crisis depend on the ideas that are lying around, then perhaps news media organisations can take a look at the ideas they have lying around, INMA Executive Director/CEO Earl J. Wilkinson, said on Thursday: “What were those ideas just 12 weeks ago?”

  • The need to go faster with digital transformation.
  • Stop toying around with digital subscriptions, and make it a cultural priority.
  • Premiumise content and distribution ecosystems.
  • Inject retention science into companies.
  • Get the newsroom fully onboard with engagement.
  • Accelerate first-party data strategies: revenue and efficiencies.
  • When it comes to print, love it, reduce it, or kill it — but get the strategy out of neutral.
News media companies had a list of initiatives before the pandemic lockdown changed everything. Is it time to get back to that list with renewed urgency?
News media companies had a list of initiatives before the pandemic lockdown changed everything. Is it time to get back to that list with renewed urgency?

The COVID-19 crisis accelerated these ideas that were lying around for the industry. It also lifted the veil on new media’s true value proposition in the digital age, Willkinson said.

Wilkinson wrapped up the INMA Virtual World Congress by distilling the 24 total hours of programming into a few key themes and taking a look at what might be in store in 2021. On the final of nine modules during the month of May, which drew 351 delegates from 46 countries, Wilkinson shared the Zoom stage with researchers looking at how the coronavirus is shaking up digital transformation within the industry and four news media executives reporting from the trenches. 

Establish trust as a growth cornerstone

“We are experiencing the greatest trust moment, at least in my lifetime,” Wilkinson said. According to Reuters Institute, consumer trust in news media remains worryingly low in most countries. That trust has taken an uptick since the coronavirus hit, but journalism still lags behind governments and experts in consumer trust. “We wouldn’t have had that surge without consumers finding those trusted brands.”

He mentioned the AFP presentation during World Congress that said if news media wants reader trust, they have to be present in real time. The Times of India said higher trust leads to higher ARPU, so how to monetise that trust becomes a strategy.

“The peculiarities of playing in that content-to-commerce space are so unusual that you really need that reservoir of trust to make it work,” Wilkinson said. “Maybe that’s why it doesn’t work for everyone.”

Premiumise all things you want to monetise.

“The easy part of this is subscriptions,” Wilkinson said. “We’ve obviously seen a subscription surge unlike any we’ve ever seen before. It has peaked, but it’s not over yet.”

The majority of new subscriptions have come from regular readers or lurkers who were motivated to subscribe, and two-thirds of them were not completely related to COVID.

“I think there’s a worry that when we pivot to subscriptions, we’re going to lose all those,” Wilkinson said. “The data suggests there’s opportunity here.”

Epsen Egil Hansen, director of new media concepts at Schibsted, said there are leaders both in niche publications (like The Atlantic) and in general newspapers (like The New York Times). Of course, being in the top spot opens the door for better revenue. The rest of the pack has to find their place and learn how to generate interest, subscriptions, and revenue. 

“I wouldn’t say winner takes it all, but [there’s] a premium to the No. 1 position,” Hansen said. “It’s going to be a lot more challenging to be behind there.”

Maribel Perez Wadsworth, president of the USA Today Network, said over the past couple of years, Gannett has “doubled down on subscription revenue.” In the 260 communities the company serves, they are the dominant newspaper, but they continue working to further deepen their customer base. 

“That is where things like upselling, more niche offerings … we see an opportunity to add more subscription offerings that can be discreet offerings for new subscribers but also can be used for existing subscribers,” she said. 

Wilkinson mentioned an important comment from the Dagens Nyheter presentation earlier in the World Congress: “Get the retention correct, and every bump is permanent.”

Among the interesting research shared at the World Congress was the prediction that car advertising would trend down despite an expected rise in car vs. public transportation usage.
Among the interesting research shared at the World Congress was the prediction that car advertising would trend down despite an expected rise in car vs. public transportation usage.

Advertising trends during the pandemic

The World Congress revealed an average of 50% short-term advertising declines, with many publishers predicting improvement moving forward in a V-shaped recovery. However, a lot of publishers will only see 80% of pre-COVID ad revenue return by 2021.

What publishers will punch above the 80% mark?

  • Those building relationships with advertisers.
  • Those with greater agility in creating, editing, and optimising that creative.
  • Those super-serving ad clients.
  • Those embracing publisher consortia to scale ad sales.

Boston Consulting Group laid out an advertising playbook for publishers during the World Congress. This included tactics such as over-serving customers, smart pricing, new ad products, more branded content, and diversification of revenue away from advertising.

In Latin America, clients and advertisers are realising the need to move into digital platforms. Eduardo Garces, general manager of El Espectador, said he predicts they will see money coming back, but possibly in different ways than it was spent before. Sandy Naude, CEO of Africa Community Media, agreed the digital side will see a financial lift but emphasised it will depend upon the category: “Obviously, groceries, medical, pharmacies, that kind of thing will come back. But some categories are going to stay stagnant for months.”   

Super-size and package community outreach.

“I think media companies had it in them [to do this], but they needed the COVID push to really get that out there,” Wilkinson said.

The Hindu said this community outreach response is about trust, inspiration, and agility. Edelman research revealed that 65% of consumers said brand response during the crisis would have a huge impact on their likelihood to purchase from that brand in the future.

“I’m basically trying to make a business case for community outreach,” Wilkinson said. “And it can’t just be a crisis situation. I think there’s a clear ROI on outreach, tracking back to subscriber and advertiser revenue.” There’s also an ROI on structured campaigns that help the audience remember a publisher’s good deeds.

“I’m really happy that publishers were able to think big in this moment.”

Accelerate first-party data strategy cross-enterprise.

“People are talking about the death of third-party cookies, but I want to talk about a longer term, 26-year move away from anonymous cross-site tracking to an Internet based on advertising, permission, and consent with users in control.”

Third-party cookie death is just one element inside that discussion, which also includes GDPR, regulation, and tech blocking. When Google’s third-party cookies go away in 583 days, Wilkinson believes that will push back on publishers’ larger data strategies.

“There’s a movement afoot about third-party data in general, and I wonder what this is going to look like when data becomes a sort of best practice. I think publishers are going to be under a lot of pressure, and there’s a lot of worry right now that it’s 583 days away, and we’re really not moving the ball fast enough.”

The definition of "future" is radically different today than it was when 2020 began.
The definition of "future" is radically different today than it was when 2020 began.

What does January 1, 2021, start to look like?

“It’s going to be challenging times, but also there are new winners now,” Hansen said. “Maybe the brightest light is ... we have proved the core product, the content, is wanted, it’s trusted, and it’s relevant.” 

Looking ahead, Wilkinson said the strategy lies in building trust without a crisis. Companies must identify what areas get prioritised as economies rebound and scenario-plan for a W-shaped recovery.

“You did great in COVID,” he told INMA members. “You super-sized a lot of things, but it’s coming up on June now. Looking back at this year, did you sustain the same energy level, or did you let it wane? Did you culturally maintain a ‘war footing’ for growth, or did you need a pandemic to get going?”

As Wilkinson wrapped up the World Congress, he reiterated the many opportunities there are in chaos: “I’m going out on a limb and say that in some ways, culturally, we’ve travelled farther in 12 weeks than the past 12 years.”

There were many great ideas lying around that were accelerated by the COVID crisis, which un-jammed the “cultural myopia.”

“If I were sitting on one of your boards, I would probably be asking, ‘Great job, but was that a sprint or the beginning of a marathon?’ I don’t have the answer yet to that. The next seven months are so crucial to the future of the news industry. I’m really honoured that INMA as this global community can bring that together in a new way.”

INMA will wrap up the entire Virtual World Congress on Tuesday, June 2, with the Global Media Awards. INMA will announce 32 first-place winners across 16 categories and two audience groups — including a just-in-time category focused on media companies’ coronavirus community response. Jamaican TV host and media entrepreneur Terri-Karelle Reid will emcee the announcement, along with commentary from Google’s Chrissy Towle and INMA’s Wilkinson.

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