Pandemic throws global media trends up in air

June 20, 2020 | 15:00
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Digital disruption is changing the way media is paid for, created, and consumed. And with more people than ever being affected in the same way by what they are reading and seeing in the news this year, those leading the way in media may have to lean into digital transformation and be willing to experiment if they want to stay relevant.
1496p 43 pandemic throws global media trends up in air
Newspapers are losing out on advertising revenue, but convincing readers to pay for content online is no mean feat, Photo: shutterstock

Norman Birnbach, president of strategic PR firm Birnbach Communications, predicted in January that 2020 would mark an age of anxiety, fuelled by distrust of big tech firms, and traditional and social media, even as people began to rely on those sources more than ever, especially in the United States. “Marketers must not only be relevant – they also need find ways to credibly appeal across a divided America.”

The projection was uttered at the start of the year – before coronavirus hit North America, and before civil unrest plagued the United States as it has done for the last few weeks. Divisions well-noted in the past have intensified to scarcely believable levels. And yet, as more and more citizens around the world look to the media for information, there is no easy solution for the industry to ensure that information is credible, accurate, timely, and is transparent in what it does with the data it collects.

“There is also no simple solution for big tech like Apple, Amazon, and Google regarding safeguards on the data they collect on all of us or for social media,” wrote PR and marketing reporter Richard Carufel for AgilityPR. “This is because there’s no clear or consistent definition of what constitutes misinformation or how to limit it without infringing on protected free speech.”

But the power of the industry simply cannot be avoided. By 2023, revenues for the global entertainment and media industry are expected to reach $2.6 trillion, according to PwC. By 2023, it is expected that digital revenues will account for over 60 per cent of the total revenue in the media and entertainment industry.

China is expected to add the greatest entertainment and media revenue during that same time period, at $83.9 billion, while the country’s absolute growth in the entertainment and media industry is expected to exceed that of the US for the first time.

But while some media industries have been exploring digital for the better part of a decade, many others are still struggling to land that initial leap. And further batches of organisations and individuals are taking advantage of the confusion to push inaccuracies, fear, and flat-out untruths.

In the media today, even facts are heavily disputed. New tech involving deepfakes (AI-generated fake videos and other images) are beginning to make it harder to know what is real. According to Carufel, this will fuel feelings of anxiety, anger, exhaustion, and isolation, regardless of political perspective. “We expect many Americans and others will look for solutions and companies that provide joy, comfort, assurance, and reliability to bolster their sense of wellbeing and connection,” he added.

Struggling to survive

That connection, which historically was stronger within smaller local communities, is being ripped apart in terms of the media as fewer people worldwide buy newspapers, especially local publications.

In the US alone, more than one in five local papers have closed since 2004, according to the UNC School of Journalism and Media, while others have become a shell of their previous self due to layoffs.

For those in marketing, fewer journalists and outlets make it ever more complicated to reach customers, partners, investors, and employers with their messages.

The coronavirus pandemic, as with many other industries, has severely affected news organisations in recent months, and there was no exception for nations in Southeast Asia and nearby.

Nikkei Asian Review reported in April that 60 community newspapers in Australia were suspending print editions due to the pandemic and a rapid decline in advertising revenues.

At least five papers in Vietnam were forced to suspend print editions for several weeks due to potential infection of staff, even though the country was one of the most successful in containing the threat at an early stage.

And in the Philippines, two national broadsheet papers decided to temporarily ditch print.

Papers now delivering the news on websites and on social media platforms deprive them of their lifeblood, in advertising revenue. Bruce Lui, a senior journalism lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University, said the wider media industry is set to take a hit. “People will try to avoid unnecessary spending,” Lui said. “They might not buy newspapers or renew online subscriptions.”

But with more people seemingly interested in global affairs than ever before, some news organisations are making the most of Asia’s suddenly captive audiences to promote new digital services. For example, News Corp is offering a free 28-day digital subscription that gives readers online access to community titles, while the Philippine Daily Inquirer is offering 30 days of free access to its digital editions.

Paywalls are the choice for grabbing income for some media groups, but publishers may already have hit peak-paywall. The willingness of audiences to pay for content, especially news content, has long haunted media executives, researchers, and policymakers alike.

“Last year’s Digital News Report found that only a small increase in the numbers paying for any online news,” observed Richard Fletcher, a Research Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. “Some in the news business worry that, even though subscriber numbers remain low by some standards, we might already be close to reaching an upper limit.”

According to that report, growth in online payments of any kind – including subscriptions, memberships, or donations – has grown slightly in countries such as Norway (up 4 per cent) and Sweden (up just 1 per cent from last year), while the number paying in the US and elsewhere remains static.

Today more publishers, such as The Atlantic, have joined or re-joined the paywall model. Some outlets – such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Economist, and Washington Post – may continue to grow their subscriber numbers, especially in an election year, but others may find the going a little tougher.

Moving with the times

As paywalls become more commonplace, they are expected to become smarter and more dynamic. AI and propensity models can predict how likely a visitor is to become a paying subscriber, while the amount of free media shown before the paywall can be determined by previous on-site behaviour, for example.

While Google and Facebook continue to dominate ad dollars because of their advanced targeting options, media advertising is still incredibly common. As with most digital transformations, the shift is expected to be gradual. But media groups are struggling to make the case for paying for news content in the first place.

“Consumption of news used to be about daily habits, such as reading the paper every morning and watching the news every night. Now it seeps into our days as much or as little as we want it to,” said Johsua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, which is dedicated to helping journalism figure out its future in the digital age. “Useful journalism is competing with every other form of media, content, or diversion on your phone. In that context, many people decide they’re better off without us. So how can we convince them otherwise?”

Many people have now never known a world without the internet, and simply expect content to be freely available. The lengthy struggle for media companies to figure out how to charge for their content online, alongside print editions, shows no signs of abating, but these groups know they simply must have some sort of presence online.

Print outlets that have yet to establish robust online operations are in trouble, said Rachel Khan, a journalism professor at the University of the Philippines. Khan said media companies in that country still rely on advertising revenue. “Companies should have made the digital shift two or three years ago – otherwise they will be really caught unprepared,” Khan said. “The pandemic in particular is a wake-up call for print publications that have not set up online operations.”

The United Kingdom, even as the country with the oldest and most trusted press in the world, has struggled with modernity and is even witnessing the erosion of trust when it comes to British journalism, just as massive news stories bring more and more people to their output.

A recent YouGov poll of 1,600 people for Sky News in the UK found that two-thirds of the public do not trust TV journalists, and almost three-quarters do not trust newspaper journalists. This has been attributed to the mainstream media’s often aggressive questioning of the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, arguing it is out of step with the mood of a worried public seeking unity during the crisis.

“Journalists never come out that well in polls,” said Mark Austin, an evening news presenter at Sky News. “A lot of the criticism I’ve seen online is about the media not supporting the government enough, missing the mood of the country, and not making a positive contribution. But in the UK it is not a journalist’s job to support the government.”

The issue was addressed at a Journalism 2020 briefing in February from the World Media Group, held in London. The event focused on how journalists and trusted media brands are adapting or reinventing the publishing model of the future in a world beset by fake news.

Hayley Romer, chief revenue officer and publisher at The Atlantic, believed the sustainability of trusted journalism is paramount to society. “For instance, without it people would not have exposure to topics like climate change and so there would be no behaviour change,” she explained.

Others at the event put across that big media brands need to do more than ever to educate the public about what the media does and how to know how to trust. But in a 2020 with media like TikTok and podcasting becoming more popular than ever, saying this is an uphill struggle may be an understatement.

By Quang Bao

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