Our podcast: What should we expect for journalism in 2022?

In this episode of our 'Future of Journalism' podcast we look at the year ahead in journalism and where news leaders are placing their priorities
Media await the verdict in the sex abuse trial of Jeffrey Epstein associate Ghislaine Maxwell outside the courthouse in New York City, U.S., December 29, 2021. REUTERS/Yana Paskova

Media await the verdict in the sex abuse trial Ghislaine Maxwell. REUTERS/Yana Paskova

18th January 2022

In this episode of our podcast we speak to the author of our recent annual Trends and Predictions report to see what is driving the news industry forward in the near term and what opportunities exist on the horizon. How confident are news leaders in 2022, where are they devoting their energy in terms of revenue raising, news formats and use of platforms, and how are they trying to cover climate change in an engaging and effective way?

The speakers

Host: Federica Cherubini, Head of Leadership Development at the Reuters Institute.

Guest: Nic Newman, Senior Research Associate at the Reuters Institute and lead author of the report Journalism, Media and Technology Trends and Predictions 2022.

The podcast

Listen on: Apple | Spotify | Google

The transcript

Federica: Earlier this month we published our annual report about the trends that will shape journalism in 2022, authored by Nic Newman, it is based on a survey of 246 news leaders from 52 countries, and includes insights about revenue models, social media, and new technologies, such as AI, and the metaverse. Nic is joining us for this episode to help us navigate the report and unpack the issues shaping the future of the media industry worldwide, and most specifically the year ahead – Nic, welcome, and thank you for being with us today.

Nic: It’s a pleasure Federica, good to be here.

On industry confidence 

Federica: So you say in the report that 2022 will be a year of careful consolidation for the news industry, after a couple of years of relentless intensity of the news agenda, which honestly feels much longer, you say this could be the year when journalism takes a breath, focuses on the basics, and comes back stronger. So if we start with the general outlook then, how do media leaders view the year ahead, and the prospect of the industry and their companies?

Nic: Well, I mean it’s hard to generalise because we have a wide range of publishers in our survey, so there’s legacy print, and broadcasters, and digital born, and in a range of different countries and contexts, but some are pretty confident – confident about the business, and confident about journalism. And then there’s others who are really struggling and who are not even sure they’re going to make it through the year, so I think it’s kind of a mixture of realism, and trepidation, and also, real focus – because of COVID, more focused on digital, and more respectful of audiences, I think.

And then just the other sort of theme to stress at the beginning is that people, I think, are also really worried about their own staff, about that relentless news cycle, working from home during COVID, reporting on this very distressing story, and also being part of it. And that’s really that comment about taking a breath, I think people are really thinking about what their news organisations need to be on the other side of COVID, if you like, and I think this will be a year where they’ll try and make that real.

Federica: On the business side, many of the survey respondents report growing revenue but falling audience numbers, can you tell us more about the situation there?

Nic: Yeah, I mean it was a bit of a surprise I think, that certainly in our data, given that the narrative is that COVID has sort of crushed the news industry, that actually 60% – almost 60% said that their revenues had increased in the last year only 8%, so they’d gone down. And I think that obviously reflects the fact that more people have taken out digital subscriptions during COVID, but also, actually digital advertising has come back really, really strongly, it’s been growing at the fastest rate ever.

And I think that’s because we spend more time online, and we’re spending more money online, so that’s the revenue side, which is positive. I think on the attention side, we do see traffic to news sites falling in some countries, in particular, by very significant amounts, 20/30% in the US, and UK, for example, for some publishers. And some of this is to do with the news cycle, but I think underneath it there’s a much wider problem of – which is linked to trust, it’s linked to news fatigue, a disenchantment with politics in general, so all of these things, I think the challenge is how do we re-engage people, particularly those people who sort of came in for COVID and have disappeared again.

On favoured revenue models 

Federica: You mentioned several different revenue models, which ones are considered the most important by media leaders in your survey?

Nic: So obviously, I mean most people are focusing on a range of models, but they either lead with subscription, or they lead with advertising, and subscription is now at the top, so 79% say that subscription will be important, or very important to them this year. And then different kinds of advertising events – interestingly, contributions from platforms is becoming more important, and has become more important, so this is big platforms like Facebook and Google paying directly to licensed content. So that’s another sort of increasingly important part of the picture.

Federica: You mentioned paywalls, and lets’ look about the fact that half of the news leaders surveyed think that journalism is super serving reach and more educated audiences, do you think this is a real problem as many quality papers are embracing increasingly harder paywalls, or will it depend on the free option available in each country, in each market?

Nic: I think there’s no question that educated richer audiences have this enormous range of possibilities now, there is so much high-quality content available in any language, on any topic for people who are really interested, and people are willing to pay for content. There was a lively discussion earlier in the week, Ben Smith, formerly of the New York Times, Justin Smith formerly of the Wall Street Journal, said they were launching a new news product aimed at educated global audiences.

And there was a whole load of people on Twitter who were talking about, well that is the audience that really doesn’t need any more news. But I think we can also over emphasise this, I think in many parts of the world there is, of course, still a lot of high-quality free content in much of Europe – strong public service broadcasters, for example, offering it free at the point of use, and then there’s many others that are following an ad path, it’s not just about subscription.

So in research that we’ve done, we know that a lot of people, who are not very interested in news don’t really come across a paywall, so it’s not so much of an issue for them. I think a bigger problem is the one that I talked about earlier, is sort of disconnection from news entirely, or light connections, if you like. And more and more people relying on unreliable sources in social media, or through face-to-face networks, I think that’s a more significant problem right now.

On the battle for talent

Federica: And you also talk about creator economy in the report, and the so-called battle for talent in 2022, what do you see happening there?

Nic: Well, last year was really interesting, so you had the so-called Substack Phenomenon Study even before that, where individual journalists left mainstream publications with the promise of delivering riches – untold riches, from directly getting subscriptions, and building up these subscription newsletters primarily. And some of them did indeed make lots of money, what we saw last year was some of them actually going back to news organisations because they realised that actually being part of something bigger was also important, and maybe there wasn’t as much money, it was a big more taxing than they thought running their own business in this way.

And I think this year we’re going to see more halfway houses, if you like, sort of more journalist collectives – there’s one called Puck in the US that’s just started, and they’re trying to get the best of being entrepreneurial, and getting some of the rewards, but at the same time, being part of something else with these lower infrastructure costs. And I think that that’s a really interesting phenomenon, we’re going to see a lot more of.

And then I think the other aspect of it is the platforms themselves have released a lot of interesting new features like, just to take one example, super follows in Twitter, so you can have your normal feed, and then you can provide bonus content, and get rewarded for it. So that again, is interesting for the talent economy as how are publishers going to react to that, are they going to let individual talent earn some money on the side, so that battle for star talent between individuals, or collectives, or different companies, is one side of it. But I think also, how the rewards are going to work when they’re more visible, and evident, is going to be a really interesting theme.

On social media and video 

Federica: And let’s move to social media, how are news leaders thinking about social media in the year ahead, who in the industry is having an innovative approach that we should pay attention to?

Nic: Social media is a big area, but I think one of the standout data points for the slides is that publishers say they’re going to be putting a lot more effort into TikTok, into Instagram, and into You Tube, and they’re going to focus a lot less on Facebook, and on Twitter. And I think that kind of reflects the innovation and format, which has come out of TikTok, which all the other social platforms are reacting to actually and will react to this year.

In terms of formats you’re seeing Facebook really trying to innovate reels both on Instagram and on Facebook now, in similar ways trying to capture the same wave of entertainment and increasing information in some of these short videos as well, and You Tube shorts being another example of it. So I think we’re going to see a lot of publishers trying to get involved in that, obviously. Just a couple of examples you asked about good, interesting practise, there’s a startup in Spain called Ac2ality, which works on TikTok and other platforms, doing these very entertaining youth focused news roundups.

And you also have slightly longer ones as well that explain the format, How To’s work really well, we have the BBCs Ros Atkins, who does a daily monologue of about 10 minutes, something like that, seven to 10 minutes on a big issue, which is kind of engaging, it’s designed for social media, but it’s also impartial. And the ones, for example, on Boris Johnson’s Christmas parties got something like 11 million views, which is a huge number, a huge amount of engagement if you compare that with commercial television.

So I think that’s what we’ll see this year, is some of those video formats that are fact, and evidence based, competing with obviously, the huge amount of partisan content that’s out there in social media as well.

Federica: I’m scared to ask – is this a 'Pivot to Video 2'?

Nic: Well, I think I did use the word Pivot to Video 2, you may remember Pivot to Video 1, and I think that both the combination of short form video and the new efforts that are going to that, but also actually long form is really interesting as well, again COVID has made more of us sort of watch these long form video on our computer screens, or on our mobile phones. And so, there are publications trying to take advantage of that, so CNN for example, is launching a premium CNN Plus video long form channel this year, you have a lot of media companies trying to use Twitch for long form, and of course, in many of these environments you already have personalities, and influencers creating a lot of value already with long form, and communities. It’s that sort of combination of the network, and long form video.

On podcasts and newsletters 

Federica: You mentioned before when we were talking about the creator economy newsletters, and the report highlights an increased focus on loyalty forming channels, podcast newsletters, what will happen this year in this area, and do you think we’re getting to a point where there is too much supply for the current demand?

Nic: Yeah, that’s a good point, I think the reason that publishers have been focusing on both podcasts and newsletters, is because the data tells them that they build connection, and they build loyalty. And so, if you’re trying to increase engagement, this is obviously critical, if you’re trying to reduce churn as a subscription publisher, that’s also critical. And so many publishers are either sort of refreshing or trying to iterate and improve those products.

But as you say, the problem is one of scale and attention, and so the more people piling in with great content, the more difficult it is to attract an audience. And I mean in podcasts I think the explosion of content is unbelievable, in Spotify I think three million different podcast shows now, and so how you stand out is really interesting, and this is really where platforms and distribution is going to become a much bigger story because those platforms are often the gateways to getting that attention.

And that’s where exclusive deals with Spotify might help, or with Apple, so I think the role of platforms, and the tussle between content and platforms is going to be a big theme this year.

On younger audiences 

Federica: Another big theme, and a key theme for the year ahead is generational change, can you tell us more about what you mean by this generational change, and how are publishers thinking about younger audiences?

Nic: I mean, in conversations we’ve had with publishers, I would say this is the number one issue right now, and it’s important, for example, if you’re a public service broadcaster you need to serve all audiences, and younger audiences has been dropping away, and if you’re a subscription  publisher I think 5%, or less of your subscribers are under 30. So you’ve got a real problem of the next generation.

And I think the big question is can you – how do you do that, do you change your core product, is it possible to change your core product, or do you need to build a different one. And some publishers are essentially saying, what we need to do is just change everything in our core product, so assume less knowledge, create more visual formats that we know work with younger people, maybe write more content for different life stages, you know, if you’re getting a mortgage, or getting married, or whatever.

But other people feel you just need a completely different approach, you actually have to create bespoke content for specific platforms that is designed for a very specific younger audience. And of course, there’s many different younger audiences, there’s Gen Z, there’s Gen Y, so you need to be quite deliberate about it, I think, and publishers are really thinking about that when some of them have some really strong strategies for this year, I think.

On climate reporting 

Federica: An issue that plays, and resonates, particularly with younger audiences, and is one of the most defining issues of our generation is climate change. What’s the thinking from media leaders in this area, what can we expect to see?

Nic: Well, in the survey we ask them how good they thought the coverage was, and only about a third said that the coverage was currently good, so there’s clearly a bit of a gap. In terms of reasons why they felt that climate change could be better, they talked about – it’s just a really difficult subject because the slow nature of developments means it’s just a poor fit with the news cycle, on the one hand.

They also say that actually people often don’t read the stories, perhaps because they’re too depressing, and make people feel powerless. And partly as a result, there isn’t the business case to hire those specialist journalists who can explain the science. So I think, this year we’re seeing publishers trying to address that skills gap, sometimes with foundation funding, or other sources of funding.

We’re going to see more solutions-based coverage to try and get away from that sort of sense of negativity, and also, giving people more of a sense of what they can personally do, so I think more service journalism around climate. And then, I would like to see more data skills as well in newsrooms, I think this is one story that really could help, something like the Rainforest Investigations Network has done an amazing job in documenting real-time data about what forests are burning where, and then driving investigations on that, and visualisations.

And I think there’s a lot of scope to use some of the techniques we saw in COVID to enhance and make climate change more engaging. And the final things I would point to cooperation I think we’re seeing people realise this is such a big story you can’t do it on your own, so EBU, for example, facilitating exchanges of information between different countries. Our own Reuters Institute taking part in the Oxford Climate Journalism Network for really trying to understand the issue better and coming up with solutions to these problems. So I think climate is a big focus for lots of reasons.

On what's next in journalism 

Federica: Of course, we couldn’t possibly close an interview about trends and prediction without talking about what comes next with technology and the web, what can we expect in this area, will I be interviewing you in the metaverse next year?

Nic: Absolutely, we could have done an interview in the metaverse this year if we’d put our headsets on, and I think by this time next year there will be a lot more headsets and hopefully, they will be a bit more lighter, and a bit more usable. But yes, I think more relevant to journalism immediately I think, are probably the different applications of artificial intelligence, different AI technologies. And I think they’re relevant to recommendations, more relevant recommendations to engage people, that’s the number one usage this year, according to our survey.

But also, commercial uses as well, and use in automation, so we’re seeing – in automation we’re seeing a lot more productised tools around transcription, around summarisation, around automation, and text to speech as well. And I think why that’s important is it enables publishers to package up content in different ways, that it can then version more easily. And when we talk about personalisation, I think that sort of format innovation, and how you can package things is going to be a key part of the future.

And then finally, I think we’re going to hear a lot more about the next iteration of the internet this year, so called Web3, so the first iteration of the internet was about publishers making the most of the content and making the most of the money. Web2 users start to create, and then platforms take a lot of that and become the sort of dominant power. And in Web3 – the potential of Web3 is sort of more decentralised approaches build on blockchain technologies, and crypto currencies. And in theory, that gives content creators, and publishers, potentially more control over intellectual property, over data, over making money.

So that’s kind of – we’re going to hear a lot more about that, whether it pans out is a completely different matter, and whether it has any relevance to journalism is a different matter, but we’ll certainly hear a lot more hype about Web3 as well this year.

Federica: Lots to keep looking at, and to keep looking forward to this year, Nic thank you so much for joining us today.