The topline: Yes, nearly every media company is thinking about, or experimenting with, AI. However, there are several strategic approaches leading media companies are putting to work right now.
2023 was yet another rocky year for publishers. From the ad market slowdown to economic pressures affecting everything from hiring to subscriptions, there was plenty to write about for Media Voices’ annual report, Media Moments 2023.
AI was, of course, the headline trend. It has the potential to impact almost every aspect of the media business, and many commentators have speculated on how it can and will shape the coming years. There’s not a media executive out there who isn’t actively watching AI, if not experimenting with it. But AI isn’t the only trend influencing day-to-day publishing operations. Here are four more surprising things some of the industry’s most successful media brands are doing, all of which are covered in more detail in the Media Moments report.
Wait, aren’t newsletters the current big thing? Aren’t we supposed to be launching lots to make up for the impending death of social media and search traffic? Not necessarily, as some publishers have demonstrated. As with so many things, it turns out that less may deliver more.
The New Statesman is one such publisher. They consolidated their portfolio of economics, culture, politics and world news newsletters into just two: a daily and a weekend edition. “Instead of having a whole buffet of different newsletters and cutting the brilliance up into little segments, we just decided to give [the audience] one that we thought they’d like on Saturday and have the power of a big audience through one newsletter,” head of newsletters Harry Lambert told Press Gazette.
News publisher The Telegraph has a whopping 34 newsletters. However, head of newsletters Marie Bonheim told Peter Houston that their portfolio is under constant review. Despite the urge to “fill every niche” there is a danger of spreading your newsletter efforts too thin. “You also don’t want to double up on the same content,” she explained. “We merged a few fashion and beauty newsletters into a single, daily lifestyle newsletter.”
Undoubtedly, streamlining does more than reduce the amount of products that need to be produced, it may also serve to improve reader numbers for the remaining products, which can in turn drive revenue.
(Re)launching print magazines
Mass market magazines have continued to battle decline, with just two news and current affairs magazines in the UK posting circulation growth; satirical fortnightly Private Eye and political monthly Prospect. But for more niche titles, publishers are seeing an opportunity in low volume, high value print runs.
We saw multiple stories of print revivals and launches in 2023, from fashion title Elle Australia and music magazine NME. A piece in the Sydney Morning Herald showed that readership of popular titles like Vogue Australia and Marie Claire had increased between 2022 and 2023. Jane Huxley from Are Media, which publishes Elle, said that there were two main factors behind the renewed interest in print; the enduring brand strength of these magazines in tough economic times, and a consumer reaction to the “digital deluge.”
Advertiser interest in print appears to be on the rise too. Recent research suggests a strong preference for print advertising among consumers, with readers far more likely to pay attention and trust it in contrast to online advertising.
But the approach of newly launched or relaunched magazines will be different. Copies are more expensive and printed less frequently. The new NME will be £10 every other month, and not available on newsstands. “Rather than print thousands upon thousands of copies and try to shift them at the newsstand in bulk, we’ve changed that model up and have taken inspiration from industries like fashion, where you see the value in scarcity,” Holly Bishop, of NME Networks told New Statesman.
Print isn’t going to be right for every media company. But it can be effective as a higher-priced premium product; something special to deepen relationships with super fans.
As the frenzy for podcast launches finally dies down, publishers are looking long and hard at the most effective ways of monetizing them. For The Economist, that involved taking the bold decision to put a paywall in front of its entire portfolio bar one (the daily flagship podcast The Intelligence will remain free). The rest of their 18+ shows will be available as part of a full Economist subscription, or as a standalone Economist Podcasts+ offering for $4.90 a month.
Claire Overstall, SVP, Global Head of Customer at The Economist told DCN in October that they had moved the podcasts to a paid offering in keeping with their belief that subscriptions should be the way they fund their journalism.
“Paying for journalism was one of the things that we led with very early; The Economist has been doing that a lot longer than many of our peers,” she said, acknowledging that although paid podcasts aren’t commonplace, the reasoning is understood. “So that’s well-embedded in people’s minds, the way that we’ve articulated how this is supporting our journalism.”
It’s a risky move for a publisher with millions of listens across its podcast portfolio. But as tools to make the subscription process for podcasts smoother and more aligned with publisher sites improve, it’s likely we’ll see more premium brands give paywalled podcasts a shot.
Paying for podcasts may take listeners time to get used to, so companies trying this shouldn’t expect instant results. But paying for good content is increasingly normalized and (grudgingly) understood by audiences. So, it’s worth thinking about how paid podcasts could fit into a long term strategy.
ARPU over subscriber numbers
It’s hard to point to a subscription service which hasn’t raised its prices over the past 12 months. Even Spotify, which had kept its pricing the same since 2011, increased the monthly cost by $1-$2 across its tiers. In the publishing world, the price of a digital news subscription has actually increased an average of 19% in the UK.
There are multiple intertwined reasons for this trend. News fatigue and economic pressures are contributing to a subscription slowdown. In addition, after a rush to subscriptions during the pandemic, many publishers are hitting a natural plateau anyway. Inevitably, attention is now turning to retention and reducing churn.
“Subscriptions are a forever business,” wrote The Rebooting’s Brian Morrissey. “Everything in publishing takes longer than you would think. And building a subscriptions business is the ultramarathon. After early wins, subscriptions become a grind, with optimization tactics coming to the forefront.”
The Atlantic’s CEO Nicholas Thompson noted back in 2022 that he was less interested in getting a million subscriptions than he was getting to $50 million in reader revenue. “You can get to a million subs pretty easily – you can massively discount,” he said. “If you set a goal solely on subscribers, it can move you in some harmful ways.”
Defector was a good example of this more sustainable focus this year. In their third annual report, they listed a subscription revenue increase in 2023 of just 4%, when compared with 20% a year earlier. But they also managed a 90% retention rate when half of their subscribers came up for renewal.
It’s tempting to get sucked into the race for big numbers, many of which are achieved through hefty discounting. A longer-term, more sustainable view is definitely focused on metrics like retention and engagement, and making sure subscribers are satisfied with what they’re paying for.
This isn’t to suggest that you should be immediately scrambling to reduce the number of newsletters sent, or to start flatplanning a magazine! As we found from the Media Moments 2023 report, many of the biggest challenges and opportunities publishers have faced this year have been iterations of what we’ve seen in previous years.
These trends point towards something AI cannot replicate: creating valuable content that (human) readers will be willing to pay for. Whether that be in cycling, cooking, fitness, politics or B2B, doubling down on quality and looking at ways to increase the value of what you’re producing is a winning strategy for 2024 and beyond.