The decline of cable TV is not news. Ever since streaming services offered consumers entire seasons of their favorite shows – affordably, on demand, and ad free – cable has been losing subscribers.
The number of pay-TV households fell from its peak of 105 million in 2010, to approximately 77.6 million last year. And this number is predicted to drop to 63.4 million by 2024. Meanwhile, the numbers of subscribers to the largest U.S. streaming platforms went up 50% in 2019 from the previous year.
There is no doubt Covid-19 boosted streaming figures, as millions of viewers spent their lockdown binge-watching the latest Netflix recommendation. However, cable was in decline long before the pandemic, with new, younger audiences favoring a “buffet style” viewing experience. In fact, more than half of 18 to 29 year-olds who pay for a TV bundle say they stream more often than watch cable.
What is really interesting, amidst all this change, is that cable news continues to make a killing. In January 2021 CNN recorded its highest viewing figures in its 40-year history, beating both Fox News and MSNBC in total viewers. However, Fox News remains the most-watched cable news network in the U.S. And it took in a whopping $12.3 billion in 2020.
“The news environment of the past four years, with Trump in the White House, has given a life extension to cable news,” says Mosheh Oinounou, an Emmy award-winning journalist who went on to launch CBSN, and is now a consultant for media organizations. “More recently, Covid and major political events, such as the storming of the Capitol, have seen record revenue and record ratings for cable.”
On the flipside, news is under-represented in the booming premium OTT arena, particularly that of local markets. Given the habits and preference of younger audiences, it might be time to take another look at the local news.
Streaming news still a rarity
While news is still a rarity in the streaming space, things are starting to change. This month, ViacomCBS launched Paramount Plus, which will incorporate CBSN, as well as livestreams of local CBS affiliates. Fox Entertainment’s streaming service Tubi launched News on Tubi in October 2020. It recently added nearly 80 stations, with 24-hour live news feeds. Amazon Prime is also looking to get in on the news game, adding live and on-demand local news to Fire TV.
ViacomCBS already has a head start in streaming news, as CBSN was the first streaming news service to launch in the United States in 2014. And the company continues to make news part of its OTT strategy. Christy Tanner, EVP and GM at ViacomCBS, believes their “marriage of journalism and technology” differentiates them in the streaming wars.
“It baffles me that news is not a bigger part of streaming services. It’s such an incredible opportunity to reach a highly engaged audience,” says Tanner.
“News has been a really important driver of growth within CBS and now ViacomCBS. And that is the reason it is one of the three pillars of Paramount Plus. We know that news users are loyal. They come back frequently, and they stay for a long time. Now we are expanding on this knowledge to improve our news offering within our streaming services.”
However, creating live news, 24/7, is not without its challenges. There are issues around the nature of news content and the digital development resources required. This could be why few providers offer it as part of their streaming packages.
“Entertainment and news are very different,” says Tanner. “News is a real commitment. And you have to be prepared for what comes with that. Also, providers don’t see the financial opportunities they are missing. They see news as a loss leader or break-even proposition – but what we’ve done is proof.”
Oinounou agrees that some major streaming companies may be reluctant to “get too deep into news game” because of the constant need to feed the news monster with fresh content. “Media companies want evergreen content. But news is ephemeral, it’s only relevant for couple of hours, which is a real challenge,” he says.
Falling off a cliff
However, Oinounou is less convinced by the financial opportunities of streaming news, when compared to the figures cable news commands. Digital news revenue is largely ad-based while cable news relies on subscription and massive advertising income, both of which are hard to replicate online.
“There is revenue there, but not on the same scale as broadcast,” he states. “Streaming services need to ask how they can grow revenue in order to compensate for the cliff they are about to go off, in terms of cable subscriptions. We know that people will pay for sport and entertainment online. But it’s not yet been proven as a revenue source for news.
“We saw this evolution in print. News was free online. But then classified revenue fell through the floor and print subscriptions collapsed, so newspapers realized they had to start charging and put up a paywall.”
It’s only in recent years that news titles have started to generate significant subscription revenue. That said, these tend to be larger national titles or conglomerations of local news brands that have greater resources than most local brands.
However, the trend offers proof that people will pay for a quality product and a good digital experience. Therefore, it seems likely that broadcast news producers are heading in the same direction. But the question is, who goes first? Which company will be brave enough to put digital news behind a paywall?
Fox Nation is one example of how a news subscription model can work. They offer additional content on interesting topics with big names and personalities as a draw. WarnerMedia has also floated the idea of launching a similar streaming channel, with a CNN-based subscription service.
“OTT live streams need to do the same thing, by offering either exclusive content or access, which will add value and persuade customers to pay an extra fee,” says Oinounou. “They also need to make sure content is authentic to the platform. Consumers on new devices have different needs and digital news is more interactive. So content has to be adapted to the streaming space.”
A new business model
Along with great content, creating a successful streaming news channel is also about having the right technology to ensure it’s available on all platforms. This is something Tanner prides herself on. “CBSN’s strength is to enable the viewer to find our news wherever they are,” she says. “The channel is available on more than 20 devices, services and platforms.”
Oinounou agrees if news providers don’t move quickly to adapt to streaming technology and get on all new and emerging platforms “you are going to be left behind”.
Creating a good product is not just about attracting subscribers. It’s also about retaining them. And a key to reducing churn, is to reduce user fatigue and financial outgoings, which are often associated with too many streaming services. One solution is to bundle streaming content, in the same way as cable TV, where consumers pay one fee and have access to all the entertainment, sport, and news they want.
Bundling their own streaming services is a no-brainer for brands. However, given the proliferation of offerings on the market, partnering with other streaming companies could be the service consumers really want. We have already seen this happen with ViacomCBS, who partnered up with Apple TV+ last year.
“There is a lot of experimentation happening right now with all major companies trying to figure out a new business model for news,” said Oinounou. “But media executives are still focused on where the money is, and that’s not in digital.”
However, with the likes of Altice USA CEO Dexter Goei predicting the death of cable TV, the question is not “if” broadcast news will be streamed, it is a matter of how and when. What media executives need to focus on now, is how to make the new model match the traditional pay-TV bundle.
Local news outlets have been on the ropes for a while, and this year is no different. Competition for digital advertising has been fierce, and it is well documented that two technology companies eat the lion’s share of the revenue.
In fact, just this month, HD Media LLC, a news publisher, filed a federal antitrust lawsuit against the duopoly, Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc. The lawsuit asserts that the two companies are manipulating the digital-advertising market, making it difficult for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and others to survive.
Exacerbating the financial implications is the way in which these two tech companies disintermediate news distribution and consumption. Given this reality, how can local news organizations successfully compete and manage a successful audience relationship?
Local news study
Sarah Stonbely’s research, from the Center of Cooperative Media, identifies news ways to answer this question. Stonbely maps local news organizations (LNO) to their coverage area, using New Jersey as a proxy for other local news markets. She then applies demographics characteristics to these maps in a first step to understand which communities are served and to what degree. Importantly, studying the local news ecosystem offers insight into the needs and interaction of information producers, content, and their audiences.
This study includes local news outlets such as newspapers, local television, and radio stations and digital native news outlets in New Jersey. In total, 779 local news providers are part of the analysis.
Stonbely’s mapping of local news outlets shows that communities characterized by less education and located in rural areas are less served. Further, the research also shows that Hispanic communities are particularly underserved by local news.
In contrast, communities with higher income and located in the suburbs are served by more local news organizations. Interestingly, education is not a significant variable. The level of education does not necessarily correlate to whether a community is more or less likely to have a greater number of local news originators.
More affluent municipalities are more likely to have a greater number of local news providers serving them. And, in turn, a community in the lowest income bracket (median household income of $25,000 to $50,000) is more than twice as likely to be a news desert as a news oasis.
It is not surprising that local news organization coverage correlates to a higher median household income. Increasingly, local news outlets are supported by those able to pay for their content. While, the audience-revenue model is key to sustainability, the author’s findings suggests that this model does not serve lower income communities because they may lack the ability to pay for news access.
And even for those supported by advertising, more affluent communities are likely to boast more potential advertisers as well as present appealing demographics to those advertisers. In either case, less affluent communities are not able to sustain local journalism, which in turn can expand the economic divide.
Municipalities with the greatest percentage of Hispanic residents are most likely to be news deserts. In fact, the likelihood of having a higher number of local news outlets increases as the percentage of the population that is Hispanic decreases.
As such, the research reveals that New Jersey’s largest minority is underserved (ethnic outlets were not available to map). While there are certainly some Hispanic news organizations, additional investment in local news would better support local markets.
Local news also helps keeps a watch on municipal spending. Stonbely reports that New Jersey municipalities spent $15,1 billion the year this research conducted. Almost half, $7.4 billion, was spent in municipalities with zero to two local news originators. Community journalism’s coverage of municipal spending is important in maintaining a transparent and honest local governance.
Road to sustainability
The findings here align well with the Local Journalism Sustainability Act introduced in July 2020 by Representative Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ), which offers an alternate revenue model to fund local news. The bill allows individual and business taxpayers tax credits in support of local newspapers and media. In addition, the bill allows for philanthropic funding to be put toward local news operational costs.
Stonbely’s work offers a granular and comparative view of New Jersey communities served by local news coverage. The work provides insights into how mapping local news organizations to communities can highlight opportunities for improvement and growth. This study reveals gaps that news outlets can fill to fuel new audience relationships. It also provides a stark look at the realities of finding a model that both sustains local journalism and the interests of the communities these outlets serve.
Social media continues to grapple with the spread of misinformation on their platforms. And consumers know this. Regardless, they continue to use social media as a primary news source. According to the most recent Pew Research Center survey, more than half of U.S. adults (53%) report that they get their news from social media “often” or “sometimes.” The survey was taken by nearly 10,000 U.S. adults.
Facebook ranks highest (36%) as the number one news source consumers use regularly among 11 social platforms. YouTube ranks second at 24% and Twitter ranks third with 15% of adults regularly getting their news there. Fewer consumers say they get their news regularly on Instagram (11%), Reddit (6%), Snapchat (4%), LinkedIn (4%), TikTok (3%), WhatsApp (3%), Tumblr (1%), and Twitch (1%).
Interestingly, despite the fact that they often find their news on social media, consumers question the accuracy of the news they get on these platforms. Approximately six in 10 consumers (59%) say that they expect the news on social platforms to be largely inaccurate. Unfortunately, the data shows little change over the last three years. Even after two congressional hearings, there’s still an abundant amount of vaccine, Covid-19, and the 2020 presidential election misinformation on social media.
Social media does little to help consumers interpret the news. In fact, less than one-third (29%) of consumers believe the information they received on social platforms helps their understanding of the news. Further, 23% believe the news on social media leaves them more confused and 47% report that it doesn’t make much of a difference.
More women than men (63% vs. 35% and 60% vs. 35%, respectively) use social media to access their news. However, Reddit has a distinctly different demographic. Among its regular news consumers, two-thirds are men compared to women (67% vs. 29%).
Consumers use social media as an easy and accessible path to news and information. However, this Pew study clearly shows consumer are aware of misinformation on social media. Increased awareness is a good thing and an important step to expose and defuse misinformation.
Social platforms continue to try to combat misinformation with fact-checkers and other programs. Twitter launched a new program, “Birdwatch,” which allows Twitter users to comment and provide context on tweets that they believe are misleading or false. Unfortunately, none of these programs are winning the fight against misinformation. A recent investigation of Facebook found 430 pages with 45 million followers monetizing misinformation with Facebook tools. Clearly, more needs to be done to stop the dissemination and monetization of misinformation on social platforms.
As McKinsey reminds us, great products result when companies build bridges between technology innovation and audience preference. It is critical to deliver a holistic experience across functions and every stage of the customer journey. In media, aligning teams to develop data-informed products that engage audiences is more than a pathway to excellence. It’s essential for survival.
However, it can also be expensive to support. The record number of newsroom closures in 2020 offers unsettling proof that quality content cannot be the only draw. Organizations need to combine content and experience in new ways that decrease friction, increase satisfaction, and adapt to how consumers want to interact and where they are in the journey.
Continuing with our series of DCN video interviews, I talk to Millie Tran, chief product officer at The Texas Tribune. A local news success story, the Texas Tribune has built a sustainable business, employing more than 60 journalists through a range of revenue sources, including thousands of paying members.
Drawing from her experience at the Tribune, as well as The New York Times and Buzzfeed, Tran shares how the Tribune aligns editorial with the back-end processes to adapt content and coverage to what most readers find most useful. She also reveals how her team harnesses audience data and innovative news modules and visualizations to drive a 2x increase in homepage views and keep readers coming back.
Watch the video or read the full transcript below.
Peggy Anne Salz: Product is the new marketing, but it’s not a new focus. It is gaining new significance as content companies’ perfect ways to draw from their data, to customize content and measure the results. But what are the business benefits? How can you individualize flagship products to drive views and longer sessions? How should you focus efforts and investments? Tough questions, yes, but we get the inside track here today from The Texas Tribune on Digital Content Next.
I am your host, Peggy Anne Salz, mobile analyst, content marketing consultant and frequent contributor to Digital Content Next. Of course, DCN is a trade association serving the diverse needs of high-quality digital content companies globally.
So my guest today is the chief product officer of The Texas Tribune. So it is a perfect match with our topic. That is where she leads audience, engineering, data, design, marketing, and communications and loyalty teams. Before this, she was deputy off-platform editor at The New York Times and before that global growth editor.
I am so excited to have her here today to talk about how she creates a holistic and successful product. Millie Tran, welcome to Digital Content Next. Great to have you here.
Millie Tran: Thanks for having me Peggy. I am excited to talk.
Peggy: It is a great topic. Product is so important, and I would like to start by understanding the alignment between product and the newsroom.
So, just thinking about your day-to-day routines, strategically and in practice, what does that look like?
Tran: I love this question. You know product can feel really opaque. I think traditionally we think of product as sitting in the center. But at a news organization, the news is the product.
So that alignment between product and the newsroom really manifests in the alignment with me and our editorial director Stacy-Marie Ishmael. I would say we are constantly in communication. And one of our core functions in each of our roles is just making decisions, making a call under conditions of uncertainty, conflict, complexity and increasing and sometimes unknown interdependencies.
We make a decision over here it can affect two things over there. And we are in a process of constantly anticipating those downstream effects so we can make the smartest decision based on our strategy. The balance between editorial decisions, product decisions and revenue decisions.
How I see my job. I think it is a mix of people, process and product. And I think it has to be in that order. It has to be that you understand people, their roles, their jobs, their skills, to work together most efficiently and effectively to build that product.
Salz: I love that because first of all you have people first, that resonates with me and you are thinking about not just the output, not just the articles, videos, podcasts, whatever it needs to be. You are focused on an experience. What you yourself have called a more holistic product. I would like to understand what you mean by that. I think you have also tweeted about that as well.
Tran: Probably. Speaking of tweets, I was just reminded of this tweet that Margaret Sullivan shared the other day about how she is a big fan and supporter of local news. But the websites are so horrendous, and I think that neatly ties up with what you are asking. Holistic to me means the whole experience. All of those things you mentioned, those modules, articles, videos, podcasts. There are micro experiences to each of those things, but all of those add up to the overall user experience.
When I say holistic user experience, I also mean not just the engineering, not just the CMS, it is also the design. It is also the way we write headlines, for example. So it is organizationally something we want to provide our users. I know even the ads we consider putting on our website, are not random ads that are offensive and distracting to the journalism. If you go to our website, you will see right now the ads are very relevant to someone interested in Texas, for example.
Salz: That is very important because relevancy, as you said, it is the entire experience, and it has to fit together. What are the systems I am even interacting with or working with in the first place? It goes far beyond CMS is what I’m hearing.
Tran: It is, and I would say we have a great tech setup here, our CMS is homemade, so that is our engineering team’s biggest product, and that powers our website. We have our data visuals team who are doing one off projects that we can test and learn from.
So we have a way to experiment with new products and a nice process to build it into the broader systems to make it easier. It is this nice feedback loop of experimenting, learning, and then integrating it into how we just do our work.
So our journalists and editors can also make these things easily because that also informs the work product at the end.
Salz: I want to get back to the whole idea of delivering a product, a product is the new marketing. We said that at the top and it is a success when it either acquires audiences or deepens the connection with existing ones. What is it at The Texas Tribune? What is your audience approach? Is it acquisition or retention or maybe, something else?
Tran: That is a great question. I think it has to be both acquisition and retention.
One of our big strategic priorities right now is double and diversify. Doubling our audience and making our audience reflect Texas, be more representative of Texas.
I often think about our membership. We want to grow the number of people who are supporting us through small dollar donations. The way to increase the members is to either have more people come to your site and then you have this natural conversion flow.
A percentage of our total readers are members so there is this natural conversion flow already. So you get more members by increasing the number of people who come to you or you increase the effectiveness of converting them. So at every point, do they come back, do they potentially sign up for a newsletter? We have seen that newsletters are our most effective channel in membership conversion. So: getting a reader to donate to us. I think it is about putting both of those things into a framework that helps you understand the costs and benefits of each at every point.
So, I think it is about having all the data, putting it in a model and framework that helps you balance all of these things. I don’t think you can just choose one or the other. Having that broad view will help you make better decisions.
I said that is a quantitative framework and to loop back to what you said about product is the new marketing. I think people subscribe to things. They support organizations, they support brands for reasons that we can’t always quantify. It is really important also to understand the emotional connection that someone has to your product and your organization, your brand.
I think in addition to having that quantitative framework, you need a way to understand why people are supporting you. I think that goes back to an organization’s mission and values.
Something that I am really proud that we do is have our journalism free to publish for kind of any news organization.
When you support us, you support Texas overall having a better news ecosystem. I think people, that resonates with people. I think understanding that resonates with people is really important, even if you cannot quantify it in that model I just talked about. To your question it is balancing the acquisition and retention, but also balancing the measurables and immeasurables.
Salz: I like that because that is exactly it, it is very holistic. It is about looking at what you can measure, and we will talk about that in a moment.
There are events, there are metrics, there are things you want to optimize too, but you also want to optimize the experience. That is thinking about the people, the audience, what resonates with them, what did they appreciate?
Now I would love for you to unpack that. Maybe you can give an example, walk us through the homepage because that is where the conversions happen. That is where the conversations happen.
Tran: Yes, so let me just pull up my homepage for you. This is The Texas Tribune homepage. There are two things on here already that I can talk through that we just launched within the past year during my time at the Tribune.
So this navbar is something we launched and what you’re seeing here, by the way, these little green numbers are live audience data. We use Parse.ly for this so we can see in the last 10 minutes or whatever time period, what people are clicking on. We can see what is of interest, what is resonating with people, that will inform, not necessarily decide, what we choose to feature.
Going back to what I was saying, about our two teams, the data visuals team, which is in the newsroom and then the engineering team. This navbar was code that was in a previous, I think it was in an election page, a way for us to highlight different topics on that page. We ended up pulling that code and the engineering team made it a part of our core CMS.
So we took something that was a one-off, we learned about how people used it and then saw a need for it. There are so many coronavirus stories that we did not know how to surface all the different lines and angles. We knew that we had the code. We took it and then the engineering team built that feature into our CMS. Now editors can just choose their own topics each day and highlight the most important. I think that is a great example of the culture of experimentation, it is a culture of learning and iterating.
When the most people are on our homepage, we want to optimize for the most important things that they should see.
That was one quick way that we did that. Another way is this coronavirus in Texas model you will see here.
I think the beauty in all of this again, is the flexibility and adaptability. It’s actually not a coronavirus in Texas model. It is a model to feature any kind of series that we choose.
You can imagine this not being here. If you are scrolling through, it would take so long to see all the relevant stories in one place. This in itself is such a great product because it does a lot of things. It gives you the latest coverage in a very skimmable way. So you are not having to scroll so deep because most people don’t, and again, that is understanding the audience behavior and making it a better product, given that information. We also have feature coverage, so it is not just chronological, it is our editorial priorities.
I talked about newsletter subscribers and having that module there is really important to us because if we can get people to subscribe to our newsletters, they can become part of our email universe and therefore eventually hopefully become a member.
Salz: Absolutely. You can re-engage with them and talking about engagement you have some other modules that you were showing me in prep that I was very interested in. How you turned a news story into a module. Can you walk me through that as well?
Tran: Yes, absolutely. This is a story that we did, late last year about how Texas has made it easier and harder for people to vote in the pandemic.
You will see if you notice the order here. This was not the original order and what we did was make sure that we were tracking what people were clicking on, so we can get a sense of what people needed to know most. We ended up moving that question about when was the last day to register to vote first. And again, I think that’s just being responsive to reader needs, working with our newsroom, working with our engineering team, working with our data visuals team to really have an integrated news driven, but reader informed product. And you’ll also see here there’s fiscal support, right?
So April Hinkle who’s our chief revenue officer was able to take it to market and get funding for it. Again, this is just one way that we really tied in, the newsroom, product and revenue.
Salz: You more than doubled your views to the homepage in just one month.
So you went from 400,000 in February to more than a million in March, obviously breaking news, very important. We’re all talking about COVID, but that number is also consistent. So you keep them coming back. We talked about how that works when there’s news, breaking news, but of course it’s not a static world out there.
So I’d like to understand how you adjust to make the changes in the editorial product accordingly to keep that number as high as it is.
Tran: We found that our readers who visit the homepage are just also more engaged with us, right? They’re more loyal. They visit an average of 2.3 pages versus 1.4 of all visitors on site. They stay on the site for longer to 2 minutes, 45 seconds compared to 1 minute and 10 seconds for all visitors.
So they are more engaged. They’re reading more, they’re staying longer. So I really want to retain this audience. If this goes down, that would be a huge red flag to me because there are people who have come to, I would say, depend on us.
So I think it’s one, meeting that editorial promise and mission. And then two, it’s about making that experience better. And that’s all the things we talked through about making the homepage, you get more information in one glance, it’s fast. Speed matters in page loads.
And going back to your very first question about alignment between news and products, that’s one way to bring together that news promise and also making the best product experience for that person looking for information.
Salz: Of course, there’s another side to this. There are the challenges, you see it everywhere. Local newsrooms are crunched, even closing down. I’d like to have an understanding about the investment and staffing necessary to achieve what you’ve been able to do.
Tran: I’ll always say that it begins like starts and ends with the journalism, but I think just as important is having the kind of architecture and infrastructure to support that journalism.
So I think it’s really important to invest just as much in the scaffolding around the journalism to enable that journalism, with a continued focus on the reader and I think it’s important to say also the revenue.
And in terms of investment, we’re hiring two people right now for our marketing team because that marketing function actually serves several parts of the organization.
It serves our republishing strategy. It serves our event strategy, which has a direct line to revenue. And it serves our membership strategy, which has a line to revenue. Thinking about all the things that make things you see at the back end possible is really important. So that’s where we’re focusing our investments for this year.
Salz: I’d like to just think about going forward in a different way. You talk about holistic product and I’m looking at this all the time, what is the next big thing? Although I have to say we have a lot of work to do on the existing products we have.
We haven’t really nailed it in apps, but we are talking about AR, we are talking about voice, both are poised for explosive growth.
So let’s talk about what other innovations you might be looking at or ways you want to make your product or plan to make your product more engaging, more accessible, and increase of course engagement retention in the process. What’s on the horizon?
Tran: You mentioned AR, that’s definitely not in my roadmap. But voice on the other hand, that is more plausible.
With voice for example we have a pretty robust suite of audio products already. We just rebooted Point of Order which is our podcast with our CEO, Evan Smith ahead of The Texas Legislature being in session again. So I think it’s about aligning what we have currently to build off on and then really sizing the opportunity for us. Again, I’m really laser focused on understanding the ROI of every investment, predicting and modeling the outcomes of that. And I think in doing that you’re balancing high risk with high reward. And I think not everything will fall into that. But you also don’t want to limit yourself in not taking those risks. So anyway, to your actual question… I’m thinking about all of it and hoping that we can make the smartest decisions that aligns with our strategy, with the information we have.
Salz: I think you will, because of course you have these very specific guidelines. You’re thinking about people, you’re thinking about process, and you’re aligning to create a holistic experience. Some of these will play a role. Some of them, of course, maybe not. But all of it will be very interesting to watch as it goes forward.
Thank you so much for sharing Millie, for speaking about what you’re doing at The Texas Tribune, showing it as well in your homepage and giving us a little peek into where your thinking is going into the future. Thanks again for being on.
Tran: Thank you so much Peggy. This was great.
Salz: Thank you. And of course, thank you for tuning in and taking the time today. In the meantime, of course, be sure to check out all the great content here on digitalcontentnext.org or join the conversation on Twitter @DCNorg.
So until next time, I’m your host Peggy Anne Salz signing off for Digital Content Next.
The news topics driving audience attention look different today than they did in March. Covid-19 affected people in just about every part of their lives. Therefore, it affected the news cycle in almost every ad category.
The initial declaration of the global pandemic sparked a dramatic increase in traffic to publisher sites across the board. That traffic boom has since waned and we’re left with different audience interests.
We wanted to know exactly what those new interests look like. To do this, we dove into readership on the Taboola network of U.S. news publishers.
Taboola’s data includes audiences at more than 1,300 U.S. news websites including national, local, and digital-native organizations. The scope of the network offers a broad view of what’s capturing people’s attention. Here’s what we found:
Coronavirus continues to dominate news in almost every news category
Across all news categories, news about the global pandemic has declined. However, it still eclipses audience attention over any other topic.
Even as traffic levels out, news about the virus is still driving more traffic than other topics by almost a billion pageviews a day. And it’s likely to stick around.
Finance, Business and Industrial, & Real Estate
As the stock market fell, news audiences interested in finance, business, and real estate rushed to learn about investment opportunities, hear advice from the experts, and purchase shares.
Money management advice and the news about the real estate market—specifically whether or not it was a good time to buy or sell a home—came in after investment topics.
Recent protests and events related to racism and the Black community in the U.S .have led to a surge in traffic regarding social institutions, racism, and crime.
These topics previously drove traffic for news sites. However, other topics like work, dating, and the impact of the Coronavirus on our society and wellbeing had been at the forefront.
The impact of Coronavirus created a surge in traffic around May, as states began to roll out plans for re-opening, marked in red in the graph above.
Science, Computing & Technology
Even when they’re staying inside, news audiences still want to hear about the weather. They are specifically interested in major weather events like tornadoes and storm clusters.
Recent news about internet technology companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google have also captured their attention. They triggered an entirely new surge in traffic beginning in May, as these companies grapple with how to manage political content on their platforms.
It’s also worth noting that news related to new releases of mobile phones, personal computers, and other consumer technology continues to drive traffic for publishers.
Family and Parenting, Pets, & Home and Garden
For families, Coronavirus meant educating children at home, and in some cases, taking care of them during the workday. In tandem, for many people quarantine provided an opportunity to adopt pets, leading to an increase in traffic for topics related to pet care.
Shopping, Style & Fashion
Fashion companies really had to adapt as sales dropped and strategies shifted. Audiences are focused on clothing specifically, and the impact that the global pandemic will have on those brands.
They’re also tuned in to news related to big retailers. In particular, how their businesses are faring the recession, and whether or not they have plans for re-opening.
Arts & Entertainment
People’s plans to keep busy were entirely digital. And many publisher audiences were interested in the fate of the shows and events they could no longer attend.
Around May, those topics became just as interesting as news about movies and TV shows, a big source of entertainment for people in lockdown.
It’s worth noting the two gaping holes missing from these graphs. Sports and travel news cycles were entirely interrupted as both industries ground to a halt.
While some of these trends are specific to events in the recent months, others could impact publisher news cycles long-term. Keeping a pulse on the topics that engage news readers will continue to serve news publishers in increasing both engagement and traffic with their content.
Each year the Reuters Institute publishes an analysis on the state of the digital news ecosystem. The Digital News Report is vast, covering six continents and 40 markets across the globe. This year’s report explores the impact of coronavirus on news consumption and on the economic prospects for publishers. It looks at progress on new paid online business models, trust and misinformation, partisanship and populism, and the popularity of curated editorial products like podcasts and email newsletters.
The report provides a comprehensive review of the marketplace and incorporates and tracks core consumer metrics of trust and engagement. In particular, it offers insights into digital news publishers’ business models, their sustainability, and the overall impact on modern society.
With the rise and distribution of low-cost internet publishing and its usage to fuel political polarization, the news media as a whole has been called into question. Unfortunately, extreme viewpoints intensified by social media algorithms and the amplification of echo chambers produce a lot of noise and misinformation. Consequently, divided societies trust media less, as they are generally dissatisfied with institutions in their countries.
This type of dissatisfaction is reflected in the data with only four in ten respondents (38%) trusting news overall. However, close to half (49%) trust the news brands they know and use. Further, news in distributed environments (search and social) are trusted the least at 22%. Not surprisingly, social media leads as the biggest source of concern about misinformation (40%), twice the level of news sites (20%).
With a surge of politicize news sources, respondents want the facts. Close to two-thirds of Americans (60%) prefer to get news from sources that have no point of view compare to 30% who prefer to get their news from sources that share your point of view or 10% who prefer to get news from those who challenge their views.
Many publishers added new opportunities for paid content to their business model, such as subscriptions, memberships, donations, and micropayments. Growth in subscriptions continues with 20% of respondents in the US paying for online content, up four percentage points in the last year.
Reuters identifies two waves of subscription growth in the U.S. Wave 1 was set in motion by the younger and more liberal voter population in 2016 who subscribed after Donald Trump was elected as president. This segment wants to be informed and to support journalism as a tool to maintain democracy.
The second wave is upon us now. It is fueled by a new election cycle and tighter restrictions around paywalls and what content is available for free. News publishers also experienced growth in new subscribers with the onset of the coronavirus. And that comes, despite many of them offering free Covid-19 content.
With more pathways to news content, just over one-quarter of consumers (28%) report accessing news websites or apps directly. Another 26% access via social media and 25% access through search. However, among 18-24-year-olds, only 16% have a direct connection with news brands. More than twice as many (38%) prefer social media for their news. Developing a relationship with Gen Z is an important target for publishers’ long-term sustainability.
Overall, the majority of consumers report that the news media did a good job in helping them understand the details of the pandemic. However, close to one-third (32%) reported that the news media sensationalized the seriousness of the situation. The coronavirus also showcased the need for local news, however long-term demand (and support) is in question.
With quality journalism in demand, digital news publishers must be highly consumer focused. Given that close to three quarters of consumers using backdoors to access their content, publishers need to increase their focus on brand value and customer experience. The 18-24-year-olds are a focal point for growth. And fostering a relationship with this younger demographic holds strong promise for news brands.
Throughout the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, media organizations have had no option but to rapidly – and even radically – change their existing processes to keep things running smoothly. despite being unable to work within their usual offices and create content in the manner to which they’d become accustomed.
We reached out to some of the members of Digital Context Next and asked them the following question:
“Given the way companies have been necessarily adjusting and adapting to the Covid-19 crisis, what trends have particularly caught your eye, and which ones do you think are most likely to continue into the post-pandemic digital landscape?”
As you’ll see below, the responses were wide and varied, with each exec offering insight from their own unique perspective. But there were also several distinct similarities of observation, hinting at some potentially noteworthy trends in creative problem-solving, consumption of news and information, and increased productivity in a remote work environment.
“The increase in news consumption among younger demographics has caused an influx of new advertisers to the genre. We have also seen a decrease in keyword blocking over the last month compared to the start of the pandemic. Marketers realized that keyword blocking was being applied too broadly and that they were missing important, brand safe content.”
– Jeff Collins Executive Vice President, Advertising Sales FOX News Media
“Advertisers, agencies and publishers continue to navigate these challenging times with flexibility, speed and increased communication. The rapidity of creating solutions and working together across the industry has been impressive, and surely that nimble nature will be a constant moving forward. Additionally, the power of live news in a digital environment has been a force. Partners are embracing cross-platform service advertising to support necessary journalism while communicating brand campaigns and messages with mission at the helm. The value for partners and consumers alike is inherent, and from here, we’ll continue to see that grow in importance.”
– Christine Cook Senior Vice President & Chief Revenue Officer CNN Digital, WarnerMedia Ad Sales
“I’ve been impressed with how productive our staff has been in a fully remote work environment. I worry that our strong culture supports an effective WFH structure, but that over time, with departures and new hires, that could erode. Even with that concern, I do think that we will be much more accepting of remote work arrangements and lower occupancy in the office.”
– Michael F. Finnegan President Atlantic Media
“In addition to some obvious trends that will stick, involving remote work and public health precautions, I’m hoping that the speed and agility of our response to the crisis as publishers will be long lasting. In the AP’s case, we converted to remote operations worldwide, including complex video newsgathering and distribution. The move required us to move master control rooms to staffers’ homes immediately and implement remote tools for video editing to staffers worldwide. Not every project in the future needs to be run as a fire drill like this, but my hope is that we will retain a lot of the muscle memory from our response to the Covid crisis.”
– Jim Kennedy SVP, Strategy & Enterprise Development Associated Press
“Independent trustworthy journalism has proven itself in the crisis and is emerging even stronger than before. However the advertising markets across the globe have collapsed significantly and we cannot be sure whether they will return or shift even further towards the mega-platforms. Increasingly, a very few mega-platforms decide if, where and how citizens can use and access journalistic offerings and other services. The Covid crisis has accelerated this development. The policy response in Europe and in the US must be faster, more determined and more comprehensive in order to safeguard free, independent journalism and to re-establish fair competition in digital markets.”
– Dr. Dietrich von Klaeden Senior Vice President Public Affairs Axel Springer SE
“The pandemic is forcing us to look more closely at who we’re reaching and when. And it’s making the case for more surgical, performance-based advertising in lieu of broader brand marketing efforts. Going forward, I think we’ll see a more concerted effort to tie media investment to business outcomes, but those business outcomes will still include brand building KPIs in addition to performance focused KPIs.
“We’ll also see an increased emphasis on flexibility and agility across the media industry as a whole, specifically in relation to upfront/annual budget commitments and creative production. With so much changing so quickly, the last several months have created an environment in which marketers want to mitigate risk as much as possible, especially when it comes to media distribution or to creative campaigns that may need to be altered based on micro/macroeconomic conditions and societal issues.”
– Craig Kostelic Chief Business Officer, U.S. Advertising Revenue and Head of GlobalAdvertising Solutions Condé Nast
“Mobile has been a central part of our business but Covid-19 has brought that to a new level – people aren’t in the office so that workday routine is out the window. Our audiences are toggling between mobile devices, laptops, and Connected-TVs at all hours. This means more news during the day (especially streaming broadcasts) but also on evenings and weekends. Offering a great experience across all devices is so important. We’re also seeing the value of effectively pushing content out through app notifications, search optimization, email and third-party aggregators. It’s a very competitive market and you can’t sit back and hope people find your content.
“We’re seeing how important it is to be ready to tell stories with video and with text. Video does well on social media, text does better on search – people have different preferences. By consistently telling stories in multiple ways, we maximize our audience and the engagement we receive. Explainer videos that offer foundational information have been extremely important during Covid-19. Things like ‘What you need to know about Covid-19’ have been consistently among our top videos and most shared on social media. They also have companion articles that share similar information and that’s been a winning formula for us.”
– Marian Pittman SVP, Content COX Media Group
“In our space, OTT and other platforms have seen explosive growth. We are also seeing an uptick on online donations, even in these challenging economic times. This is directly related to an increase in the consumption of PBS content both on air and online. We’ve also seen marked growth in PBS Learning Media as more students and teachers and parents look for online educational tools and growth in PBS Kids content, especially the games app that launched only a few years ago but is now used as much as the PBS Kids video app. For PBS I believe all these trends will continue as consumers adopt new habits and discover the quality content Public Media and our local stations bring to them.”
– Ira Rubenstein Chief Digital & Marketing Officer PBS
“Three trends catch my eye. One is the necessary acceleration of creating value from audiences other than via advertising, which is proving to be a fickle friend. That means specifically paid content/membership strategies, but also the value in analysis and research via first party direct relationships with readers. In a world without a compass, insight into the thoughts and inclinations of key audiences are gold dust, both for publishers and partners.
“The second trend is the changing definition of ‘journalism’ from the spoken, video or written format to a more data-driven and graphical experience. The Covid-19 crisis has been played out – and devoured by readers – in charts and graphs. I think there’s a lot more potential to engage readers in the future with this format.
“The other trend is of course the reinvention of the event space. Digital events were always thought to be a poor relation of the live experience. But I’m seeing audience appetite, bags of creativity, and lots of opportunity to develop engaging, valuable events online.
“It’s a terrifying time for a lot of reasons, but there are exciting opportunities out there, too.”
– Jon Slade Chief Commercial Officer Financial Times
“I have some great news about the coronavirus,” says TikTok user Khalilslife, speaking with the confidence of a newscaster, while wearing a backwards baseball cap. It’s May 5 when he uploads this video, and Americans are growing restless. By now, many have followed Covid-19 social distancing rules for six weeks or more. At this point, any “great news,” is undoubtedly welcome.
“If (coronavirus vaccine) trials are successful, that means that it could be in emergency use by September,” Khalilslife says to his 2.8 million TikTok followers. “In other news, Madagascar president said they already have the cure, and it’s made from herbal natural remedies. It’s already ready to begin production. What would you rather do, a vaccine or an herbal drink?”
It’s easy to hear “information” akin to “an herbal tonic can cure Covid-19” while idly scrolling through TikTok. In fact, Khalilslife’s video has been viewed 1.7 million times. It takes more effort to go to a news website and find explanatory articles about medically- and scientifically- researched efforts around coronavirus vaccines and treatment.
If Khalilslife viewers were to double check his facts, they’d find his video lacks context. it’s true that Madagascar’s president claims that an herbal concoction can work as a coronavirus cure. The veracity of that claim is highly questionable. Some stories do mention a vaccine appearing in autumn. However, most experts find that projection highly doubtful. In fact, in May, scientists and medical experts predicted that widespread use of a vaccine would be 12-18 months away.
For zoomers, the medium is the message
TikTok, a social platform where users create and consume 15- to 60-second videos, was the fourth-most downloaded app of 2019. It is especially popular with Gen Z, those born from 1997 to 2012. Colloquially called zoomers, Gen Z members post dance challenges, lip syncing, comedy sketches, slang-filled history lessons, and political punditry. Along with YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat, these apps concentrate much of Gen Z’s time.
However, social media platforms are also where most members of Generation Z get their news. A 2019 report from the Reuters Institute at Oxford University found that young people largely consume news passively or as a time filler as they scroll through social media. People under 35 also tend to think of the news as a source of entertainment, the research showed.
Unfortunately, though, misinformation is rampant on these platforms. They disseminate political conspiracies and false information about climate change, flat earth beliefs, and anti-vaccination propaganda. Unsurprisingly, coronavirus conspiracy theories have found a home on social media apps.
Perhaps what is surprising is the fact that Gen Z-ers have just as difficult time sniffing out false or out-of-context statements as their elders. News organizations may need to rethink their strategies when it comes to tackling misinformation directed at Gen Z. It is critical to support this generation’s media literacy skills and help them learn to identify quality information from trustworthy sources.
Digitally native, but digitally naive
The problem is not just the misinformation itself. Because as it turns out, although they use social media fluidly, Gen Z has trouble distinguishing fact from fiction.
Despite their familiarity with online media, 82% of middle schoolers who responded to a Stanford University survey could not tell the difference between an advertisement and a news story. The 2015-16 survey also found that over 30% of middle schoolers surveyed considered a fake news story more credible than a real one.
A Stanford study from 2019 echoed these claims. Researchers showed more than 3,000 American high school students a Facebook video of Russian election workers secretively loading ballots into bins. The caption incorrectly identified these workers as Democrats during the 2016 election. Over half of respondents believed the caption. They agreed that the photos were “strong evidence of voter fraud” during the 2016 Democratic primaries.
Zoomers are not alone. A Pew study found that nearly 90% of U.S. adults thought fake news either caused some or a great deal of confusion during the 2016 election. Nearly a quarter of American adults admitted to sharing fake news during the election, whether they realized it at the time or not.
“The problem of digital media literacy is truly multi-generational,” said Katy Byron, editor and program manager of MediaWise, a fact-checking initiative from the Poynter Institute. “Teenagers spend a ton of time online, upwards of 4+ hours every day by some estimates and anecdotally … But just because they are online a ton doesn’t mean they know how to navigate digital information.”
Given their ease with social media, the internet and digital devices, it’s a conundrum. Why do zoomers struggle to identify misinformation online just as much as older adults who remember floppy disks and prefer Facebook to TikTok?
“The ability to operate a device fluently and fluidly does not mean that you understand the information that that device produces,” said Dr. Sam Wineburg, professor of education at Stanford. In carrying out the two Stanford above, Wineburg aimed to investigative civic online reasoning in young people.
Wineburg likens online media literacy to driving a car. For anyone who drives with a stick shift, switching gears doesn’t require any thought; it’s an automatic response. But not everyone who can change gears can also fix a broken transmission. In short, somebody’s ability to use a tool or technology doesn’t mean that they understand how it works.
Misinformation in the age of Covid-19
Here’s a Sparknotes version of social media’s transmission, so to speak: Algorithms reward posts with high engagement. More eyes see content with shares, retweets, comments, and likes. This alone may seem obvious enough. But these high-engagement posts and videos sometimes promote extremist or conspiracy theories, born on anonymous sites like Reddit and 4Chan before spreading on more mainstream platforms.
On top of that, it’s not always easy to pinpoint false claims if they aren’t immediately outrageous or obviously extremist. Khalilslife’s video about coronavirus cures, for instance, is rooted in news reports. However, it lacks critical context.
Thea Barrett, a recent graduate and zoomer who works as a Mediawise intern, sees this often enough. Misinformation “presents itself in subtle ways, where it isn’t completely right or completely wrong. So, one can share something not thinking too deeply about the post but actually be spreading misinformation,” Barrett said.
When it comes to coronavirus, much of the misinformation spread by social media follows this pattern. In April the Reuters Institute found that about 38% of misinformation regarding Covid-19 was completely fabricated. In comparison, the majority (59%) was real information that had been taken out of context or twisted in some way.
Social media at a boiling point
Historically, social media platforms have been criticized for their failures in identifying and taking down false information. Recently, the debate about social media’s role intensified. The Wall Street Journal reported that top Facebook execs knew the platform’s algorithms were divisive and polarizing, but ignored this information. And Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he didn’t think “Facebook or internet platforms in general should be arbiters of truth.” In other words, according to Zuckerberg, social platforms shouldn’t be responsible for fact checking.
But the misinformation debate has really flared up on Twitter, when the social platform labeled two tweets from the president as “potentially misleading.” Twitter also took the unprecedented step of hiding a tweet from the president that seemed to call for violence against protestors in Minnesota. Twitter’s public interest note claimed that Trump’s tweet “violated the Twitter rules about glorifying violence.” In response, the president issued an executive order that threatens to make websites and social platforms vulnerable to lawsuits.
Covid-19 has also been an impetus for platforms to take more action. Instagram added a note to its community guidelines about not permitting false information. YouTube announced it would take down unsubstantiated medical information about the virus. TikTok revealed a $50,000 research grant meant to “better understand the misinformation ecosystem on social media.”
Even so, plenty of out-of-context or wrong information remains online and is widely disseminated via social media. And experts don’t believe these platforms are doing enough: “They need to be less reactive and abandon this game of whack-a-mole unless they plan to significantly increase content moderation efforts which is clearly not happening in an effective way,” Byron said.
What about news organizations?
Gen Z consumes much of its news on social media. However, it is clear that some of that news is wrongly contextualized (or just plain wrong). So, how can credible news organizations engage this audience and deliver the facts?
It’s not always easy to compete for the attention of a generation that views reading the news as a chore, as reported by the 2019 Reuters Institute study. But the study also found young people are, at least, aware that “fake news” is a problem. They tend to trust what they consider reputable organizations, like the New York Times, Bloomberg, or the Washington Post.
For reputable news sites, this means adapting to the content that Gen Z-ers prefer. They gravitate toward short-form stories, videos, and illustrated formats. It also means delivering the news in a way that fits with the platform, not simply a 800-word traditional news story lazily reformatted to fit a TikTok video or Instagram story.
Some independent initiatives are not only targeting their content at young people, but also getting zoomers involved. The Poynter Institute, for instance, runs the MediaWise Project and Teen Fact-Checking Network. Teen fact checkers show their work at the Mediawise Instagram account, talking viewers step-by-step in how they evaluate “sus” information on social media.
Barrett, who started as a Mediawise teen fact checker and became an intern, says this approach works. “Once you even get one person started talking about it, that has a ripple effect,” Barrett said. “I’ve seen that in my own life. Friends have started sending me claims and asking me if things are legit just because they know I do this work.”
That was, perhaps, one of Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron’s aims In his Harvard commencement speech last week. Baron addressed the college’s seniors, the oldest members of Gen Z. He reminded them that false information can directly impact issues of public health like coronavirus, leading to more hospitalizations and deaths.
“I would have settled for emphasizing that our democracy depends on facts and truth. And it surely does. But now, as we can plainly see, it is more elemental than that,” Baron said. “Facts and truth are matters of life and death. Misinformation, disinformation, delusions and deceit can kill.”
As media companies look to their portfolio of brands to build or maintain their role as content destinations, it’s important to evaluate the production and consumption cycles of their news and entertainment content. To better understand these cycles and their business implications, the World Economic Forum (WEF) surveyed more than 9,100 consumers in China, Germany, India, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States. WEF also conducted six workshops with approximately 100 executives across the media industry to supplement their findings. Their new report, Understanding Value in Media: Perspectives from Consumers and Industry, offers key insights for the digital media marketplace.
Destinations versus ecosystems
WEF makes an important distinction between content players.
There are content destinations, those companies where their content is
the end point for consumers, such as a TV series or a news article. In
contrast, content ecosystems are media companies, such as Amazon and
Apple where the content is used as a tool to generate incremental revenue from
their existing users. Another distinction is that destination media
companies compete to become leaders in their respective areas, whereas ecosystem
players are there to capture time, spend and data.
Content engagement is strong
Consumers are engaged with news and entertainment media as
daily touchpoints. Eight in 10 consumers listen, read or watch news while nine
in 10 watch entertainment content within a 24-hour time period. Further, close
to 60% of consumers qualify as fully engaged, defined here as those who completed
some form of registrations, either free or paid. In terms of future prospect, 53%
report a willingness to pay for news in the future, up from 16% who pay today
and 70% are willing to pay for entertainment content, up from 44%.
Young consumers, ages 16 to 34, are the most likely to pay
for content. An average of 61% currently pay for entertainment content and 17%
Paid news and entertainment services, now a complement to
advertising sales revenue, may serve as the future alternative to ad sales.
Currently, more than two-thirds of news publications (69%) in Europe and the US
operate some form of metered access.
Consumers report a global willingness to pay for content
with 35% agreeing that they should be responsible for paying for and funding
access to news and 44% agreeing for entertainment. They also expect governments
to play a role in funding news compared to entertainment (35% versus 18%
respectively). The findings suggest that consumers recognize the importance of
news publishers to ensure a healthy political discourse. Further, close to a
quarter of consumers think that tech platforms should also be responsible for
supporting and paying for content.
Key strategies for publishers
In moving forward, publishers need to strategic and thoughtful in their approaches to the media business. WEF identified three key strategies:
Identify economies of scale
Publishers must focus on growing subscriptions by expanding audiences. Seemingly already in progress, publishers continue to identify new products to market to current subscribers as well as news prospects. This strategy extends to technology and telecoms offering products across media verticals (e.g. Verizon and ATT).
Make the consumer the primary customer
This approach looks to match consumers’ interests with marketing that speaks directly to them. Usually this is a combination of unique content and personalization. WEF’s research shows evidence that consumers are willing to pay more for personalized media and tailored content and it also helps with churn rate.
Focus on identity
The “identity economy” refers to expenditures
on products and services to form self‑expressions for consumers. Major
advertisers are building closer alignment with identities and values in order
to create a relationship with consumers. Some brands execute by sharing a brand
values or partnering with a cause (companies giving proceeds to charity, etc.).
As the digital marketplace continues to grow, it’s important
to pay close attention to how ecosystem companies integrate media into their
activities. Publishers need to continue to think about the supply and demand of
their content. It’s time to rethink the process of content creation,
monetization and discovery especially in a media ecosystem and in an on-demand
Most Americans are stressed by the amount of news they get each day. In fact, this sentiment has been building for some time. According to a Pew Institute study seven in 10 Americans (66%) feel worn out by the amount of news they are getting. The study was conducted among more than 12,000 U.S. adults.
The news cycle is faster than ever before coupled with instant notifications on cell phones. Today, the news comes at the consumer 24/7. Yet those watching or reading the news feel a sense of detachment.
Interestingly, news fatigue is more common among those the least politically engaged. Even consumers not engaged in political or election news report feeling exhausted from it. There’s a similar attitude for those more generally interacting with political. Consumer who discuss politics a few times a month report feeling drained by the news by at least 10% more than those who engage in political news almost every day (69% vs. 59%, respectively).
This Pew Institute study show the consistent impact of news consumption on consumers. The reality of a 24/7 news cycle and its immediate availability appears to be taking psychological toll on consumers.
Immediate questions to ask include whether consumers will begin to tune-out and distance themselves from their sources. Publishers may want to talk to their readers to provide context and healthy distancing patterns in order for news content to be less stressful in the consumption process.
In an effort to provide more transparency in journalism,
McClatchy, a local news publisher with a footprint in 30 markets, designed an
information card to help readers better understand the reporting process. To
evaluate its effectiveness three McClatchy newsrooms undertook a study to
explore whether the placement of these informational cards on a news
organization’s website affected readers’ recall of the card and trust in news.
The information cards, called Behind the Story (BtS), highlight
why a topic is important to write about, how the story is written, and who the
journalist interviewed. The Center for Media Engagement, in partnership with three
McClatchy newsrooms: The Wichita Eagle, El Nuevo Herald and The Sacramento Bee,
conducted research with over 300 participants to assess recall and efficacy of
the BtS cards.
Overall, the findings show that, while the BtS card appealed to most readers, a majority of readers did not notice the presence of the card when placed within the context of an article. Importantly, however, when shown outside the context of an article, a majority of readers said the card would improve their trust in a news organization.
In all, 34% of respondents said they remembered seeing a
section titled “Behind our Reporting” when the card was placed within the context
of the article compared to 21% who recalled seeing the BtS card when placed at
the bottom of the article. Although a higher percentage of people noticed the
BtS card when it was placed in-line, the difference in overall recall is not
statistically significant compared to the card appearing at the bottom of the
Interestingly, non-subscribers were significantly more
likely to recall the card when it appeared in-line (40%) than subscribers
Placement of the BtS card, in-line or at the bottom of the article,
did not impact participants ratings to the trustworthiness of the article, the
news organization or the reporter in a significant matter. Overall, the study
suggests that using a card designed to improve transparency may positively
affect trust. However, newsrooms need to ensure that it’s noticeable.
Previous research from the Center for Media Engagement found that less than 10% of readers in three communities thought that their local newsrooms adequately explained how and why they decide what stories to cover.
With efforts like these, McClatchy is taking important and
positive steps to help strengthen readers’ trust and negate concerns with
misinformation and fake news. Fine tuning the placement of the BtS card and its
messaging are encouraged. Future research should assess additional BtS designs,
verbiage and continue to test best placement and overall impact on recall and
Reach had several podcasts spread across the business, created as passion projects by staff keen to experiment with audio. These included Black Mirror Cracked and Blood Red, both of which performed very well with audiences.
lacked a strategic framework around its shows, which would better enable growth.
So, at the end of 2018, it began formalizing its podcast output, switching from
Audioboom to Acast. It also created new internal positions to explore the
long-term viability of audio content and other emerging platforms.
One of those
staff, Michael Pearson, now a permanent podcast producer at Reach, says the
results were enormously encouraging. “We found that the levels of engagement of
a podcast audience were far greater than any other platform we were currently utilizing,
be it website dwell time, video watch-rate on our owned and operated websites
or on other social platforms,” he says. The podcast audience also gave
additional value to Reach’s existing sites, because people clicked through from
podcasts to the site and vice versa.
However, one question the publisher still didn’t have an answer for was whether there was an appetite among regional audiences for podcast content made specifically for them. “Audio at the moment is dominated by comedy, true crime, and sport. We wanted to know whether local news providers could find a foothold in that market, and – on the other side of that equation – how a local audience might discover that content,” Gow says.
So, Reach joined forces with another large regional publisher, JPI Media, and a new podcast provider called Entale, to bid for Google funding to explore the viability of local and regional shows. In July this year they secured a €500,000 Google News Innovation grant over two years for the Laudable Project.
Digital News Innovation Fund was created to fund creativity in digital
journalism and the development of new business models. Madhav Chinnappa,
Director of News Ecosystem Development at Google says, “We’re seeing more and
more innovation by publishers in podcasts and voice technologies, and we’re
proud to support initiatives like Laudable which can have a real and positive
impact on the news ecosystem.”
Reach used the grant to help pay for studios, recording equipment and
dedicated podcast producers. It also paid for training for around 50 reporters
to help them turn ideas for new regional podcasts into reality in three trial
cities – Manchester, Birmingham, and Edinburgh.
The new shows will be available across all major podcast platforms. However, they’ll also be hosted by Entale, which is using some of the grant funds to design bespoke analytics that give greater granularity on key indicators. Entale will also build an Android version of its IOS app, through which users can access interactive visuals and other online content as they listen.
The first Laudable shows are starting to go live, beginning with The North Poll, a show about politics from a northern British perspective, which launched in November. Other new shows include North In Numbers, which gives a human voice to data journalism stories, The Edinburgh Briefing, and Scran, a new podcast about food from The Scotsman. More podcasts will launch in early 2020.
Gow says the
Google grant has given Reach and JPI “breathing space” to test the value of
podcasts to local and regional audiences without the pressure to monetize those
shows straight away. “We wouldn’t have been able to scale like this [without
Google’s support],” she says. “The time commitment and investment involved in
this project, the cost of building studios – it’s a huge amount of money when
you’re a regional publisher.”
says, they’ve “been given a low-risk environment to find out whether what we
create has value beyond being appreciated … that it has value commercially, and
can attract advertising clients, and we’ll be layering commercial into it next
That will include creating a new post to sell audio advertising. Mind you, that’s a skill that doesn’t come naturally to journalists and editors. Nor is it a natural fit for advertising departments at newspapers that have yet to dip a toe in the podcast ocean, and which will face stiff competition from an increasingly crowded market in 2020.
acknowledges that most publishers don’t have the luxury of Google funding, but has
some tips for outlets that have organic podcasts that need structure and
strategy to have a chance of long-term sustainability. “First, you really need
to look at your audience, and at your digital analytics to find the themes that
people are engaging with.
sports like rugby and football absolutely drive our audiences and have a huge
fan base, so that was a no-brainer. It’s where we can start building revenue
quickly because there are advertisers keen to get on board and the opportunity
to host live events.”
found that their audiences were quite interested in financial information
particularly because “audio means they can tell those stories in their own
voices.” And Gow says that “combining those voices with insights from our data
unit in a show like North By Numbers, moves the format on from being a host
talking to an expert about housing shortages, to an individual who becomes a
first-person case study for that data, and that’s incredibly humanizing.”
monetize podcasts before experimenting with audio is difficult, and Gow
cautions against it. “You do need to create content first, but as soon as
you’ve done it, you’ve got something your advertising team can show to clients
as a proof of concept,” she says.
sometimes you just need to think of a podcast as loss-leader marketing. That
may be what some of our Laudable podcasts become, a way of exploring issues
that are occupying minds in places like Edinburgh or Birmingham, which might
attract a sponsor at some point, but might not but it’s good journalism and may
be worth doing on that basis alone.”
In 2020, Gow
says her focus will shift to trying to monetize the new shows. This includes those
that are purely journalistic, as well as branded content programs.
next year is going to be working with our commercial team on themes we have in
mind for 2020, what clients might want to be associated with different ideas,
and what kinds of stories would overlap with what they’re interested in.” That
doesn’t mean that advertisers will dictate the content, she says. Rather,
they’ll work in partnership through things like sponsorship.
that there’s an audience for the ‘how to live a good life’ podcast market
beyond mindfulness. This could include practical questions like how to have a
good divorce, how to buy your first house, how to prepare for a funeral, or how
to pick the right school. “And there are potential commercial partnerships
around all those ideas, because I can see someone tuning in while they’re in
the kitchen asking Alexa to find something to listen to.”
The team at Reach adheres to the strategic approach recommended by the Reuters Institute to help outlets experiment with new formats and approaches while keeping business as usual running smoothly. “SMART principles have been drummed into me since I went on my first management course about 20 years ago, and we also had Google milestones to hit,” she says.
specific about what we need to deliver for Google, what we tell editors to
achieve, and what our podcast producers need to deliver, and all of that can be
measured.” However, podcast statistics are still somewhat lacking. So, Entale
is building bespoke analytics as part of their partnership.
Beyond that Gow
says that they are tracking what’s been produced, how many people have
generated ideas, and how engaged they are in the process to gain a better sense
of staff buy-in and participation. “I
work with incredibly smart people who love journalism and care about their
audiences.” And giving them the tools to achieve good journalism on the podcast
platform – the physical hardware, the training, the encouragement and feedback
to build confidence and deliver the best possible outputs – has made it achievable.
Gow would encourage any size newsroom to experiment with podcasts. “With all this
in place, it’s 100% realistic for any newsroom to create great podcasts.