It’s been a topsy-turvy year for publishers in 2016, with big pushes into video, native advertising and even VR. But the end of the year saw the rise of Donald Trump, and questions about the power of social media and filter bubbles, along with the upside of a “Trump bump” in paid subscriptions and donations at the New York Times, ProPublica and other places.
With 2016 soon coming to a close, let’s look ahead to how the biggest trends of the past year will influence the digital media business in the year ahead.
1. Addressing fake news and the filter bubble
Fake news and the filter bubble, particularly after BuzzFeed’s explosive story on Macedonian teens reaping profits from pro-Trump news sites, have emerged as the topics du jour for media and technology companies following the 2016 election. With users now increasingly aware that red feeds and blue feeds exist as competing truths on their favorite platforms, all parties involved – from technology behemoths like Facebook, Google and Twitter, to media executives and publishers, to individuals themselves – must bear the burden of addressing this issue as 2017 unfolds.
Facebook and Twitter have both announced measures to help stop the spread of fake news, particularly by limiting advertising from fake news websites on its platforms. Facebook has reportedly filed a patent for a technology that would help users spot and report “objectionable content,” and is working with top news publishers to curate content directly into news feeds, both of which would presumably help curb an infestation of bogus content. And news consumers themselves will need to brush up on digital news literacy if they want to understand where content comes from and who’s behind it.
2. Love/hate relationship with platforms continues
Speaking of ups and downs, publishers have had a tough time coping with the growing power of social platforms, especially Facebook, as they command attention but don’t always play fair. Facebook continues to err in disclosing accurate ad and video measurements, while Twitter confuses analysts and consumers alike by banning, and then reinstating, the account of white nationalist leader Richard Spencer. Their standards will have a wider influence on the industry – particularly when it comes to free speech, hate speech, and the limits and freedoms of platforms to censor content.
What publishers can do in working with these platforms is multifold. First, they must consider whether they want to continue to trust and sustain social media ecosystems (that were built in large part on the appeal of their content), while competing with them for advertising and distribution. And if it is the case that Facebook is not investing in publishers the way they should and Twitter is declining in importance, then perhaps publishers need to invest more in other platforms like Snapchat and Google AMP rather than Facebook’s Instant Articles.
More likely, publishers will need to work together to push platforms like Facebook to work more closely on initiatives that are a win-win for both sides. Making sure analytics are right, ferreting out fake news and developing long-term revenues for Facebook Live would go a long way toward collaborative goals.
3. Premium content demands premium subscriptions and donations
Despite Donald Trump’s war with mainstream media, his election has helped the bottom line for news publishers and media outlets. From ProPublica to the New York Times, The Atlantic to Columbia Journalism Review and the Los Angeles Times – all have reported increased readership and interest from audiences, whether in the form of web traffic, donations or direct subscriptions.
Will this paid content boom last? The Financial Times had a similar “Brexit bump” and has largely kept most of its uptick in paid subscribers, so we will see. But it’s interesting that there’s less emphasis on eyeballs-for-eyeballs’-sake and more interest in paid premium content. Two new digital startups, The Outline (from Joshua Topolsky) and Axios (from Politico founder Jim VandeHei), have pushed quality over quantity, with manifestos against the chase for clicks. VandeHei, in particular, is pushing $10,000 subscriptions at Axios. We’ll see if people continue paying up.
4. Too much video, too many native ads
This year saw so many publishers push harder into video, and push harder toward native ads and branded content. On the video side, publishers like Mashable and BuzzFeed went all-in on video, while startups like NowThis and OZY are basically built for video. And traditional publishers like the New York Times, Time Inc. and the Wall Street Journal have invested deeply in their in-house studios to deliver branded content. Vice Media and BuzzFeed have also said that branded and sponsored content offered a substantial chunk of their 2016 revenues.
And that parallels the push by Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to make big bets on video, including live-streaming, where Facebook paid publishers to produce content. But how much is enough, and when do you get to overkill? We know that advertisers love branded content and video ads, and publishers know that their video is eminently sharable on social media, but is this what consumers really want? When you have a glut, only the best quality can survive. People will gravitate toward quality content, toward timely content, toward content with a personality. That means data and surveys will play an outsize role in which types of branded content or video – or heck, branded video – will make it in the long run.
5. Beyond the cutting edge: Bots, VR and edge tech needs to add to bottom line
Virtual reality was a media darling in 2016, but it’s still a far way off from mass consumption. More than anything, it’s going to take actual demand from the consumer, and widespread adoption, for it to become truly profitable. 2017 may not be the year we’ll see that, but the VR and AR markets are expected to grow in the long run as the hardware and techniques for investing in the tech become cheaper.
Bots, meanwhile, will become a hotter topic in the coming year, especially given Microsoft’s forthcoming Azure cloud service that will help developers build bots more easily. Yet again, consumer attention remains an important consideration. While bots may seem like a convenience, and have caught on in Asian countries, developers are going to have to work hard to convince people of their necessity in order for the tech to truly take off and become profitable.
6. The regulatory climate under Trump for M&A and privacy
An incoming Trump administration has Net neutrality advocates worried that a reversal of federal policy is likely despite Trump’s silence on the issue. His main public comment on Net neutrality, from 2014, is a tweet asserting the FCC’s move to reclassify the internet as a utility was “another top down power grab of the Obama administration.” His appointees to the FCC transition team have all been critical of current Net neutrality rules, so this could lead to yet another battle over the rules.
Although Trump promised that he would fight against the $85.4 billion AT&T/Time Warner deal, which he lambasted as “too much concentration of power in the hands of too few,” it seems he may be tiptoeing back on that line. AT&T executives, at least, seem confident the merger will pass regulatory scrutiny after meeting with Trump’s transition team. Whether this suggests more mega-mergers in media and tech likely depends on just how fickle Trump proves to be.
And when it comes to privacy, all indicators suggest 2017 and the following three years will be turbulent times. With more reports of hacking and press freedom under threat, the Signal app – which security researchers say offers the most privacy protection out of all messaging apps – has experienced a 400 percent jump in daily downloads since November 8.