Building the Business We Want

Journalists stand in the newsroom of the free and independent online media outlet Mediapart in Paris, France, March 12, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

This forward looking essay by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen supplements the Journalism, Media and Technology Trends and Predictions 2020 report. See menu for other such essays.

Publishers in 2020 will increasingly accept that building the business we want is more important than to rage, rage against the dying of the business that we had.

I take the confidence a clear majority of the digital leaders we have surveyed express in the future of their company as reflecting a determination to make digital work for their editorial ambitions and the business that powers those ambitions.

I take the fact that less than half of our respondents are confident in the future prospects of journalism more generally as a realistic recognition that business as usual is over and that many won’t make the transition from past to future.

It has been clear for some time that the large and lucrative mass media news business is fading as its ageing and dwindling audience face the close of day.

I expect global news industry revenues to continue to decline for at least another decade as profitable print products die out with their readers, broadcast is disrupted, and digital growth, real as it is, in most cases will not deliver the same revenues or profit margins.

But a shrinking industry is not the same as a dying industry. Sometimes, a sense of loss and the sheer scale of the legacy businesses fading away can blind us to important, encouraging signs that a future digital business of news is developing in a very challenging and very competitive media environment.

For those more interested in the business we want than the business we had, it is increasingly clear that a smaller, leaner, sustainable digital media news business is emerging, built across advertising revenues, reader revenues, and other sources of income.

Publishers as different as AMedia, Brut, Dagens Nyheter, Dennik, The Lincolnite, MediaPart, VG, and many more are examples of how publishers who combine editorial ideals with hard-nosed commercial realism are successfully developing their own digital journalism and the business behind it.

None of this is easy.

Publishers used to capture a large share of people’s attention, and consequently a large share of advertising. Online, news captures just a few percent of people’s attention,1 and faced with large platform competitors who offer advertisers low prices, high reach, and precise targeting, publishers thus draw only a few percent of advertising. But with the global digital ad spend estimated to reach $385bn in 2020,2 a few percent is still billions of dollars.

Publishers used to be able to sell bundled products that solved all sorts of different problems for all sorts of different people, but online, many of these problems are solved more efficiently by others, and faced with near-limitless competition for attention and the fact that the majority of major media still offer news free at the point of consumption,3 it is still only a minority who are willing to pay for online news,4 and most will only subscribe to one or two publications. But even this minority is on track to generate billions of dollars.

Legacy revenues and profits reflected the news media’s dominant position in an offline media environment where audiences had low choice and publishers had high market power over advertisers.

Digital revenues and profits will reflect the news media’s much more marginal position in an online media environment where audiences have high choice and publishers have little market power over advertisers.

This is a much tougher market. But it is not an impossible one for those who offer distinct, valuable journalism and maintain a lean and nimble operation. And the – always precarious, sometimes piecemeal, and rarely linear – success of a growing number of news media in this environment is a lot more encouraging than the asset stripping, cost-cutting and consolidation, and continued reliance on print products in terminal decline that we see in much of the legacy industry (or than the clickbait and desperate ‘pivots’ to the latest fad that some of the more rudderless digital-born sites resort to).

Many trying to make the transition from offline to online will not succeed. Often, those trying to build something new will fail. Some of those who succeed will still fall short of their hopes and aspirations. Very few will generate anything like the revenues or profits we saw in the past.

But that was then. This is now. A younger generation of journalists, media leaders, and – most importantly – members of the public won’t be served by fond reminiscences about the past or by those who burn and rage against the present, and the future of the news media that we all rely on won’t be secured by sentimentalism or by short-term thinking focusing on cost-cutting. It will require a long-term bet on reorganising to focus on the future. We know this is hard. But we also know it is possible. And if we value independent professional journalism and believe in its continued purpose and importance, we will also have to develop businesses that will sustain it at scale – in most countries, realistically, nothing else will, not politicians, not philanthropy, and not platform companies.

Those fighting rearguard battles will point out that the new digital businesses of news we see emerging won’t replace what we had. What they say is true, but it is also irrelevant.

Nothing will replace what we had, and if we continue to define the problem in those terms, we will continue to fail. What matters is that these businesses provide the foundation of what we will be, the resources with which various vanguards will define the future of digital journalism.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Professor of Political Communication at the University of Oxford. His work focuses on changes in the news media, on political communication, and the role of digital technologies in both. He is the author, editor, and co-editor of a range of books, including The Changing Business of Journalism and its Implications for Democracy (2010, edited with David A. L. Levy) and Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns (2012).