2020 Preview: Publishers Face Daunting Challenges

The U.S. economy this year continued its record expansion to more than a decade, but it has felt like a depression for many publishers that went out of business or cut costs to cope with declining readership and ad sales.

The publishing industry is undergoing a secular shift that defies normal boom-and-bust cycles akin to the travails of the retailing industry, which this year saw a record 9,300 stores close amid continued growth in online shopping.

While I can't proclaim to have 20/20 vision on 2020 for publishers, I do foresee several trends that will define the coming year.

Content and Commerce: Advertisers will continue to shift their media buying to digital platforms, while pressuring publishers to help them cut through ad clutter, get around ad blockers and engage with existing customers and prospects in a brand-safe environment. Those demands mean publishers will need to expand on their branded-content strategies that differentiate their digital platforms from social-media rivals that rely on cheaply produced user-generated content.



Reader Revenue: Reader revenue will continue to be a priority, especially for local news outlets that can differentiate their editorial product with news and information unavailable in nationwide news outlets. While many local publishers may cut back on their print frequency, they can develop digital products, like electronic newsletters, that can be customized to match reader preferences. For example, readers who follow local sports teams or ongoing stories about a specific issue that's important in their local communities can opt into news alerts that drive traffic to a website.

Consolidation and Closures: The publishing industry likely will continue to consolidate as publishers seek greater scale to appeal to major advertisers and cut operating costs. It's possible that digital publishers like Bustle, BuzzFeed, Vice and Vox will merge in 2020.

Apple Bundling of Services: Apple likely will offer an expanded service bundle to boost the value proposition of its services, such as its Apple News+ digital newsstand, Apple TV+ streaming video service, Apple Arcade mobile gaming and Apple Music audio platform. The iPhone maker wants to differentiate its hardware from rivals with content, but faces significant competition for user attention. A bundled offering may boost readership of Apple News+, helping publishers.

Social-Media Challenges: Social media gives publishers a way to reach a mass audience, but they must be careful not to become overdependent on a single platform. In 2020, publishers will continue to develop social-media strategies to connect with audiences even as social-media companies compete for ad dollars.

Video and Audio Formats: Publishers will continue to repurpose their editorial products for video and audio, especially as higher-speed mobile networks improve download speeds of multimedia content. Producing video and audio can be a costly enterprise, but it does offer potential rewards for publishers. Video content opens the possibility of capturing a greater share of TV advertising — a key focus for major brands. Audio content is easily portable in podcasts, giving publishers another way to connect with audiences and sell sponsorships.

2020 Election: Donald Trump's upset victory in 2016 caught most media outlets flat-footed, leading to months of soul-searching and analysis of what they had missed. They won't let it happen again, with more news outlets covering the election in key swing states that will determine the nationwide outcome.

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