Commentary

Coronavirus Will Forever Change Digital Media

COVID-19 will be an extinction-level event for some publications, especially ones that are solely reliant on scale and advertising dollars. While this too shall pass and the pandemic will eventually be in our rear-view mirrors, certain things in the publishing world won't go back to the way things were before.

On Revenue

The high-water mark for newspapers was in 2000 and hindsight could show its final capitulation was 2020.

One major shift in the news industry will be a focus from content to community. This is characterized by two conflicting north stars of revenue: advertising to as large an audience as possible and direct transactions with customers in the form of subscriptions, ecommerce, events, etc.

From 2001-2015, the trend for the industry was to gravitate toward scale. The tricks of scale went from perfecting SEO to the art of shareable/curiosity gap headlines for social and peaked with the pivot to video.

The pendulum had already swung to more direct financial transactions with customers being the lifeblood of the industry. COVID-19 will bust this gate wide open. This will impact writers and eventually rebundle their work. While not the first, a heterodox group of writers like Glenn Greenwald, Bari Weiss, Andrew Sullivan and Matt Tabibi all got national attention for going solo.

On Rebundling

As content gets unbundled and more content creators go independent, with subscriptions being a big part of their sustainability, new bundles will appear that will mimic old newspaper sections.

Soon, with one subscription, you will be able to get content from political thinkers, economists, sports writers and local reporters. They will be individuals -- not media organizations -- but the bundle will still be transcendent. It's hard to see how these bundles will be organized right now, but the economics will be in everyone's favor.

As these unbundled content creators become full-fledged businesses, they will have to become more sophisticated in their approach to the audience. This will include bundles and other offers to increase retention. The focus spent to figure out "reach" in the advertising age will be directed toward conversion and retention.

On Trust

This also means a new revenue stream can be built from the ground up. Something similar must happen around trust in the media. A lack of trust in the media has been reported from various sources, such as Reuters Institute.

The Splinternet is upon us, and what platforms and which media an organization adopts will have consequences for the trust they build with audiences.

We have seen how platforms influence editorial. But now the platform won't just determine the form of content, like a pivot to video, but the tone as well.

All of this will add to the downward pressure on advertising revenue, but it will allow content creators to re-establish themselves as people who serve a community rather than as a company looking to exploit eyeballs.

This capitulation in trust will be uglier than the financial one. While the former deals with jobs and revenue, the latter will dismantle traditions and norms.

The rebuilding will happen, one stone at a time, and people will learn to trust the media again in a new context. This will happen as media organizations realize that the choice to be on a platform isn't about audience reach, but audience quality.

On Local

The third capitulation will be around local news. Some writers and platforms will replace ground lost to more traditional publishers, especially those over-leveraged with debt. But again, this won't happen without some pain. News deserts will expand, layoffs and cuts from traditional publishers will remain. But in the wake of every forest fire is the opportunity for new blooms.

If there is one thing 2020 has taught us, it's not to blink because the world can turn on its head rather quickly.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and a volatile economy will hit every sector and as a result, the ripple effects will collide and echo in unexpected ways.

There will always be news and information that people need, and there will always be professional content creators. From there, anything can happen.

 

 

1 comment about "Coronavirus Will Forever Change Digital Media".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, December 8, 2020 at 11:53 a.m.

    Interesting piece, David. I would comment that as a "news" source, the heyday for newspapers was long ago--like before 1950--- since then there has been a steady erosion, first by the increase in broadcast TV news coverage and its quality, then, with the advent of 24/7 cable news channels and now, with the internet. In consequence, where something like 85% of all adults once read at least one paper daily, with a fair number reading two or more, newspapers' daily reach had declined to about half its former level by about10- 15 years ago and the reach of the print editions continues to fall. While I, too, see a continuing shift of newspaper editorial to digital---as more and more printed editions disappear---it is unlikely that high levels of reach will be offered to advertisers as this migration progresses. More likely, whatever form newspapers morph into in their digital transformation, the primary emphasis will be more of a niche approach, focused mainly on local service. But even here, there will be strong competition, including much better efforts by TV and radio stations via there own websites. It will be interesting to see how all of this plays out.

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