2015: One last look

Did you read your horoscope today? Apparently 70% of us do on a regular basis. Most people will tell you it’s just for fun, but sometimes I think there’s a good measure of hope mixed in.
So how about we have a little “fun” by taking a peek back at how our horror-scopes for 2015 played out.

Able, but not willing

When it came to readers’ willingness to pay for newspaper and magazine content in 2015, I expected to see a decrease in the number of people spending money on news access, but I was still surprised at how rapid the regression actually was.

In 2011, 18% of readers in the US said they would be willing to spend $10/month for online access to local news; 23% said they would spend $5/month.

In 2015 only 3% of readers were willing to spend $10/month, with only 6% open to paying $5/month!

Meanwhile paywalls kept going up and down like yo-yos as publishers watched revenues plateau much earlier than they had hoped.  Sure, The New York Times reached 1 million subscribers last year, but it’s hard to cheer too loudly when one compares the iconic paper to Netflix’s 69 million subscribers and Spotify’s 20 million.

So why are people willing to pay for music and video content, but not news?   Sure, the value propositions are different between ephemeral news content versus evergreen music/video that tends to be consumed multiple times.  And no doubt the abundance of free news has something to do with it as well, but it’s more than that.

Regardless of form, the common theme across all three media types is that people value frictionless discovery of content that feeds their passions – two fundamental needs not served by paywall-protected newspaper and magazine silos because they don’t give readers the content they want in a convenient way at the right price.

Mistrust in media magnified

According to Edelman’s Trust Barometer released in January 2015, Google led the pack of search engines and became the most trusted source of news globally and the world’s largest media owner.  Meanwhile, trust in traditional media continued to head in the wrong direction along with the brand equity publishers have been investing in for decades.

Fast forward nine months to November when Parse.ly reported that social media drove more traffic to digital publishers than search, while Define Media Group found that although social was growing, search still drove more traffic to their clients’ sites which include Time Magazine and The New York Times.

So the jury is still out on who wins the “the best driver” award.  But regardless of whether it’s search or social leading the pack, one thing is for certain – 2015 saw more and more readers (particularly millennials) choosing to read content curated by those they trust, rather than by traditional news editors.  This trend was validated in the Media Insight Project: How Millennials Get News which found that younger people:

  • Tend not to consume news in discrete sessions or by going directly to news providers
  • Are drawn into news because peers are recommending and contextualizing it for them on social networks
  • Get news from Facebook regularly (88%); more than 50% do so daily

Given these disturbing trends, one can only wonder if the trust barometer for social media and search will spike even higher in 2016 at the further expense of mainstream media.

Frenemy frenzy flourished

For centuries publishers refused to play nice with each other, seeing content syndication as sinful.  And when digital disruption had readers rebelling against paying for news, they overreacted to Google’s sharing of snippets of their content that actually drove traffic to their websites.

In 2015, publishers were literally flocking to give away their content for free, trusting the untrustworthy to compensate them with advertising most users want to block.

Just like publishers’ parade to paywalls, The New York Times’ decision to strike a deal with free aggregators (e.g. Facebook and Apple) had many publishers standing in line to jump from the frying pan into the fire.

I once read that Apple Newsstand was where apps went to die.  Will sleeping with these new frenemies help resurrect the cadavers or will it be the final nail in their coffins?

Advertising apocalypse arrived

Over the past decade most people agreed that stopping the print advertising bleeding with digital ads was like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound.  In 2015, that Band-Aid grew into a cancer that is poised to tear apart the very fabric of the world wide web.

The growing epidemic of banner blindness, ad blocking, fraud and malvertising is much more than a wakeup call for media execs.  It’s an urgent call to action for publishers to immunize their digital properties against these diseases by serving up content and advertising that engages readers rather than enraging them.

Too much Leader-Sheep 😉

When I think about prophesies as they relate to publishing, the Chinese almost got it right last year, calling 2015 The Year of the Sheep.  In reflecting on the publishing industry, it’s too bad it wasn’t called The Year of the Lamb. Maybe things would have worked out a bit differently.

Lambs are highly curious creatures and very active in group play when young.  They have also been known to bond closely with people.

But when lambs grow up and become sheep, they exhibit fervent flocking behavior founded mostly on fear.  Banding together for protection, these adults become highly agitated when separated from the rest of the flock.  Follow the leader is their modus operandi, even when it’s not in their best interest.

I wonder sometimes if the future of our industry would be different if today’s media executives were more like the curious lamb, embracing the disruption sparked by the advancements in society and technology with the free, unfettered, and open-minded spirit of youth.

But when one looks at the “who’s who” of publishing, one can’t help but wonder how these veterans of the print-age could ever envision a future with youthful, inquisitive eyes, when they seem to view digital as more of a curse than an opportunity, continuing to blindly follow The New York Times’ of the world like sheep.

Nikolay MalyarovAuthor: Nikolay Malyarov is executive vice president, chief content officer, and general counsel of PressReader in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada.