5 themes that governed the news industry in 2020

As we rapidly approach the end of the year, it’s time for a look back on how the newspaper industry has changed in 2020. While few people could have predicted a global pandemic, many of the key learnings still build on important themes from previous years. Join us for a rundown of highlights from 2020 as we build the future of news together.

1. Further commitment to subscriptions, even in US

In late February, more than 200 news executives gathered in New York to discuss the state of subscriptions in our industry and to gather inspiration from their peers at INMA’s Subscription Summit. This was an important summit, not just because it was perhaps the last in-person industry event of this year, but it served as a signal of commitment from the news industry to focus on subscriptions and reader engagement. This trend only intensified later in the year when publishers saw advertising revenues decline as the covid pandemic developed.

While previous editions of this summit have been held in Europe, it was great to see how many American newspapers have transitioned to subscription strategies as well. Even though the US is home to Silicon Valley and a host of innovative startups, until recently it seemed Europe was far ahead in subscription strategies. We further saw this commitment during our US tour with 12 leading publishers.

At the INMA Summit, we also heard the importance of keeping it “Day One” if we want subscription strategies to be successful. Often even when the news industry innovates today, there are still traces of the print worlds impact on new products. We need to take the learnings from the past 400 years of print, but not necessarily all the traditions. During a study tour visit to The Wall Street Journal, chief news strategist Louise Story encouraged the industry to truly break every tradition that comes from print. For example, she believes photo captions don’t belong in digital stories, because the reading behaviour is often different digitally.

2. Coronavirus rapidly changing industry

There’s no denying the coronavirus pandemic has had a profound impact on the news industry with wide-scale furloughs and layoffs, dramatic drop in advertising revenues, and previously unthinkable decisions being made such as doing away with the physical newsroom. However this crisis has also pushed legacy publishers to quickly adapt and go further in their digital transition than previously planned. For some publishers this meant making the decision to stop print on certain days earlier than anticipated, while for others this experience increased the focus on better digital products.

This crisis also pushed publishers to change their priorities and rethink some processes. For Sam Guzik at Hearst Newspapers, this situation has sped up the steps they had already taken to make sure product and marketing teams were aligned with their colleagues in the newsroom. He shared that this crisis situation had helped them to cut out the unnecessary meetings in favour of focusing on the important tasks. This was something echoed by Lidwine Maltete:

Somehow working in crisis mode is an incredible chance to learn how we can be more effective on a normal daily basis.

Lidwine Maltete of La Nouvelle République du Centre-Ouest

3. Understanding habit formation and what it means for product development

The year started out with a big focus on habit formation, which only became more important as news audiences experienced unprecedented changes to their daily routines offering a rare opportunity to quickly create new habits. A big focus was also on best practices for habit formation and moving beyond theory to address the practical steps we can take to improve existing products or build new ones.

We saw this to be true for example in Norway with the team at Aftenposten. During a habit formation workshop with our team, we used the Habit Formation Canvas for News Products to audit their daily briefing product, Oppsummert. These learnings were shared with a global audience during a session at the Online News Association’s annual event, where we were joined on stage by Ingrid Puiggené from Aftenposten. The goal was to make recommendations for improvements to better help readers create a daily reading habit. A summary is available in our after event report and the canvas is available for free download to help other publishers develop or re-launch products with news readers habits in mind.

4. Great strides made towards the edition of the future

Newspapers have over 400 years of legacy, with strong reading habits for many people. Bringing this beloved product to digital screens is one of our key areas of focus at Twipe and we are proud to have brought many edition innovations to the market over the past decade.

We have seen strong growth in ePaper readers in many markets, but this is especially true in Germany. In Q2 alone, ePaper readership grew 20% in Germany. Now every eighth newspaper sold in Germany is an ePaper.

This year there were also great strides made in designing the edition of the future. We were proud to partner with The Telegraph in the UK on their new digital edition. As one reader of the new app declared, this was truly the “newspaper re-born”. Going beyond a print PDF, this new edition is not only a collection of articles, but an entire print-like experience with a digital-first look and feel.

5. Leveraging personalisation in news without risk of filter bubbles

When news organisations have dipped their toes into the pool of personalisation, they have often actually started with customisation: allowing readers to opt-in to specific topics. This differs from personalisation as it does not build a truly individualised experience nor does it take into account past behaviour. 

While other media organisations such as Spotify and Netflix have gone full in on personalisation, newspapers have traditionally been wary to leave their content completely in the hands of algorithms due to the risk of filter bubbles, unpredictability of the outcome and limited control. With the unique needs of news consumers in mind, it is indeed important for publishers to be investing in personalisation projects that are actually meant for news since repurposing algorithms or best practices from personalisation done at e-commerce or tech giants do not consider these differences.

This is the complexity we tackle with our personalisation program JAMES where we balance both personal interest and news content. After all, readers still come to newspapers for news and that should be taken into account. Through a variety of experimental JAMES campaigns, we now send personalised newsletters to more than 200.000 readers every day. Furthermore we work together with the product, business and editorial teams to provide sufficient feedback to the algorithms in order to ensure the right content is surfaced to the right readers. We are delighted to see that more than 90% of the articles available on a daily basis end up in front of readers via email newsletters.

Co-developed with The Times and The Sunday Times in the UK, JAMES is now live in other newsrooms including Daily Mail in the UK and NRC in the Netherlands addressing three important focus areas for publishers: habit formation, retention and automation. Stay tuned as we will announce soon the new 2021 JAMES Launch Partner Program.

Mary-Katharine Phillips
Mary-Katharine Phillips
Media innovation analyst @ Twipe
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