Credit: Photo by Milad Fakurian on Unsplash

The media industry in 2023 is undergoing both a "permanent crisis" and "rapid, world-changing innovation", according to the recent FIPP Media Innovation Report 2023.

Coming in at 160 pages, the report spares no details on the pressing challenges and opportunities facing media organisations. What are the brightest media companies doing right? What are they cashing in on? What can your newsroom do to get ahead of the curve? We have combed the pages and sifted out four main digital trends.

Generative AI

ChatGPT, Bard, Bing. Generative AI tools are all the buzz at the moment. There are also the lesser-known Ernie and Poe. Many organisations are eyeing the potential of this tech for shortcuts and workflows.

Read more: Eight tasks ChatGPT can do for journalists

French newspaper Le Monde is using it to translate its work (partially) into English. Italian newspaper Foglio Quotidiano is using it as part of a game, testing readers to spot the AI-generated article. Reach plc-owned website InYourArea is using it to publish local to-do guides. Digital newcomer Semafor is testing its ability to weed out typos and factual errors.

If you have the cash, tech and expertise you can build your own generative AI, like Bloomberg did with its BloombergGPTTM. It is trained on enormous amounts of financial data to be a more reliable tool for its newsroom.

The caution is understandable. There are well-documented editorial risks (inaccuracies, misinformation and "hallucinations"), ethical challenges (job redundancies) and legal risks (plagiarism) all associated with using the tech.

The upside of generative AI tools is removing mundane publishing tasks from editorial desks. New roles and teams will also be needed to work with AI - not just report on its developments - creating roles, even as it potentially removes others. All of which makes transparency on its uses more pressing.

Wired Magazine, the Guardian and the German Press Agency have published statements on when - and when not to - use artificial intelligence. Smaller organisations like Sifted point out all the AI tools it is using. The bottom line is to be carefully curious about this space and engage with organisations like JournalismAI which is bridging the knowledge gap for newsrooms.

Read more: How to futureproof your newsroom with AI

Gen Z

Our newest generation of news junkies is really shaking up the ways content is created, distributed and consumed. Gen Z is called digital natives for a reason: they have never known a world without the internet, smartphones and social media.

Gen Z is aged between eight and 25, and they have very particular news habits. The when, where and why behind their news consumption is very deliberate.

Social media, unsurprisingly, is a must for any news organisation hoping to reach the under-25s. This year's Reuters Institute Digital News Report (DNR) shows that for the first time, Facebook's nosedive and TikTok's skyrocket have finally met in the middle. Both are used equally by Gen Z (38 per cent each for any purpose). Most used Instagram (60 per cent) which is increasingly shaped by TikTok features.

Gen Z is, in fact, highly sceptical news consumers and reluctant paying news consumers. Research by The Media Insight Project finds that about half of US Gen Z audiences pay for or donate to some type of news content. Twice as many are likely to pay for email newsletters, video, or audio content from independent creators (47 per cent) than to traditional sources like print or digital newspapers (22 per cent).

If it is not the medium, the problem might be more inherent. Gen Z often finds the sheer quantity of news stories overwhelming, a downer on their mood, and it does not leave them with any tangible actions or solutions.

This year's DNR proposes something else; that it might just be down to declining interest in the news. Explainers, myth busters and quizzes are all prominent formats of news that have proved stimulating, useful and amusing for this audience group.

These are all noticeable elements of the social-first news brands that have mushroomed up in recent years, led by trailblazers like Seen (formerly Hashtag Our Stories), paving the way for The News Movement, Ac2ality, Openly (an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation) and many others. Openly - as a platform centred around LGBTQ+ issues - is a good case of values being a driving force of engagement on social media platforms.

These newcomers provide a challenge to legacy publishers, as Gen Z is not as swayed by traditional brands as previous generations. Most legacy publishers are adapting themselves to social media to remain relevant, and many of them - like Deutsche Welle, BBC News, The Daily Mail, Sky News, and The Washington Post - have amassed followings in the millions.

That brings with it fresh challenges on rethinking news values and content creation (personality-driven, vertical video), and the best way to manage Gen Z journalists to take the wheel on social media strategies.

Read more: Gen Z craves quality news (but most media is boring)

Business models

Digital media companies have a variety of revenue streams to choose from. And it is a good job too, as they are pretty volatile and it is never a good idea to be too reliant on any single source.

The report recommends having at least three different sources of revenue, one of which needs to be a reader revenue model providing 40 per cent of the total income for the business. The covid-19 pandemic brought with it a frenetic interest in news and a willingness to pay for it. Now the cost of living crisis has simmered down the frenzy and people are tightening their personal budgets.

Subscriptions and memberships still represent the best profit potential for a business, with the lowest transactional cost. The best reader revenue models are predicated on high-quality, original, diverse and useful content for paying customers. Without those ingredients, there is a high risk of people cancelling.

The New York Times appears to have mastered the subscription bundle, as it has reached 9m paying digital subscribers. Readers are lured in with trial offers as low as £0.50 a week and then are hooked in with its all-access subscription. Its bundle has only grown stronger in recent years after acquiring online consumer guide Wirecutter in 2016, popular sports website The Athletic in 2022, and hit puzzle game Wordle this year.

The name of the game is value, and all the big digital subscription businesses - The Economist, Times Media, Financial Times, Washington Post - are all leaning in that direction. Retention rates are typically better when selling to other companies rather than consumers, as Axios has proved with its Axios pro subscription launched this year, hitting 3k subscribers and $2m in revenue.

"Clubs" or memberships provide similar results with a more relaxed approach. The Guardian's successful voluntary donation model is the leading example, with more than 1m digital subscribers. Slow news startup Tortoise has 100k members signing up to participate in the news they read, US publisher Quartz has removed its paywall after finding that approach ineffective and Polish news organisation Gazeta Wyborcza is fuelling a 280k-strong membership by providing direct access to its editorial team.

Beyond reader revenue, first-party data strategies are a rather new opportunity. Some news organisations and news groups have created their own mechanisms for collecting their own audience data and working out bespoke, direct deals with advertisers.

Vox Media (Forte), News Corp (News IQ), Insider (Saga), South China Morning Post (Lighthouse) and Washington Post (Zeus Insights) are all active in this space. Regional news publishers are also looking to capitalise on first-party data.

News organisations can also lean on their own expertise and knowledge in the form of education services for readers. The Economist launched its online course Economist Education in 2021 as a new revenue stream. The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times have also created newsletter courses, Six Week Money Challenge and MBA 101 respectively.

The Financial Times has also branched out into events (FT Live) and consultancy (FT Strategies), two emerging money spinners. Brand licensing deals, affiliate marketing and e-commerce deals, and merchandise are other opportunities that news organisations are cashing in on.

Read more: Subscription retention strategies from Times Media, Washington Post, The Conversation and DC Thomson

New formats

Modern media organisations are doing away with classic news writing, betting on new styles that promise better readability and scanability of information. Axios' signature smart brevity (bullet points and punchy information) and Semafor's Semaform (a modular take on articles) are the two major examples that define new formats of journalism.

The theory is this will ease the burden on news readers, who are by and large overwhelmed and time-poor. Frankly, the rationale is also to be realistic and allow readers to dip in and out of articles. When readers can select what they need and leave, they have a more satisfying overall news experience. Nobody wants to mine for detail.

News apps like FT Edit or Economist Espresso also focus on respecting audiences' time. Direct, succinct and expertly curated news summaries make for a more "finishable" product. This in turn builds habit and loyalty.

Le Monde's app La Matinale is experimenting with audio a lot more. Users can add audio articles to a playlist, almost like a self-curated news briefing. Autonomy and smooth user experience are two major selling points here, as non-paying subscribers are limited to a selection of free articles.

Audio and video are no doubt on the rise. 'Voice note journalism' serves as a way to text readers directly in an informal way. Private messaging platforms WhatsApp and Telegram provide similar options.

TikTok has changed the game on short-form video, demanding snappier, punchier content in a shorter burst.

Read more: Lessons from Axios' smart brevity: you have half a minute to win over your reader

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