Image of a journalist filling a story from the beach with a cocktail, in the style of Raymond Chandler novel, created by AI

Credit: Rendered by MidJourney. Picture from the RISJ report.

2022 was a whirlwind year for the media industry, what with the lingering impact of a pandemic, historic news events, social media turbulence and the cost of living crisis thrown into the mix.

The latest "Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends and Predictions 2023" report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) offers a glimpse into what 2023 has in store. Will it be more of the same, or are there twists? Here are the highlights.

Hardships lay ahead for all

We are in a tough economy, and that is reflected in the outlook among top editors and CEOs. Just under half (44 per cent) feel confident about their business prospects in the year ahead. Moving news to on-demand and streaming services is an opportunity for broadcasters in particular.

The general pessimism stems from rising print publishing costs and declining ad spending. Many big decisions will be made on print titles, as Washington Post culled its 60-year magazine at the end of 2022.

Other newspapers will have to decide which of their editions are worth retaining or downsizing. Regional media remains vulnerable to consolidation, government intervention or migrating to online-only.

That does not mean digital-first publications have it much easier: the likes of BuzzFeed and Morning Brew are set to make significant job layoffs. Many are feeling the pinch of social media platforms not yielding the traffic they used to and their online presence suffering as a result.

Persuading subscribers to stick around

Subscriptions offer a different picture: two thirds of respondents feel confident about reader revenue and half anticipate seeing growth in their subscriptions in 2023. 

Four in five also suggest subscriptions will be the most important revenue source (up 6 percentage points from 2020), ahead of display and native advertising which are both in decline.

The big challenge will be retaining paying subscribers as readers continue to stress about their disposable income. Many will counter this challenge through student deals, introductory and extended trials, or eye-watering discounts, such as six months for $1, offered by US publications LA Times, Chicago Times and Boston Globe.

Publishers will also seek to persuade readers to stay with strong pleas and calls to action (i.e. The Guardian) or increase the services included within subscriptions to make them more enticing.

Alternatively, publishers could just do advertising better, with one eye on the phase-out of Google’s third-party cookies and recognising that the high density of ads on news websites negatively impacts user experience. Bloomberg News is leading a pivot to premium ads by focusing on direct sales and abandoning programmatic advertising. Others could follow suit.

Readers tuning in on their terms

The last few years have been full of historic news stories, leading to both surges of interest in news and stark news avoidance. It is the latter which remains a headache for news publishers: almost three quarters (72 per cent) are concerned about the emergence of selective news avoidance in 2022.

The true appetite of audiences is not quite clear based on website performance alone: 42 per cent of publishers say traffic is up, and 58 per cent say traffic is the same or down.

But it is clear what kind of journalism is resonating. Explanatory journalism (94 per cent) and Q&A formats (87 per cent) are widely seen as effective counters to news avoidance, just ahead of solutions journalism (73 per cent) despite the continued efforts of BBC News and The Guardian in the UK to push this style.

Perhaps it is less about reporting style and more about the options audiences have. Pink News introduced a novel tool last year called Mood Control, enabling the reader to personalise which stories they can see on the website. Reader-led personalisation is a space to watch.

An industry more committed to climate

More news publishers are stepping up their commitment to covering climate, with half creating new climate teams and a third hiring more staff to cover the topic.

Related to news avoidance, there is still concern that climate reporting is too bleak for audiences to engage with. One way to counter this is to empower readers, like with the Washington Post’s Climate Lab, which targets younger audiences and eco-friendly choices.

The Post is not alone in coming up with climate strategies; some 30 per cent are proactively thinking about how to cover climate in new ways. Many also want to practise what they preach; one third of publications are working at reducing their own carbon footprints through their production and reporting. Schibsted goes as far as to produce an annual sustainability report.

Climate-bespoke training programmes, reporting guidelines and industry networks are among the variety of efforts seen within the news industry to be a force for better reporting on, and practitioners of, climate and sustainability action.

Tech and social platforms are up in the air

Elon Musk’s erratic behaviour since he took over Twitter means the platform is haemorrhaging advertising money and is in danger of starting to lose an important number of users. Journalists are mostly ambivalent about the platform - about half of those surveyed said it would be bad for journalism if Twitter imploded but around one in five thinks it would be good for journalism if Twitter were gone.

Although in many countries it boosts press freedom by distributing alternative sources of news, there is also a sense that journalists spend too much time on Twitter and bring its signature outrage culture to their reporting.

Whatever its future, few see a credible alternative to Twitter. Mastodon is not up to scratch and four in 10 journalists chose to put their time and effort into LinkedIn. Many are also watching Post, a platform still in beta mode that hopes to bring in premium publishers and offer a micropayment system.

The future does not look better for Facebook whose user base is shrinking and ageing. This year, the platform moves even further from news and focuses on mobile entertainment and commerce.

Younger users are ditching first-generation social platforms for video apps like TikTok and YouTube. This motivates publishers to invest more time and effort in the short-video format rather than posting on Facebook or Twitter.

Potential in podcast and newsletter revenue

The majority of publishers say that they will be focusing on podcasts and other digital audio (72 per cent), email newsletters (69 per cent), and digital video (67 per cent) this year. These formats prove easier to distribute on new social networks and afford a deeper connection with the audience.

Podcasts could finally see an increase in revenue thanks to better tech and ad distribution but more ads may spoil user experience, so premium ad-free options are expected to become more widespread.

Newsletters, particularly the local ones, have boomed. In the UK, Substack-powered products like the Manchester Mill are growing and traditional publishers like Reach are also launching new passion-based local newsletters. This happens against the backdrop of diminishing alternatives; Twitter shutting down Revue and Facebook ditching Bulletin.

AI and journalism: the jury is still out

Robots are not taking over newsrooms yet but the arrival of ChatGPT has "transformed the debate." The tool is capable of generating fairly sensible content and gives a sense of the potential of AI tools for journalists.

It is not limited to text - AI can now also generate images on any topic and in the style of any painter it has been trained on. This is part of a wider trend called "generative AI", with computers also creating videos and even virtual worlds.

The implication for journalism is not clear yet. While some outlets like Semafor are generating videos in the absence of real footage to illustrate stories like the war in Ukraine, there are also fears of these tools being used for misinformation.

AI can be used for other newsroom tasks, like summaries, text-to-speech, and image recognition for automated tagging and subtitles. Transcriptions by machines are now routine in many newsrooms and so is the use of AI for personalisation and content recommendation to help increase engagement.

The jury is out on whether the marriage of artificial intelligence and journalism is a good thing. While some welcome the automation of time-consuming tasks, others worry about cheaply produced automated content further commoditising news and undermining trust.

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