Journalism, media, and technology trends and predictions 2022

2022 will be a year of careful consolidation for a news industry that has been both disrupted and galvanised by the drawn-out COVID-19 crisis. Both journalists and audiences have, to some degree, been ‘burnt out’ by the relentless intensity of the news agenda, alongside increasingly polarised debates about politics, identity, and culture. This could be the year when journalism takes a breath, focuses on the basics, and comes back stronger.

In many parts of the world, audiences for news media have been falling throughout 2021 – not an ideal situation at a time when accurate and reliable information has been so critical to people’s health and security. A key challenge for the news media this year is to re-engage those who have turned away from news – as well as to build deeper relationships with more regular news consumers.

Generational change will also continue to be a key theme, leading to more internal soul-searching in newsrooms over diversity and inclusion, about emerging agendas such as climate change and mental health, and about how journalists should behave in social media.

On the business side, many traditional news organisations remain relentlessly focused on faster digital transformation as rising newsprint and energy costs look to make print unsustainable in some countries. Charging for online news is the end-destination for many, but expect subscription fatigue to limit progress, especially if economic conditions worsen.

After a period where digital advertising revenue has leaked away to giant platforms, publishers have an opportunity to secure better results this year. Tighter privacy rules limiting third-party data, along with concerns about misinformation, have already started to swing the tide back towards trusted brands, but advertising remains a competitive and challenging business, and not every publisher will thrive.

Meanwhile the talk of platform regulation becomes real this year as the EU and some national governments try to exercise more control over big tech. However, next generation technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), cryptocurrencies, and the metaverse (virtual or semi-virtual worlds) are already creating a new set of challenges for societies as well as new opportunities to connect, inform, and entertain.

How do Media Leaders View the Year Ahead?

  • Almost six out of ten of our respondents (59%) say their revenue has increased over the last year, despite the fact that more than half (54%) also reported static or falling page views. Publishers report that digital advertising has boomed with more people buying online, while subscription revenue has also increased.
  • Three-quarters (75%) of our sample of editors, CEOs, and digital leaders say they are confident about their company’s prospects for 2022, though fewer (60%) say the same about the future of journalism. Concerns relate to the polarisation of societies, attacks on journalists and the free press, and the financial sustainability of local publications.
  • More publishers plan to push ahead with subscription or membership strategies this year, with the majority of those surveyed (79%) saying this will be one of their most important revenue priorities, ahead of both display and native advertising. At the same time, many respondents (47%) worry that subscription models may be pushing journalism towards super-serving richer and more educated audiences and leaving others behind.
  • Publishers say that, on average, three or four different revenue streams will be important or very important this year. Almost three in ten (29%) expect to get significant revenue from tech platforms for content licensing or innovation, with 15% looking to philanthropic funds and foundations – both up on last year. Others are hoping to restart events businesses that stalled during the COVID-19 crisis.
  • With more regulation in the air over both the market power and social impact of tech companies, there are mixed expectations that government actions will improve journalism’s prospects. While around four in ten (41%) felt that policy interventions might help, more than a third (34%) thought interventions would make no difference, and a quarter (25%) said they could make things worse.
  • Publishers say they’ll be paying less attention to Facebook (-8 net score) and Twitter (-5) this year and will instead put more effort into Instagram (+54), TikTok (+44), and YouTube (+43), all networks that are popular with younger people. At the same time many news organisations will be tightening their rules on how journalists should behave on social media. In our survey most editors and managers feel that journalists should stick to reporting the news on Twitter and Facebook this year and worry that expressing more personal views could undermine trust.
  • As the impact of climate change becomes more pressing, the news industry remains uncertain about how to deal with this complex and multi-faceted story. Only a third of those surveyed (34%) rated general coverage as good, even if they felt their own coverage (65%) was better. News editors say it is hard to get mainstream audiences to take notice of a story that moves slowly and can often make audiences feel depressed. In turn this means it’s hard to make the case to hire the necessary specialist journalists to explain and bring it to life.
  • In terms of innovation, we can expect a back to basics approach this year. Two-thirds of our sample (67%) say they will spend most time iterating and improving existing products, making them quicker and more effective. Only a third (32%) said the priority would be launching new products and brand extensions. Publishers say the biggest barriers to innovation are the lack of money, due to wider economic challenges, and difficulty in attracting and retaining technical staff.
  • Specifically, publishers say that they will be putting more resource into podcasts and digital audio (80%) as well as email newsletters (70%), two channels that have proved effective in increasing loyalty as well as attracting new subscribers. By contrast just 14% say they’ll be investing in voice and just 8% in creating new applications for the metaverse such as VR and AR.
  • Media companies continue to bet on artificial intelligence as a way of delivering more personalised experiences and greater production efficiency. More than eight-in-ten of our sample say these technologies will be important for better content recommendations (85%) and newsroom automation (81%). More than two-thirds (69%) see AI as critical on the business side in helping to attract and retain customers.

Other Possible Developments in 2022

  • Media companies will get bigger this year through a wave of acquisitions as they look to add scale and value to their subscription or advertising businesses. Some high-profile digital-born companies will come under new ownership.
  • The growing power of the ‘creator economy’ will continue to touch journalism this year directly and indirectly. Creator content – think celebrities and influencers – will take attention from news media, while more platform features that enable charging for content will open up opportunities for individual journalists and co-operatives.
  • Short-form social video will make a comeback off the back of creator innovation in youth-based social networks. Expect publishers to adopt more of these techniques in 2022, along with the growth of streaming platforms such as Twitch, contributing to a new ‘pivot to video’.
  • Watch for more high-profile examples of journalist burnout as the stresses of the relentless news cycle, remote working, and rising authoritarianism take their toll. Media companies will explore new ways to offer support this year.
  • Donald Trump’s new social network, codenamed Truth Social, will inevitably attract headlines when it launches early in 2022. Expect this to be a focus for hate speech, hackers, and other disrupters
  • This could be the year when publishers start working together more to counter audience and platform challenges. Look out for joint lobbying on policy, more advertising and common login initiatives, joint investigations, and more content sharing too.
  • In tech, expect a proliferation of new devices including VR headsets and smart glasses, building blocks for the metaverse – as well as new ways of interacting at work. The hype over cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) will continue to build even if practical benefits remain hard to discern.

The business of journalism is looking up for some 

One of the biggest surprises in this year’s survey is the growth in revenue reported by many publishers. Well over half our sample (59%), which includes both subscription and advertising focused publishers from more than 50 countries, say that overall revenues have increased, with only 8% reporting that things had got worse. This is despite the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and the further erosion of traditional revenue sources such as print.

In many ways this is testament to the adaptability of an industry that has accelerated new digital revenue streams such as subscription, e-commerce, and digital events over the past 18 months – and also started to bring in substantial licensing revenue from tech platforms on top. For all publishers, a key element in this has been a strong bounce back in digital advertising, as consumers moved their spending online during the ongoing pandemic. Digital advertising grew at its fastest rate ever (30% year on year) in 2021 according to GroupM and now accounts for around two-thirds (64%) of all advertising spend.

It is worth remembering that many publishers not represented in our survey still rely on traditional and declining revenue sources such as print and even broadcast. And for those without a clear digital path ahead of them, the outlook remains extremely challenging.

At the same time, overall consumption of online news has fallen significantly in some countries, including the UK and the United States, following the dramas of the Trump era, according to industry data. The relentless and depressing nature of the news has been a factor, with many consumers looking to social media and streaming services for entertainment and distraction.

In our own survey, covering a wide range of countries, we find a more mixed picture. Although the majority (54%) report static or declining traffic to online news sites, more than four in ten (44%) say their traffic has gone up.

Overall, the majority of publishers (73%) say are optimistic about the year ahead. Even if traffic is down in some cases, journalists feel that their role is more valued by audiences and the business side in particular is on a more solid footing.

The creator economy and the battle for talent

Over the last few years, we have seen the coming together of two powerful ideas. The first is that online journalism needs to be paid for and the second that journalists may need to behave more like social influencers as they build relationships and communities.

These ideas are embodied in new platforms like Substack, which along with new product offerings from giant tech companies have enabled individual writers, vloggers, and podcasters to make significant amounts of money, injecting new life into the so-called ‘creator economy’. In November Substack announced that it had hit the milestone of 1 million paid subscriptions, with top writers earning six-figure sums from its newsletter focused platform. Both Facebook (Bulletin) and Twitter (Revue) have launched their own competitors to Substack, along with a range of other features to incentivise creators. Twitter, for example, in September 2021 launched a Super Follows subscription feature (think bonus tweets) that helps creators earn money from their most engaged fans. Facebook introduced fan subscriptions and stars, both mechanisms that provide financial rewards for the most engaging content. Meanwhile podcast platforms are enabling similar features with a subscription or donation offer on top of a free service. These developments are setting up new dynamics around who gets attention and what content may be prioritised in years to come.

Make or break year for digital media brands

It wasn’t that long ago that BuzzFeed and a few other digital native brands, such as Vox and Vice, looked like the future of the news business. Sky-high valuations were fuelled by a generation of writers comfortable with digital culture, who invented a set of formats that matched rising consumer enthusiasm for social consumption.

But this open access, ad-supported model has taken a knock following various Facebook algorithm changes, compounded by the shock of coronavirus. Some of the stars of digital media have defected back to old media companies and many venture capitalists (VCs) are looking to get their money back. The original disrupters are now caught in a battle with resurgent legacy media for general readers and with platforms for advertising dollars.

What will happen this year?

Digital natives go for scale: BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti has argued for years that digital publishers should consolidate to give them more leverage with advertisers and compete with the ad dominance of Facebook and Google. BuzzFeed’s move to go public, completed in December 2021, provided the cash to acquire digital lifestyle publisher Complex, following last year’s purchase of HuffPost. Now all eyes will be on Vice, Vox, and Bustle as they contemplate similar moves. Vox bought New York Magazine and its websites in 2019 and has just acquired Group Nine (owner of multiple brands including NowThis and PopSugar). By year end we can expect more M&A activity but perhaps not the mega-merger that was predicted some years ago.

Traditional media look to acquisition to fuel growth: The biggest players will be looking for digital brands that can add value to their subscription bundles and bring different types of audience. Axel Springer purchased Politico last year for around $1bn and the New York Times has agreed to buy subscription-based sports site The Athletic, in a deal valued at around $550 million. The Athletic has built built more than 1 million subscribers based on deep reporting in multiple sporting niches.

Local start-ups fuelled by new models: At a local level, we can expect to see the growth of low-cost reader-focused start-ups this year, built on newsletter platforms like Substack, which help take out technology and infrastructure costs.

The Manchester Mill, which launched during the height of COVID lockdowns, has generated almost 1,000 paying subscriptions at £7 a month in the last year for a mix of slow journalism delivered mainly by newsletter. A certain amount of free content gives it a much wider readership and there is now an offshoot in print. Super users engage with the editorial team on a Facebook group providing ideas for stories. And there is a podcast too.

A sister title, the Sheffield Tribune has gained around 300 subscribers and a third, The Post, has just launched covering Liverpool.

Meanwhile in the United States, Axios has plans to expand its newsletter-led model to 25 cities by mid 2022 ­– with 100 soon after. Axios reporters will break local news, hold local officials accountable and offer tips for navigating local areas and hopes that this reader-supported (membership) model can eventually reach ‘every community in America’.