Tapping into Tech: Five Digital Trends to Watch in 2018

What’s on the digital horizon for the newspaper industry this year? With the digital landscape evolving at the speed of the 24-hour news cycle, newspapers around the country are on the chase for up-and-coming trends that will make the difference to their bottom line. Many in the industry have blazed a path pivoting to video, abundantly invested in pursuing digital advertising, and have pushed for a bigger reach through various social media channels.

The possibilities are endless, and the sea of information populating the ever-increasing shores of the internet provides an abundance of opportunities for newspapers to thrive in. It also opens the door to massive amounts of difficulties such as maintaining the trust and attention of readers during the era of “fake news” and the spread of misinformation.

Nevertheless, the high demand for real news is there. The surge in attention for the news media that began during the 2016 Presidential election continues to grow two years later. And now the battle for readers’ attention has heated up unlike ever before—with the victors being those who quickly acclimate to the digital news climate as it evolves.

Now to help with your publication’s digital splash, E&P has put together a list of trends to keep an eye out for in 2018.

Digital Subscriptions and Value

With mobile media accounting for two-thirds of total digital media time spent in the U.S., society is abuzz with a continuous flow of information at its fingertips. As the amount of news outlets for readers to choose from online grows each day, so too does the challenge for newspapers to keep their business model profitable.

Pushing for more digital subscriptions is a way newspapers can navigate the waters of the digital future. Just look to the numbers for the answers.

The New York Times reported $86 million in revenue from digital subscriptions in the third quarter of 2017 with a total of 2.5 million digital-only subscriptions. That number is almost double its $46 million in digital advertising revenue in 2017 and still well above its print advertising revenue of $64 million last year.

The Washington Post reported hitting the 1 million mark for digital subscribers in 2017, which they said was triple that of the figure the year before. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported 1.27 million digital subscriptions as of last June.

This means every day more and more people are open to paying for news. Surprisingly, much of the surge in digital subscriptions is led by younger people, according to a 2017 Reuters Digital News Report. The report states that the number of people in the U.S. between the ages of 18-24 paying for online news rose from 4 percent in 2016 to 18 percent in 2017.

But what motivates people to pay for online news?

“It’s about getting the content right,” said Nathaniel Bane, head of digital news at the Herald Sun in Melbourne, Australia. “Match the content to the demands and needs of your readers, and try to find a real point of difference.”

To gage the content your audience demands employ the use of a survey. That’s what Bane said his publication did early last year.

Nathaniel Bane

“We asked a lot of questions and learned a lot about what our subscribers liked and why they had subscribed, what our registered and free users wanted to see more of in order to increase the value of our offering in their eyes, and what drove each segment to visit our site,” Bane said.

Publications should also do some self-inventory, he said. “Why should people pay for what you do? What do you do that nobody else does, or what do you do best?”

Figure out those answers and shape your content and digital subscription offerings accordingly, which means not every subscription service will look the same.

“Who knows what this will look like in the future, but simple one-touch sign ups and micropayments will be a part of it all,” Bane said.

Diving even deeper into the future, Bane said he believes “subscriptions will also be likely bundled in with other things—from pay TV to power bills, as newspapers look to create partnerships with advertisers who are also looking to add value to their offering.”

Earning Trust During the Fake News Era

Nowadays, it seems like there is enough news on the internet to fill the Grand Canyon, maybe even two times over. And with the rise of fake news, 2018 will be a year where news outlets will have to stand out amongst the spread of disinformation that pollutes social media channels.

“I believe this is a make-or-break year for journalism as it relates to fake news,” said Mandy Jenkins, editor-in-chief at Storyful, an agency that sources, verifies and acquires user-generated content. “We will see more advanced disinformation campaigns from a variety of actors—foreign and domestic, with political and financial intent—that will use more advanced technology to create the best fake media we have seen yet.”

In a time where social media juggernauts like Facebook and Twitter are still figuring out how to tame their own creations, having the jump on building trust is key for any publication.

Mandy Jenkins

“To gain or gain back that trust a publisher needs to understand (and possibly update) its mission and transparently communicate that to the audience,” Jenkins said. “The more the audience understands the mission, the intent, the process and the newsgatherers themselves, the more trusting they will be.”

To combat the spread of fake news Jenkins says media outlets need to “hold themselves to the highest standard to avoid contributing to the problem,” as well as debunking false stories in order to create a baseline of truth.

Publishers must also be aware of the pitfalls of needing to be first and “the rapid-fire sharing of information that happens on social media during a breaking news story,” said Jenkins. So before you start liking and sharing, “find out who the source or provider is, what their motivations might be and who they are trying to reach. Does what they say seem to align with other reports or official info, or is it too good to be true? Can it be independently verified? If it is a piece of content like a viral photo or video, determine if they shot it and the authenticity of what it presents.”

Last year, Storyful released Verify, a Google Chrome extension, which tells users if social media content has been verified by Storyful’s team of journalists. Employing the use of a tool such as that or something similar is an avenue publishers can take to aid their newsrooms in the verification process.

Rolling in the Digital Dollars

Not all is lost when it comes to digital advertising. Even though digital subscription revenue is gaining ground, digital advertising still holds a lot of weight. This year publishers will learn what ads worked online by learning what ads didn’t.

The crackdown on fake news has rung in a gust of regulatory air in other parts of the internet, especially advertising. In 2017, the Coalition for Better Ads put out its findings of what ad experiences rank lowest among users online at betterads.org.

Many online heavyweights have taken notice. Google, a Coalition member, announced last year that this month on Feb. 15 it will introduce an ad blocker into Google Chrome that will block ads ranked on the Coalition’s list. Ads deemed bad on the list include full page ads, pop up ads with sound, and ads with a countdown among more. Publishers can expect to be notified by Google if their website has any of the bad ad types and will have 30 days to fix the issue. If not corrected in time, Google will block all ads on the site and the site owner will have request a review from Google manually.

In an effort to curb fake news and better serve its customers, Facebook, which is also part of the Coalition, has begun blocking paid ads from pages that circulate fake news.

So, how can you effectively market ads online?

The Kantar Report found that consumers favored less intrusive ads and sponsored links from retail sites as long as they didn’t resemble click-bait. When the lines between editorial and commercial were blurred is where many consumers saw a problem, said the report. From the findings it can be interpreted that publishers should make it their priority to deliver value to their customers while maintaining a less-intrusive stance when it comes to digital advertising.

Increasing Online Engagement

Pulling in readers is half the battle. Getting them to stay on your website and visit your site often will be vital for publishers this year.

Bane of the Herald Sun said the way to do that is for newspapers to throw out the old way of thinking and truly work towards giving their subscribers what they want.

“Newspapers for a long time have been very good at one-way communication,” he said. “But when people are paying for your product digitally you need to engage with people on a new level. Talk to them on Facebook. Respond to their issues quickly. Explain how you do things and why. Lift the veil of the newsroom. Giving readers ‘what they want’ is not a simple thing to solve—but by listening, interacting and staying true to your brand provides a good foundation.”

Keep in mind your audience, who is accessing your content on their phones more than ever before. Tailoring content that will be easily accessible on mobile phones is one way to monetize mobile while increasing your reader engagement.

Bane said his publication uses social media with that in mind. “We use it two ways around subscriptions: One, we put out all of our best content if it’s locked or not. This not only drives new subscriptions, but it also means our subscribers who follow us via social media channels are being served our best content at all times. Two, we use social media to let our subscribers know about offers and other rewards available to them.”

Most of all, Bane said, organizations need to look in the mirror and see what’s helped them get this far. “Whatever you are good at—and whatever has sustained your business for decades—do that and be very good at it. They are paying you for a news and entertainment service. Ensure that you are meeting that promise every day by informing them, entertaining them and being useful.”

Shadow puppetry was used in the Emmy-award winning film “The Forger,” which the New York Times helped produce. (Photo courtesy of Manual Cinema)

Be Weird with Storytelling

Providing stories in digital formats is already a common theme in the world of journalism. The way to gain attention online is to be unique with both the medium you’re using as well as the topics you’re covering. Many reporters are using Twitter-threads as a quick way to reach their audience. With so many threads being posted, Twitter made it easier to compose them. That Tweetstorm method, as it’s dubbed, works really well when revealing new information about a relevant story.

The same intent works well when drawing up a news video. Video work in the journalism world will continue to be at the cutting edge for the industry because it can transcend the journalism sphere creating special collaborations. Despite the worries that the pivot to video could fail, there is a way to do it right.

“Video works very well for stories where there is a lot of emotion involved,” said Alexandra Garcia, New York Times visual journalist.

Alexandra Garcia

Garcia, who has been a visual journalist for a decade, said the key to video is picking the right stories for it. “I could do five stories that are not unique and just run of the mill or I could do one story that’s unique and interesting and that will gain a lot of attention.”

Garcia should know. A video she helped produce won an Emmy: “The Forger,” which is the story of Adolfo Kaminsky, a forger, who helped save the lives of thousands of Jews by forging passports and documents during the Nazi regime. “The Forger” encapsulates her advice and is an example of pushing the boundaries of digital storytelling, using shadow puppetry to tell an emotional story. The idea to use shadow puppets came to Garcia while brainstorming how they were going to illustrate it all.

“Manual Cinema popped into my head. I had seen them perform a live show a couple of years earlier,” said Garcia. Manual Cinema, a theater company based in Chicago, ended up producing all the shadow puppetry in the highly collaborative project.

Also taken into account during the decision making was the content of the story.

“So much of Adolfo’s life was lived in the shadows—and paper had made up such a big part of his life forging documents that shadow puppetry using cut paper seemed like a natural fit,” Garcia said.

She added winning the Emmy “validated” the weird decision to use shadow puppets.

Making a decision that is going to put your publication at the forefront should be weird. It’s going to feel different and strange because no one is doing it. That doesn’t mean it can’t work.  For publications that don’t have a big budget, Garcia’s advice to them is to decide from the get-go what medium you want to tell the story in, and if it’s a video, make sure it’s unique and reveals new information.

“The biggest thing I think is making sure that the stories being told are the right kind to be told on video,” Garcia said.

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Published: February 5, 2018

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