Journalism is on the precipice with more than £1 billion likely to fall off the industry’s topline. Several years of projected structural revenue decline in advertising and circulation have occurred in just the past few weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, with no letup in sight.

The UK’s rich heritage of independent journalism is at risk, with responses by Government and ‘big tech’ multinationals welcomed but ultimately inadequate. We make two further recommendations for engagement in this report.

Journalism enterprises from the small, local and specialist outfits through to national household brands will either fail or remain on a path to future failure.

COVID-19 has sent online news surging, with publishers experiencing massive traffic uplift, as trusted news sources become increasingly important.

But the industry is still heavily reliant on print revenues, and we are seeing supply chains come under extreme pressure as core readers self-isolate and retail giants close or de-prioritise news media. Advertising—including categories like retail and travel—has collapsed.

In face of existential threats to the sector, we have written to DCMS to mobilise Government funding to sustain news provision and journalism.

The local press is in an existential crisis: relentless decline in revenues since 2004 has rebased the scale of the sector, but there is little if any consensus about what to do next, despite broad agreement that the implications for democracy are deeply troubling

Incumbents have focused on incremental innovation with limited success, and have failed to adapt their digital strategies from those created 20 years ago, despite overwhelming evidence that they do not work, and never will

We argue for radical innovation, switching the industry’s focus from advertising to communities, building new use-cases while also sustaining print media for as along as possible, both to buy time but also to develop a multimedia roadmap for utility, entertainment and public good services

The number of people willing to pay for online news now roughly matches print paid circulation, and will soon be substantially greater, with publishers increasingly demonstrating that their strategies are influencing industry outcomes

Our thesis is that subscriptions work in some cases, but that a more systematic reader-first approach benefits all cases, recalibrating management focus to media’s core purpose

Effectively implementing such an approach is a more radical, transformative development than is sometimes assumed. The winners will deploy sophisticated, bespoke audience acquisition and retention funnels and undergo detailed appraisals of the trade-offs necessary for optimal user experiences

Governments and operators have come under increasing pressure to exclude Huawei’s 5G equipment from national networks, with justifications usually kept vague and wide-ranging rather than specific, and no evidence provided.

Given the role of Huawei’s 5G equipment in the network and the extent of existing testing and checking, realistic security risks that apply to Huawei and not to all other equipment suppliers are hard to conceive.

The risks of any ban are however very real; with Huawei one of only three global-scale telecoms equipment suppliers, and the preferred early choice for 5G radio equipment in the UK, removing this choice will massively increase costs and delay roll-outs of cutting-edge connectivity.

The combination of 5G, AI, IoT and big data were evangelised at MWC as generating massive scope for the transformation of multiple industries. 

That much is probably true, but it is the tech and consultancy companies who will likely receive the benefits, with connectivity revenue likely to be modest.

For the operators, 5G brings more capacity much needed for hungry smartphone users, and perhaps the opportunity to transform themselves into a leaner operating model.
 

Bleak prospects for digital advertising leave no choice to news publishers but to generate revenue from readers, and the lack of widespread frictionless micropayment options means there is no alternative to subscription — the vast majority of western ‘quality’ newspapers have rolled out paywalls; meters and registrations are the most promising approaches

Recent politics have increased demand for quality journalism and readiness to pay. Despite clumsy commercial models the rise in subscriber numbers is encouraging, but current price points may be too low for a sustainable digital transition. Churn is high, publishers have yet to fully develop and optimise ecommerce

The transition to an audience-centric model is a shift away from click bait, with distinctiveness, curation and news agenda hierarchy among the most important factors. Leveraging data to optimise audience engagement remains challenging

Even though Facebook is not a producer of news, 6.5 million UK internet users claim to mainly source their news from the platform. Posts and shares by friends in the user's network, in the context of Facebook's algorithm, determine the order of stories in the personalised News Feed, removing the control of the news agenda that publishers have for their websites

Premium publishers operating a paywall (The Times, The Financial Times) have a lower key approach to Facebook than publishers generating advertising revenue from referral traffic to their websites or from on-platform consumption of Instant Articles. The latter will seek to stimulate social media engagement, optimising stories through attention-grabbing headlines, and installing Facebook’s share and like buttons on their websites

Case studies of the news stories that were prominent on Facebook (measured by likes, comments and shares) in the periods leading up to the Brexit Referendum and General Election 2017 votes respectively demonstrate that newspaper brands (the Express for Brexit, and The Guardian for the General Election) achieved the highest reach on Facebook during these periods, despite being ranked below other news brands (BBC in particular) in terms of traffic to their websites

Facebook content shares suggest that misinformation had broad reach during both US and UK political campaigns, but outright fake news was rare, particularly in the UK 

Mis- and disinformation by both established and new publishers was distributed on Facebook, but monetisation took place predominantly off-site, and content was distributed by a wide range of search and social platforms 

Facebook has acted to limit the reach of disinformation, but can’t and shouldn’t be expected to do so alone as digital news distribution touches on complex questions including information and democracy, media literacy and heterogeneous cultural and social norms

In an immersive industry workshop in Turin celebrating La Stampa’s 150th anniversary, quality news publishers from around the world expressed a strong collective belief in membership, an editorial strategy supported by an emerging advertising opportunity

Editorial and service relevance was defined by widely varying publisher missions, categorised by a range of local and specialist use-cases, creating highly differentiated services for print, mobile and other delivery

A low-level hum in the discussions was a recognition that fundamental change in company culture – editorial and commercial as well as business operations – is a complex but urgent requirement for achieving a long-term sustainable news service