Why 2023 showed ‘video is the next most important thing in publishing’

Why 2023 showed ‘video is the next most important thing in publishing’
2023 in Review

Social media and publishing reporter Jack Benjamin reviews a tumultuous year for the social media market, while the rise of AI led publishers to defend their intellectual property.

Twitter’s immolation; Facebook deprecating news; the ascendency of TikTok.

Fighting for IP protections; pushing the importance of trust; the rise of generative AI.

The past year has seen a number of key developments in social media and publishing – increasingly intertwined mediums – that have dramatically shifted the social media market and caused news publishers to defend their intellectual property.

What were some of the biggest stories of the year, and what do some of the industry’s leaders think about the state of publishing as we head into 2024?

Twitter/X: so much noisier but less and less relevant

There was a lot of news about Twitter in 2023. In fact, there was rarely a week (or sometimes a day) without a controversial statement or decision by the microblogging platform’s owner Elon Musk, who rebranded the site as X in July.

Since then a number of Far Right agitators and hate-speech peddlers have been allowed back on to X, including former US president Donald Trump, the conspiracist Alex Jones, and alleged rapist and trafficker Andrew Tate.

For all Musk’s bravado and reputation as the visionary entrepreneur behind Tesla and SpaceX, his stewardship of Twitter/X has been weak. In June The New York Times revealed that its US ad revenue was down nearly 60% year-on-year, while last week The Media Leader revealed Ukom estimates showing UK audiences have dropped significantly in recent months.

All great copy and material for future business school case studies. But how much does Twitter’s painful demise actually matter to the media industry?

Not much, according to Croud’s paid social director Yazmin King. Twitter never played an important role in most advertisers’ media plans, King argued in May, because it “lacks the media effectiveness and results to rival other major social platforms.”

Exclusive: X loses 1 million daily UK users in less than 6 months

In his monthly column, Nick Manning went further in October, arguing that advertisers “don’t need Twitter, as it adds very little that is not available elsewhere and its environment is volatile.

“It has a sizeable audience but one that is not especially unique or valuable to advertisers, especially compared to Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube,” Manning added.

Musk apparently could no longer hide his frustration at the end of November, telling a live audience that advertisers that don’t like his running of the company can “go fuck themselves”.

Linda Yaccarino, the former NBC sales chief appointed as CEO of Twitter/X in May, had her own on-stage moment to forget in September.

Perhaps the biggest story in social media this year has been advertisers, news publishers and journalists slowly moving away from the social platform, which has become a haven for hate speech and misinformation, and migrating in large numbers to Meta’s Threads, which launched this summer.

An upended social media environment

But the distraction that X has played throughout all of 2023 should not take away from other major developments in social media, especially given social adspend is increasingly being funnelled to just three key players: Meta, Google, and ByteDance.

“Content remained king in social throughout 2023,” Victoria Bickle, UK MD at mSix&Partners, told The Media Leader. “TikTok continued its growth, with more advertisers focusing on developing influencer-first content on behalf of the brands, enabling an expanded reach and communication with customers.”

Meta, which is stealing X’s lunch money with Threads, also had an exceptional year in overcoming Apple’s App Tracking Transparency changes, growing monetisation of Instagram’s Reels, and expanding opportunities to advertise on WhatsApp.

Google remains a dominant digital player despite ongoing attempts by US regulators to break up its advertising business. Through YouTube it also remains a key player in social, especially through the expansion of commercial opportunities for YouTube Shorts.

Yes, short-form video is en vogue, all thanks to TikTok. It has become an all-encompassing app for many young users, who are taking to using it for queries (rather than Google), and for news. Indeed, 43% of TikTok users now report getting their news from the app, up from 33% last year.

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Social video’s prominence, social media’s animosity to news

That is causing publishers to shift away from purely written content and toward video content to reach new young audiences.

According to Dominic Williams, chief revenue officer at Mail Metro Media, the most important development for publishers this year has been a significant shift in focus toward video and podcasts, from both editorial and sales perspectives.

“Video is the next most important product for publishing,” Williams told The Media Leader.

Publishers with strong brands and loyal audiences have taken to working with social media companies this year despite an increasingly hostile relationship between Big Tech and news publishing. The Mail, for example, has an active relationship with TikTok, where it ranks as the top news publisher on the platform with over 6.5 million followers.

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For other publishers, especially local and regional press, feelings toward the likes of Google, Meta, and TikTok are more acrimonious. In a recent poll, nine in 10 newsbrand editors said they believe Google and Meta pose “existential threats” to journalism.

Facebook‘s decision to deprecate its support for news has challenged publishers this year, with News Media Association (NMA) CEO Owen Meredith accusing Meta of “choking trusted news” in September.

Such changes, in tandem with dried investment opportunities amid rising interest rates in 2023, had severe adverse effects on the likes of BuzzFeed (which closed down Pulitzer Prize-winning outlet BuzzFeed News in April), Vice Media (which filed for bankruptcy in May), Future (shares down 55% year-to-date), and Reach (shares down 27.5% year-to-date despite multiple rounds of layoffs and other cost-cutting measures).

Many publishers, having to cut costs, have had to lay off a significant number of staffers this year. Even The New Yorker, which rarely sheds journalists, was forced to part with humourist Andy Borowitz amid recent cost reductions at parent company Condé Nast.

“It has been a tough year,” admitted Meredith in a recent conversation with The Media Leader. He remains nevertheless optimistic that publishing’s outlook into the next year will improve.

The sector will apparently have to do so without one of publishing’s most influential figures of all time. In September Rupert Murdoch announced he was stepping down as as chairman of The Sun and The Wall Street Journal‘s parent company News Corp, as well as Fox Corp whose sensationalist US TV channel Fox News was the subject of a defamation suit that Murdoch settled for $787m.

Will legislation even the playing field?

That is because a number of key pieces of legislation are working their way through parliament that, trade bodies like the NMA say, would help to even the playing field between Big Tech and publishing.

These include the Digital Markets, Competition, and Consumers Bill, which Meredith expects to be passed in Q1 of next year and implemented throughout 2024; the Media Bill which will repeal section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act of 2013, which would have (if ever implemented) required publishers to pay the costs of individuals who sue them, even if they win the lawsuit; and legislation to discourage the use of frivolous SLAPP lawsuits.

Still, Meredith insisted that there is a “social responsibility” for Big Tech companies, “that if their consumers and users are going to their sites for news, they should be making sure there are genuine news sources [there], and that they are paying for that content rather than leaving it to the Wild West.”

However, given publishers’ lack of leverage to force action by Big Tech and advertisers’ apparent lack of widespread interest in increasing investment in trusted news despite effectiveness research proving its worth, Meredith admits “the future for a sustainable, healthy local news title does lie in diversified revenues.” These could include micropayments models, registrations paywalls, and the continued (if declining) importance of print.

According to Sajeeda Merali, CEO of the Professional Publishers Association (PPA), 86% of PPA members now operate across five or more platforms, up from 75% in 2019, as they look to diversify revenue streams. But, she warned in a statement to The Media Leader, “publishers need to resist the tendency to try their hand at everything and prioritise those initiatives that will drive the most customer value and the best financial return.”

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The elephant in the room: AI

Perhaps the biggest forward-looking challenge to publishers, however, is the Association of National Advertisers’ marketing word of the year: AI.

Richard Reeves, manging director of the Association of Online Publishers (AOP) laid it out plainly: “Generative AI remains a direct threat to publishers’ IP,” he told The Media Leader.

“This is a moment that feels similar to when the internet started to rip up the publishing rule book,” added Merali.

The PPA and AOP, like the many publishers they represent, have set up teams to consider how the industry can best use the fast-developing technology, which is likely to greatly transform the state of publishing. That includes threatening the very nature of writing and journalistic processes.

“What the industry has had to immediately address at a senior Government level, is tackling the concern about AI using publisher IP/copyright as a data source without publishers being financially compensated or giving permission,” Merali told The Media Leader. “We want to ensure we are protecting the trusted, quality content specialist media is known for, so that audiences are getting the right information and facts. We need to strike the right balance between innovation and regulation to set this industry up for future success.”

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And yet, for Williams, despite the technological advancements and uncertainties, success in publishing in 2024 comes down to the basics.

“For all publishers, we need to be relevant for our audiences and relevant for the advertising marketplace (in that order),” he said. “And we’ve got to make sure we’re collaborative with other publishers.”

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