In 2016, the media’s usual battle for attention felt more like a war. Fueled primarily by an unprecedented political season, consumers were bombarded with a ceaseless litany of “breaking news,” recycled headlines, fake stories, and social feeds just begging for their next click.
From an outsider’s perspective (putting print media aside), it would seem like a golden age for the news business. However, those of us in the bunkers know that’s not quite the case. The battlefield has never been more crowded and the challenges, particularly in the digital space, have never been more real. We’ve been fighting against ourselves, and, in turn, we’ve surrendered too much of our territory to the platform and ad tech giants who have increasingly monopolized the larger attention economy.
All is not lost.
As I look towards 2017, I believe many news outlets (legacy or digital native) will focus less of their resources on “off-platform expansion” — whether through Facebook Instant Articles, Snapchat Discover, or Apple News — and expend more effort doubling-down on what’s most important, and what they do best: building trust with readers. The major social networks have struggled to do this over the last year, and the passive programmatic machine lurking in the background is, by its very nature, anonymous.
Trust, regardless of a media company’s political leanings or institutional beliefs, is where news brands can and will continue to thrive in the future. We know that trust leads to greater engagement, brand affinity, and a willingness to pay for premium news content. Think of it as a battle for hearts and minds instead of just eyeballs and clicks.
Importantly, trust will directly influence the amount of time consumers spend with digital news content (and digital news brands) moving forward, regardless of the platform, medium or device. For brands who are trying to connect with consumers in a more meaningful and authentic way, time spent will be the digital ad currency of the future, above and beyond the click, like, share, or even the most sophisticated forms of audience targeting.
As we live through an age of fake news and filter bubbles, the trust surrounding quality journalism, and the time readers and consumers spend engaging with real news content, has never mattered more. It also matters greatly to marketers, and in 2017, the battle lines will move further away from buying passive eyeballs at scale to buying eyeballs that are actually looking back.
This will be the year the digital media juggernauts finally recognize the importance of journalism’s role in breeding greater trust and increasing engagement across their platforms, which is not only a win for the reader, but also provides a larger opportunity to capture those more elusive branding dollars that will continue to leave print and television.
The future of the digital news business, which is the future of news itself, is at stake. If we don’t win the war for reader trust, we’ll be left fighting battles for a smaller share of ad dollars. The good news is it’s a war we can win.
Michael Kuntz is senior vice president of digital revenue at USA Today Network.