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Facebook refugees, from ad revenue to news habits

“In 2019, the media’s insistence on biting the hand that feeds it will drive it to examine the new biases and shortcomings of the new gatekeepers of attention.”

Three factors will reshape journalism in 2019: the pressing need for ad-supported publishers to find new revenue streams, the unusual effects of looking at reader engagement through the lens of subscriptions, and the question of where the news habit that Facebook created in a new generation of news readers will end up taking them next.

The imperative to diversify revenue

Do you want dine with the Times and shop with the Guardian? Wear the New Yorker and chat with the Telegraph? All this and more will be possible in 2019, as publisher business models undergo a radical transformation. Conventional subscriptions and memberships and loyalty programs will abound and develop, but for the vast majority of readers in countries such as the U.K., Canada and Germany, journalism’s irresistible price point of zero will prove hard to shift.

This will drive publishers into events businesses, e-commerce, consulting, and other areas as publishers have their portal moment, leveraging reach and trust to move sideways into businesses never envisioned — and, in doing so, hopefully finding significant new streams of cash. Whether they re-invest it into a core product or use it to develop whole new businesses will be the mark of real innovation, but the overall effect will be a positive step towards sustainability.

Subscriptions

The continued shift to subscriptions and the flight-to-quality it represents will be aided ably by the same platforms that shaped the digital advertising industry, whose most cynical leaders perhaps see it as an opportunity to deflate competition from publishers for ad dollars. For traditional publishers who had an under-leveraged older audience with disposable income the path to reader revenue is relatively straightforward in places like the U.S. and the Nordics. But for challenger brands created in the disruption of the past 15 years of platform publishing with younger (and therefore, thanks to the global recession, often relatively lower income) readers the way forward is less clear. Many of these brands have already come unstuck struggling under the expectations of venture capital, falling prey to the dangerous Silicon Valley delusion of inexorable hockey stick growth.

The reality for most media business models will be far more mundane. Will younger audiences in 2019 apply the pricing approaches of cord-cutting to journalism and write off a trendy news subscription in the same part of their monthly budgets as Netflix? Or will the deep commoditization of news mean there is always someone to fulfill that news need for free? For the good of journalism overall, 2019 will need to see conscious efforts to address underserved audiences unwilling or unable to pay for news and avoid losing the platform era’s tendency to shape coverage that reflects audiences’ real wants and needs.

The Facebook refugees

At the time we called it a Facebook habit, but looking back was it actually a news habit in a Facebook wrapper? Since Facebook pulled journalism out of the newsfeed over the past year, users have just shifted their news routine elsewhere on their smartphones, with the main beneficiaries human-edited platforms such as Apple News, Upday and Flipboard.

Human editors sound like a good thing, but next year we’ll see whether they’re really better than algorithms at all things, with unscalable humans manning closed platforms pitted against technology’s power to personalize and prioritize and the basic openness of the last generation of platforms.

In 2019, the media’s insistence on biting the hand that feeds it will drive it to examine the new biases and shortcomings of the new gatekeepers of attention. We may end up uneasy with what we find.

Jack Riley is the international strategy director at HuffPost.

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