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Survey: Publishers fear further falls in social traffic

January 9, 2024

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has published its Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends and Predictions 2024.

The annual report, authored by Senior Research Associate Nic Newman, is based on a survey of 314 media leaders from 56 countries. The report suggests many media leaders are worried about their prospects in the year ahead, with almost two-thirds expressing concerns about plummeting referral traffic from social platforms. Key highlights include:

Publishers worry about a sharp decline in referral traffic

Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of the media leaders surveyed say they are worried about a sharp decline in referral traffic from social platforms. Data sourced for this report from data analytics provider Chartbeat shows that traffic to news sites from Facebook fell 48 per cent in 2023, with traffic from X (formerly known as Twitter) declining by 27 per cent.

In response to these developments, the priorities of news publishers are changing. Up to 77 per cent in our sample say they will focus more on their own direct channels in the next year, with a fifth (22 per cent) resorting to cutting costs and a similar proportion (20 per cent) experimenting with alternative third-party platforms. In terms of

news formats, most of our respondents say they’ll create more video (+64 net score), more newsletters (+52), and more podcasts (+47), but broadly the same number of news articles – as they lean into some of the few remaining areas of audience and advertiser growth.

When considering third-party platforms, newsroom leaders say they will focus much less on Facebook and X and will put more resources into WhatsApp (+61 net score) and Instagram (+39) following Meta’s decision to open up broadcast channels for publishers. Interest in video networks such as TikTok (+55) and YouTube (+44) remain strong while Google Discover is becoming a more important but volatile referral source.

Newman said: “Reaching audiences online is getting tougher as Facebook pulls back from news and X becomes less welcoming for publishers. The big fear is that search traffic may be next, as AI-powered results provide answers directly in the interface, rather than offering so many links to news sites”

Publishers are pessimistic about any deals with AI companies

As awareness and usage of AI platforms grows around the world, some news companies aim to sign licensing deals with AI platforms. But the newsroom leaders we surveyed are not optimistic about any benefits being equally

shared. Around half of our respondents (48 per cent) felt that there would be very little money for any publisher and a third (35 per cent) believed that most of the money would go to big publishers.

Many of the publishers we surveyed see important benefits in the use of artificial intelligence. Back-end news automation (56 per cent) is considered the most important use of the technology, followed by offering better recommendations (37 per cent) and commercial uses (28 per cent). Publishers are ambivalent about using AI for content creation. More than half or our respondents consider it the biggest reputational risk.

Only half of the executives are confident about the prospects of journalism in the year ahead

Only half (47 per cent) of our sample of editors, CEOs and digital executives say they are confident about the prospects for journalism in the year ahead, with 12 per cent expressing low confidence. Concerns relate to rising costs, declining advertising revenue, a slowing in subscription growth and increasing legal and physical harassment. Reasons to be cheerful include the hope that closely fought elections in the US and elsewhere could boost traffic despite the risks that this boost will be temporary and further damage trust.

Publishers continue to invest in subscription and membership models, with a large majority of those surveyed (80 per cent) saying this will be an important revenue stream, ahead of both display and native advertising. Most of those operating a paid model report either a slight increase, or stable subscription numbers in the last year, despite a difficult economic outlook and challenges of subscription fatigue.

Things might get even tougher this year as more platforms launch premium services, including ad-free and privacy-friendly offerings. Our report predicts this might push publishers towards bundling of digital news and non-news content as they try to lock in existing customers. All access subscriptions will likely include games, podcasts, magazines, books, and even content from other publishers.

Publishers bet on explainers and solutions stories to fight news avoidance

Selective news avoidance and news fatigue remain a major source of concern for media companies looking to sustain interest in news from Gaza and Ukraine. Strategies that publishers consider very important to counter these trends include better explanation of complex stories (67 per cent), more solutions-oriented or constructive approaches to storytelling (44 per cent) and more inspirational human stories (43 per cent). There was less support for commissioning more positive stories (21 per cent) or entertaining (18 per cent) news.

Our report predicts that AI tools that change the language of news to improve relevance and understanding for particular audiences will be an increasing feature of the news landscape in 2024. Social news-reading app Artifact, for example, can summarise a news story in different styles and adapt it to different audiences. Bots, apps and browser extensions with similar capabilities may spread rapidly in 2024, putting pressure on news organisations to create similar features.

Categories: AI, Articles, Research, Social Media

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