Digital Publishing Trends 2021: The 5 most important developments

Stephan Heck

The pandemic accelerated the digital transformation of publishing houses last year like no event before. The cost and innovation pressure was great and has grown even more. What measures will publishers take to respond to the changes in 2021? Which digital publishing trends are leading media brands pursuing? An international Reuters report provides answers. We have summarized the most important findings for you.

The pandemic accelerated the digital transformation of publishing houses last year like no event before. The cost and innovation pressure was great and has grown even more. What measures will publishers take to respond to the changes in 2021? Which digital publishing trends are leading media brands pursuing? An international Reuters report provides answers. We have summarized the most important findings for you.

International industry leaders agree on this  

Anyone who reads the study results will get a good overview of how international industry leaders will position themselves in 2021. However, the report "Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends and Predictions 2021" is not a representative study. Executives from publishing houses were surveyed, mainly editors-in-chief, CEOs, COOs and digitization officers.

The majority of participants came from Great Britain (23 percent), only 10 percent from Germany. So for the time being, the study doesn't provide any information about the topics German editorial teams have set their sights on this year. But it does give an indication of what strategies are worth considering for German publishing houses in order to find answers to the increasing cost pressure in the second Corona year.

76 percent of the respondents agree that they want to accelerate their innovation plans. Decision-makers at German publishing houses take a similar view: 66 percent stated in a KPMG study in mid-2020 that they wanted to improve their innovation capabilities as a strategic focus.

5 focal points determine the digital transformation in media companies

In 2021, innovation will no longer be limited to corporate divisions, but will affect the entire media organization as a digital transformation. Workflows, content formats, business models and strategic approaches will be put to the test and changed if necessary. The goal is to reduce costs and establish or expand digital channels as stable revenue drivers. The industry leaders surveyed are focusing on five areas this year.

1. diversification of sales channels should protect against crises.

With the Corona pandemic, advertising revenues at many newspapers have continued to plummet, and while digital ad sales have somewhat compensated for the loss, publishers are focusing on further diversifying their digital revenue streams in 2021. Whereas in 2018, 81 percent of respondents named digital ads as the most important revenue driver in their online business, subscription models now top the list for 76 percent of respondents. On average, publishers plan to rely on four different revenue channels in 2021.

The fact that diversification can be a critical factor for success is shown by the example of The Independent: The British newspaper discontinued its print edition four years ago and has since focused entirely on digital offerings. It is financed by advertising, e-commerce, affiliate income, paid subscription models and donations. And the strategy is working. While some competitors stumbled, the company posted record profits in 2020, according to Managing Director Christian Broughton.

2. willingness to pay offers opportunities for digital subscription models.

Paid digital subscriptions are a central component of many diversification strategies. For this reason, they can be considered a focus of innovation in their own right.

Although the free-for-all mentality is still widespread on the web, readers are increasingly willing to pay for independent, quality digital journalism. In the 18-29 age group, 39 percent have already spent money on online journalism. A prominent example: The New York Times. It gained more than one million paying subscribers in 2020 alone. However, it is questionable whether even smaller media brands without a global readership can convince enough subscribers that digital revenue from subscriptions can compensate for the loss of print revenue. 41 percent of industry leaders were skeptical about this.

3. media companies are trying to participate in the e-commerce boom.

Online retail is booming, and not just since the pandemic. More and more digital publishers are thinking about how they can profit from this boom in 2021. In addition to their core business, the decision-makers surveyed are exploring models for generating additional revenue through product sales or product recommendations, for example.

A pioneer of this digital publishing trend is once again the New York Times: On its Wirecutter website, it publishes reviews of products ranging from electronics to pet supplies to kitchenware. When a reader clicks on a product link, he or she is redirected to the third-party provider and the New York Times receives a small commission - a worthwhile revenue model if the number of hits is high.

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4. artificial intelligence should make processes more efficient and customer needs more transparent.

If you don't know your customers, you don't stand a chance in the digital business world. 74 percent of respondents consider customer data to be the most important source of promising, innovative ideas. Publishers need to use artificial intelligence to evaluate their data and deliver personalized content to readers. The smart technologies should also relieve editors and thus make the production process more efficient.

More than two-thirds of decision-makers see the application of AI in editorial departments as the innovation factor that will change the media landscape the most in the next five years.

5. editorial teams experiment with old and new content formats.

Many of the media surveyed want to focus on visual content formats this year and thus reach younger target groups in particular.

In view of fake news, comprehensible, data-based reporting is gaining in importance. In addition to traditional formats, publishers want to experiment with stories and other visual formats. The Washington Post's Coronavirus Simulator provides an example of successful visual data journalism. It became the most-read article in the title's history in 2020.

Washington Post Coronavirus Simulator
The data for the simulation came from Johns Hopkins University. The author of the article is Washington Post graphics reporter Harry Stevens.

But data is not the only source of visual content formats. Perhaps one of the most exciting digital publishing trends: AI applications that automatically transform texts into visual stories.

Other formats that editorial teams are rediscovering or rediscovering are newsletters and podcasts. Both formats have existed for years, but were not used by media companies, or not strategically enough. That they are now coming back into focus is hardly surprising: They are ideal formats for creating trust and building reader loyalty. This is a key prerequisite for increasing digital revenues of any kind.

Innovative ideas need multidisciplinary teams

Which digital publishing trends do publishers want to address first? In their plans, the majority of respondents (70 percent) want to focus on and build on existing products and processes rather than develop completely new revenue models. The KPMG study comes to a similar conclusion for the German market: 70 percent of decision-makers want to optimize workflows and processes, only 45 percent cite the expansion or development of paid content as a priority, and even fewer, 36 percent, want to develop new business areas.

When it comes to implementing digital innovation, industry leaders see the product manager in a key role. He or she is responsible for the product strategy and its implementation. 93 percent of respondents regard the role as critical to success, but in 43 percent of companies it is not clear to everyone what tasks such a product manager actually assumes.

By contrast, it is clear that teamwork will be in demand in the future and that the days of lonely top-down decision-making are over. Only 26 percent of those surveyed were convinced that the best ideas come from managers. In contrast, 69 percent emphasized the role of multidisciplinary teams and data analyses.

Digital Publishing Trends: Recommendations for Action in the DACH Region

One thing the Reuters report clearly shows is that publishers who want to be successful must remain flexible. Not only to be better able to cushion crises, but above all to develop a sustainable digital business model. To do this, they must experiment with new formats, pick up on new usage habits and be present on new platforms.

Many German publishers have now set out to transform their organization for the digital age. More and more media houses are diversifying their revenue channels beyond their core business: Süddeutsche, for example, is cooperating with a travel provider, Tagesspiegel is selling decor and art in its online store, and Cosmopolitan is launching a branded CosmoLiving furniture collection together with the online mail order company Wayfair. This approach can work - especially well if the products on offer match the brand.

Digital subscription models are now part of the product portfolio for the vast majority of publishers in Germany. The fact that they can function as revenue drivers is shown by the rising sales of e-papers. The size of a publishing house is not decisive for the success of a digital subscription: The Madsack Group successfully launched an offensive for digital subscriptions in the Corona year 2020, and Schwäbisch-Medien recorded 90 percent revenue growth for its digital subscriptions in the same year. It is important that the editorial team offers content relevant to the target group that is not freely available elsewhere. Here, publishers in Germany have by no means exhausted their potential. Corona has caused subscriber numbers to skyrocket in many cases, but the challenge is to maintain them after the pandemic, when news interest has normalized.

Newsletters and podcasts have been on German publishers' radar for several years now. According to the BDZV study, 97 percent of editors-in-chief had implemented one or more newsletters in 2020 or plan to do so by 2023, and 63 percent regularly publish podcasts. So German publishers are not hopelessly out of touch, but they are not exploiting the potential of new technologies for themselves.

This applies to automations of newsletters, but also to personalizations of websites. When it comes to integrating video, things look even bleaker: Bild Live is one of the few beacons that prominently integrate moving images into the digital offering. Innovations often fail not because of a lack of willingness, but because of outdated systems.

Quick to get in on the clubhouse trend? This can only be done easily and without horrendous costs with modern integrated publishing platforms possible. They then also offer the possibility of data evaluation to find out whether and how a longer-term commitment on this or that platform is worthwhile at all. This precise knowledge of users is a prerequisite for reader loyalty, community building, and thus the basis for digital revenues.

Artificial intelligence has rightly been identified as the most fundamental development of the next few years. Many publishers still associate AI with automatically generated texts. But in fact, the technology can do much more: It can evaluate content, carry out SEO measures, identify topics - and, above all, relieve editors so that they have more time for their core journalistic task and can deliver content of a quality that users are happy to pay for, regardless of the channel.

We have been supporting publishers in digital publishing for 13 years and are bringing artificial intelligence into German newsrooms. And maybe yours soon, too. Arrange an online consultation now.

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