After years of hyperbole and overinflation, 2019 was a year of course correction for publishers looking to move into audio and video, with the green shoots of success starting to show, says Chris Sutcliffe in this chapter from our Media Moments 2019 report.
After the gold rush that was the ‘pivot to video’ throughout 2018, this year saw publishers take a more measured approach to their multimedia content.
That’s not to say that experiments and launches haven’t taken place – far from it. Instead, in line with the rest of the topics discussed in this report, much of 2019’s investment in multimedia has been about capitalising on existing strengths rather than taking punts on moonshots.
In a way, that’s a little disappointing. We’re all for experimentation, and you don’t know what will work or where you’ll discover a new audience until you try it.
And if we didn’t see trials like BuzzFeed News launching on Twitch (though some politicians and even the House of Commons have done so this past year), then we can at least be happy that some of the multimedia experiments we highlighted in last year’s report have borne fruit for publishers.
What happened in 2019?
The year did not begin especially well for publishers’ video teams, many of who were still facing the repercussions of Facebook’s exaggerated video viewing figures being revealed and the rush out of investing in Facebook Live as a result. In January it was reported that the Daily Telegraph was backing out of its investment in video to pursue its subscription plans, with its video team getting rocked by redundancies just before Christmas.
However, over the course of the year, more legacy publishers began using digital video not just as a means of distributing information but as a selling point for their higher-tier subscription offerings.
In October, the Daily Mail announced that its Mail Plus service would soon include three daily live bulletins from journalists, effectively recreating the television news model for its subscribers. Press Gazette noted that the bulletins were understood to be under consideration for a move to a subscriber-only model in the future.
Across the pond newspapers including the New York Times made livestreaming a key tenet of some of the reporting they did around a given subject, with the Trump impeachment hearings benefiting from having its journalists perform live commentary on proceedings.
Building on multimedia successes elsewhere, the NYT also made forays into television with its flagship ‘docuseries’ The Weekly premiering on FX and Hulu in June. By contrast, Vice shuttered its live news show Vice Live less than two months after the show premiered, reportedly due to low ratings.
Outside of news content, some publishers have begun building video offerings that are more evergreen. Following a refresh of its digital platforms to cater to video, in July Hearst launched All/Out Studio, a subscription-based streaming video service comprised of lifestyle and health videos, mostly workouts. In line with where much growth in digital video consumption is coming from, it chose to launch the service as a mobile app 35 hours’ worth of workout classes for $15 a month.
Additionally, there has been a growing recognition that individual platforms are more suitable for certain types of live video. While BuzzFeed News might not stream on Twitch any more, for instance, its gaming focused vertical Multiplayer regularly does. In an analysis published by Digiday in June, platforms report Kerry Flynn argued that Twitch’s clear paths to monetisation through subscriptions were a much safer bet than any ad-based propositions.
The lesson from the Great Pivot To Video Bloodbath appears to have been that independent metrics are required in order for publishers to dip their toes back in the water. In January Vice, BuzzFeed, and Group Nine joined with social video analytics provider to form the Global Video Measurement Alliance, designed to prove the viability of video published across social channels.
Overall, though, it’s fair to say that investment in video has yet to climb back to the point it would have been without the Facebook metrics scandal. Having watched some of their herd getting torn apart by a predator at the waterhole, publishers are only now warily reapproaching it.
By contrast, podcasting at publishers grew apace over the course of 2019, building upon the encouraging signs from the previous year.
In January The Economist announced that it was launching a daily 20 minute news podcast called ‘The Intelligence’, with 8 full-time staff members. This was in service of bolstering its already impressive audio production, but it has parallels with what outlets including The New Statesman had been doing since 2018 – putting podcasts on an equal footing with the rest of its content when it comes to marketing subscriptions.
In September French newspaper Le Monde launched a new raft of podcasts based on existing article series, suggesting that this year more than ever has seen podcasting come to the fore as both a product in its own right, and as a value add to existing subscriptions.
In June, the NYT’s president and CEO Mark Thompson even suggested it is possible that the title’s flagship podcast The Daily could eventually be spun out into its own paid product. He said that after the podcast drastically overperformed, particularly among younger audiences, the opportunity was obvious:
“We thought ‘we should be doing this podcast right now’… before we got any revenue in place… and the team just spooled it up. By the time we launched, we’d got great launch sponsors; we’d promised BMW that they’d get 750,000 listeners in this launch phase. We gave them 43 million.”
While podcasts are being put to work behind paywalls, it’s notable that many publishers are still using them to generate ad revenue. Slate, which has been investing significantly in podcast infrastructure and networks for the past few years, announced in May that it expects “nearly half” of its revenue for 2019 to come from podcasting, up from 28% the previous year, for instance.
Meanwhile, the Guardian has also been steadily investing in its audio content. Guardian head of audio Katherine Godfrey explains that doing so is an extension of the paper’s central mission, and can aid in its drive to reader revenue as a result.
She believes that direct touchpoints with audiences, particularly those that offer a one-to-one relationship with journalists – a strength of podcasts – can help with the engagement required to build a membership model at scale.
To read more from this chapter, including what to expect in the future and case studies, download the full Media Moments 2019 report.