There is a paradox at play in the news industry. We are growing. But we are not.
Over the past decade, news readership has grown by 10%. Two-thirds of those readers are now consumers of digital news. The latest numbers show that 19 million people read a national newspaper online every single day.
And, in the past year alone, that number has grown by two million readers. Just to reiterate: that’s two million more people a day reading a version of a national news brand online compared with 2018.
The news industry is exploring different and more dynamic ways to report stories online.
The Telegraph, for instance, is driving greater engagement with younger readers through its WhatsApp audio briefings and it also has one million Snapchat subscribers. The Guardian has the same number of YouTube subscribers.
They’re not the only ones creating new ways to deliver their journalism. All news brands are pioneering in order to attract new readers. And the good news is that it’s working.
The Evening Standard has seen something like 30% year-on-year online growth as it pursues a digital strategy that differs from the London focus of the daily print edition.
We are continually innovating in how we deliver the news. We are growing multiplatform demand. In fact, the headlines from across the news industry are frequent as they hit new milestones in terms of readership growth, reach and engagement.
The news industry, on these terms, is in great shape.
Ad revenue is not following audience growth
But – and it is a big but – over the same 10-year period ad revenue has gone in the other direction.
As the Cairncross Report highlighted, ad revenue on the print and circulation side of the business fell from £7bn to £3bn. And while digital is rising, the figures nowhere near match the growth in digital readership, where the industry is burgeoning once more.
According to one of the latest forecasts, news brands' online ad revenue is set to rise by a modest 1.1% this year.
That’s against the 14% year-on-year increase in readership across our national news titles online, where every single day our audience are highly engaged in digital journalism.
On every measure that matters to marketers – reach, attention, engagement, audience profile and ROI – news brands are in rude and growing health.
But why isn’t ad revenue following these metrics? The gap just doesn’t make sense.
The last phase of digital advertising has been dominated by the open marketplace, in which "eyeballs" online have been sold as one amorphous mass, with too little attention to the quality of the content or attention of the audience.
As a result, digital advertising has often failed to deliver the real scale and business results initially promised to marketers.
What’s worse, during the "wild web" phase, some platforms, intermediaries and third parties have been allowed to extract value from the media ecosystem while putting very little, if anything, back in.
At worst, some of these players have also allowed advertising revenue to flow to nefarious places where their money really shouldn’t be going.
The Times' 2017 investigation, "Big brands fund terror through online adverts", was a big wake-up call for the ad industry and successfully exposed just some of the egregious practices going on.
But the next phase of digital advertising could be significantly brighter. Every piece of evidence shows that concentrating digital spend into high-quality, journalistic spaces significantly enhances viewability, attention, engagement and ROI.
News industry initiatives such as The Ozone Project, a joint digital display ad sales platfrom from News UK, Guardian Media Group, Telegraph Media Group and Reach, are giving advertisers the chance to access the most influential moments in people’s digital lives in a way that is transparent, easy to deliver and offers the business effects they need to deliver.
What's holding the industry back?
So what is holding news brands back? Is it because news brands are becoming less relevant in a world dominated by social media? No.
People’s chosen news brand is one of their most trusted media brands, with 69% saying they trust their news brand source.
And trust in those brands is growing, as shown by Edelman’s trust barometer. People’s trust in established media brands grew from 48% in 2017 to 60% this year.
That is against trust in social media, which currently sits at 29%. Additionally, six in 10 people say they rely more on established news brands since the rise of fake news.
Is it because news is too hard an environment for brands? No.
Because news is made of light and shade, and only a certain percentage of the news focuses on the "hard news" topics. But, in any case, as our own research shows, the hard news sections and stories are probably the most effective part for brands to advertise against.
These are times where people want to make sense of a chaotic world and those moments where they form their world view are the most influential.
Is it because personalisation is the way forward? Well, perhaps it is – certainly Les Binet and Peter Field’s latest work has shown the potential of personalisation for activation campaigns.
But we shouldn’t assume that it is only the digital platforms that can offer this capability.
News brands offer some of the most meaningful data around human behaviours and attitudes, and offer huge opportunities to personalise at real scale.
Furthermore, as an industry, we – and I am not just talking about the news industry but across the entire media landscape – collectively play our part in upholding the principles of a free and democratic society.
Brands and advertisers are fundamentally important here, as they help to fund the very journalism that allows our free press to continue to hold the powerful to account.
The digital news industry is racing ahead – the numbers speak for themselves – but the advertising community needs to catch up with us. And fast.
Why? Well, because journalism matters, and as members of this ecosystem, the future of journalism is something we must collectively hold in trust, as it is a benefit to us all.
Tracy De Groose is executive chair of Newsworks