The decline of the printed press is nothing new. I mean, hello, it’s 2020.
Are you going to buy a newspaper from your local newsagent or are you going to pick up your phone and scroll through Facebook/find out what’s trending on Twitter?
If you’re under the age of 30, I guarantee it’s the latter. In fact, I’d bet my pet Chihuahua on it…
…Cue a shameless excuse to include a photo of my pet Chihuahua Boris – cute, isn’t he?
Anyway, back to the matter at hand. As a former Journalism student, lesson 101 taught me that digital news is winning the war on print. Eventually, as has been the case for many magazines, digital newspapers may even outlive their offline siblings entirely. However, whilst paper copies are undoubtedly struggling, an exclusively digital approach isn’t without its own set of challenges and disruptions.
Take the scenario I mentioned at the outset – digital newspapers are desperately lacking in young readers.
How can they entice an audience that typically prefers to consume its content via social media? Can digital news justify monetisation when there are free alternatives elsewhere on the web?
Then there are those pesky Google algorithm updates that any online business must deal with. Finally, throw into the mix competition from news aggregator sites, the prevalence of fake news and a climate of ‘distrust’ amongst the public and it’s apparent that digital news has a lot to contend with.
Join me as I investigate these challenges to the industry in more detail below.
Appealing to Generation Z and Millennials
According to a recent study into how young people consume news, Generation Z and young Millennials are less likely to go directly to news apps and websites.
Instead, they spend much of their time on social media and entertainment platforms.
Amongst this backdrop, traditional news is generally considered a chore, irrelevant and impersonal. Similarly, Ofcom reported last year that the internet is the most-used platform for news consumption amongst 16-24 years old, with almost half of all participants in their study relying on social media for their news.
Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom for news to be accessed in this way. The sharing of articles on social platforms can offer an obvious traffic boost to news websites, not to mention brand awareness benefits.
That said, by the time they reach a news website via social, readers are typically less engaged.
In fact, there’s been a proven decrease in time spent reading articles online, with the average website visitor providing their undivided attention for no more than 15 seconds.
In essence, we live in an age where people prefer to scroll through their newsfeed and simply read a headline or watch a short video clip of the news that concerns them.
These findings, coupled with the suggestion that the collective global attention span is narrowing, present a huge challenge to digital newspapers.
How do they attract readers to their site, especially young readers, shift their attention away from social platforms and keep them engaged?
Well, one way in which the Financial Times has attempted to lure younger users to their site is by offering 16-19-year-old students’ free access to their digital content.
Their series of video content, explaining important economic concepts (using illustrations and set to a sex pistols-esque soundtrack) has resonated particularly well with this young audience. In addition to this, they’ve created relevant content containing tactics and advice for excelling in exams and interviews. Undeniably, The Financial Times are being strategic in that they hope these young students will stick with them, and later become paying subscribers as they move on to university or a career. Anecdotally, the newspaper claims this approach has indeed seen an increased interest in university student subscriptions.
Similarly, the Telegraph, which generally has an older average reader, is using the heavy reliance on social media by young people to their advantage. In 2017, the newspaper partnered with Snapchat’s Discover Platform, which allows them to present content in an animated and visual way, which has seen increased traffic among the highly sought after 18-24 audience.
Finally, just last month, the Guardian announced innovative plans to ban any advertising from companies that extract fossil fuels. Whilst this is clearly motivated by the newspaper’s ethical stance on the climate emergency, it will be interesting to see what implications this has for attracting a young readership to their website. After all, the climate youth movement, spearheaded by the likes of Greta Thunberg, is in many ways responable for pushing climate to the top of the news agenda.
So, what else can digital news publishers do to appeal to younger generations?
According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, one way to tackle this is for online news to design their websites so they feel as easy and accessible to use as the likes of Netflix and Facebook.
The use of clearer, explanatory language combined with instant access and relevant recommendations will be critical to building loyalty and trust with these age groups too. Visual formats, as well as audio podcasts, are also extremely popular with young people and have become integral to how they share and discuss news.
It’s clear that if digital news publications want to thrive in today’s climate, they’ll have to adapt and cater to the younger generations needs.
Google Algorithm Updates & Guidelines
Digital newspapers, as with any online business, must abide by Google’s guidelines and navigate its algorithm updates if they want to perform well on the search engine.
In June 2019, the Daily Mail famously lost half their organic traffic – something they attributed to the Google broad core search algorithm update implemented the day prior. This drop occurred despite, apparently, no changes being made to the site. Nonetheless, whilst the Daily Mail was less than fortunate, the Mirror, the Sun, the Metro and other online publications in the UK were all reported to have gained traction during this time.
Some SEO professionals questioned whether the Daily Mail’s E-A-T score, which stands for Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness, required improvement and was the reason for their loss of organic traffic.
E-A-T is something that Google takes into consideration when differentiating between high and low-quality content. Many pointed to the Daily Mail’s ‘click-bait’ style article headings, for which it’s become infamous for in recent years, as a potential big black mark against their site in terms of ‘trustworthiness’.
This, of course, is a simplistic view. There are over 200 factors that impact how well a page ranks and a broad core update encompasses many of them. In fact, E-A-T is not even a confirmed ranking factor. Rather, it’s an acronym that relates to quality assurance guidelines produced by Google for its ‘Search Quality Raters’ team. The notion that the Daily Mail, one of the most popular and well-known newspaper in the UK, and its loss of rankings could be reduced to just these three elements has largely been refuted.
Likewise, E-A-T was discussed following the August 2018 Google broad core algorithm update. Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) web pages are defined by Google’s Search Quality Raters guidelines as those which ‘could potentially impact a person’s future happiness, health, financial stability, or safety’. This category of web pages, of which ‘news and current events’ are included, experienced a particularly extreme drop in rankings following the August update. Indeed, Buzzfeed and Men’s Health suffered up to -59% loss in search position.
Ultimately, whilst the implication seems to be that digital newspapers certainly needn’t panic about E-A-T, it still pays for them to pay attention to it as showing yourself as an expert, being authoritative and trustworthy is only going to help them.
One way in which digital news publications can appear as experts, authoritative and trustworthy by including author names, biographies and photos in all their editorial content. This allows users to understand and evaluate if their author is a suitable expert for the topic in question.
The Guardian and the Independent do this particularly well:
Another way in which digital news providers can promote trustworthiness, and in turn increase their E-A-T score, is to ensure that their website domain is secure.
At the time of writing, Channel 5 news online, which is a tv news station first and foremost, remains marked as ‘not secure’.
For any site to be without an SSL certificate, and to not automatically redirect to an HTTPS URL, has negative implications for its ‘trustworthiness’.
Google recently announced that nofollow links are to now be treated as a ‘hint’ rather than a ‘directive’.
Historically, SEO managers at digital newspapers, especially red tops, have been known to only use nofollow links in their content. Introduced initially to combat links lefts in the comments sections of blogs and websites (aka spam), this directive would have previously seen Google discount the link entirely as a vote of confidence for the target website. Now being treated as a ‘hint’, Google could potentially choose not to ignore these types of links.
The logic of many digital newspapers appeared to be, mistakenly, that any outgoing link would drain link juice from their site and negatively impact on their rankings. Google spokesperson John Mueller quashed this assumption as ‘definitely wrong’. As a matter of fact, Mueller confirmed that there were no benefits to publications ever using the nofollow attribute on outbound links. Quite the opposite, using normal linking practice will only serve to indicate to Google that a news website is part of the normal web ecosystem.
With this latest change, Google also introduced two new related nofollow links: UGC (user-generated content) and Sponsored (sponsored content). This gives Google more granular signals about a link and allows news webmasters to specify the nature of a link beyond the singular nofollow hint.
So what challenges, if any, does this pose for digital news publications?
Well, unless there continues to be a lack of education and a culture of fear amongst journalists about followed links, this can only really be a positive change.
It’s quite possible, as Mueller mentioned above, that not using a blanket nofollow approach to links will be viewed positively by Google.
Plus, with journalists hopefully paying more attention to the sources they credit with a link, this will result in better quality content for the reader. In turn, this should have positive SEO implications for news websites.
Getting Readers To Pay For Their News
From day dot of the inception of digital news, monetisation has been a huge bone of contention for both editors and readers alike.
Most of us have read a news article online and experienced the feeling of being bombarded with a plea to subscribe or donate. Paywalls, semi-permeable paywalls, metered systems and voluntary contributions are just a few ways in which newspapers are attempting to generate revenue online.
Take the Times and the Sunday Times, which utilise a hard paywall. This means users must pay to access all content and nothing can be viewed without registering first. This model works on the basis that it increases revenue and attracts users who value quality content but will ultimately see a decrease in traffic.
An alternative to this has been to provide free content which utilises advertising or asks for voluntary contributions.
Whilst they offer paid, ad-free subscriptions too, the Guardian are a prime example of a digital newspaper that makes its content accessible for everyone. According to a report by the Reuters Institute and the University of Oxford, most people prefer the latter and are not prepared to pay for digital news. What’s more, they also look unlikely to pay in the future, at least not for the kind of news they currently access for free.
Having said that, the same report revealed a very small increase in the number of people paying for digital news globally in 2019 (by subscription, membership or donations). Mainly, this growth was limited to the Nordic region (Norway and Sweden). Even in countries with higher levels of payment, the vast majority only commit to just one online subscription – implying a ‘winner takes all dynamic’ is important.
So, how can digital news publications get readers to choose them and part with their hard-earned money?
It’s a question that the industry continues to struggle with answering but if there is one promising finding from the report by Reuters, it’s that high-quality content is being increasingly understood as a worthy investment. Digital news websites realise that this is their USP, that it distinguishes what they produce from other online content, and it provides them with a legitimate case for getting subscribers to pay.
For lesser known or established news publications, carving out a niche could possibly make their content stand out further. Appealing to a certain sector or industry, for instance, might mean less advertising investment but will probably deliver in terms of a small, devoted audience who are willing to pay.
‘Fake News’ & The Decline of Trust
Back in 2016 Marty Baron, the Executive Editor for the Washington Post declared the lack of public trust as the greatest challenge to journalism. Fast forward to 2020, and there’s no doubt it’s harder than ever for readers to wade through all the noise online and distinguish between accurate, truthful journalism and ‘fake news’.
Even when they do, there will always be individuals suspicious of mainstream media organisations and their agenda. Whether it’s the delivery of claims about the NHS made on the side of buses or information about political candidates, 70% of people are concerned about what is real and fake on the internet.
According to the aforementioned Reuters study, the level of trust in the news, in general, has declined globally. However, whilst this appears to be bad for digital news – it may actually be a good thing – well, for trusted and established digital news brands at least.
Over a quarter of recipients in the Reuters study claimed they had started relying on more ‘reputable’ sources of news. A further quarter claimed they had stopped using sources that had a dubious reputation in the past year.
Interestingly, some have suggested that the introduction of ‘Top Stories’ into Google’s SERP’s in 2016 was a direct attempt by the search engine to combat fake news. This carousel is prominent on the first page of Google, detailed and visually appealing. It tends to favour larger, distinguished news sites and is powered by Google Search rather than Google News. Take the following example for a search regarding ‘Coronavirus’
But what does this mean for new or emerging digital news providers? What can they do to ensure readers trust them as an authoritative source of news?
In terms of ranking on Google’s Top Stories, this isn’t a straightforward process, requiring several SEO elements to be taken into consideration, and doesn’t guarantee results. Luckily, there are plenty of resources online that walk digital publishers through the process of ranking in the Google Top Stories Carousel like this one.
When it comes to generally improving a reader’s trust in a digital news organisation, according to a recent study, something as simple as providing an explainer box in an article, which offers an overview of the journalists reporting process, can suffice. These explainer boxes can contain information about why the news organisation is running the story, how it was reported and how steps to be fair were taken. The study proved that readers who viewed a news story with an explainer box came away with a better perception of a news organisation, rating them higher for attributes related to trust, transparency, accuracy, credibility, bias and reputation.
Ultimately, we live in an age where it is much more difficult for emerging digital news publications to, firstly, gain visibility in front of an online audience and, secondly, obtain their trust. In order to tackle this, it’s imperative that digital newspapers are as open and transparent as possible about their reporting process.
News Aggregator & Content Syndication Sites
News aggregators are, in essence, sites that pull fresh news articles from various different sources, rather than producers of original content themselves.
The rise of these news aggregators, such as Yahoo News, Google News, Buzzfeed, the Huffington Post & Facebook (which, it could be argued, has become the ultimate news aggregator) has caused some friction with digital news publishers as many news consumers are instead preferring to pay an aggregator site for their news sourced from multiple outlets.
When digital news publisher’s content is shared or viewed on aggregator sites – their high value, authoritative content is effectively being given away for free.
Whilst news aggregator sites can provide valuable backlinks to digital new publishers, and help increase the reach of their content online, they are generally viewed negatively within the industry.
That said, the case for and against news aggregators isn’t black and white.
For instance, it can result in cannibalising the subscriber base for their website, plus it contributes to diminished brand visibility as the content is not being consumed or distributed via their own domain. Additional sources of contention are the fact that digital publishers miss out on valuable opportunities to directly communicate with their audience.
News aggregator sites, and a desire by readers for bundled content, has caused many digital news publishers to rethink their online strategy. Some are combating this simply by continuing to focus on producing high-quality content which, as mentioned previously, is increasingly understood as a worthy investment. Paid for publications are also considering ways of increasing the value of their subscriptions to entice readers away from these aggregator sites. For instance, Amazon Prime and the Washington Post have teamed up to offer customers a free 6-month subscription. Alternatively, some digital news organisations are forming alliances with their competitors to share more generic news stories, which reduces the cost of producing news that is easily obtainable from various sources.
Phew, we got there in the end! Clearly, whilst print publications are obviously floundering, digital news publications in 2020 are not without their challenges too.
To recap, though it’s not an exhaustive list, some of the issues online newspapers must contend with of late are: appealing to generation Z and millennials, regular Google algorithm updates and guidelines, getting readers to pay for their news, combatting ‘fake news’ and the decline of trust and competing with news aggregator sites.
In order to overcome these challenges, digital newspapers might consider:
- Utilising social media and audio podcasts, which young people rely heavily upon, to present news content in an animated, visual and auditory way.
- Making digital news websites easy and accessible to use – similar to Netflix and Facebook.
- Offering young people free access to paid newspaper content, and creating content that appeals to that age bracket, in the hope that they remain loyal and decide to pay for it as an adult.
- Remaining up to date on Google Algorithm Updates and guidelines.
- Ensuring that their website has a good E-A-T score (Expertise, Authority & Trustworthiness).
- Banishing an out of date newsroom culture which teaches journalists to fear followed links.
- Testing the best means of income for their website: paywalls, semi-permeable paywalls, metered systems and voluntary contributions.
- Focusing on producing high-quality content, which provides digital newspapers with a legitimate case for getting subscribers to pay.
- For lesser known or established news publications, carving out a niche could possibly make their content stand out further.
- Attempting to feature in Google’s Top Stories in order to reap the trust benefits associated with this.
- Providing an explainer box in online news articles, so the journalist is transparent about their reporting process.
- Considering ways of increasing the value of paid subscriptions – for instance by collaborations with other subscription services.
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