Editors uncertain about coming year

Posted January 11, 2023

After a turbulent year ending in soaring inflation, mass layoffs and a social media implosion, editors around the world are heading into 2023 with a profound sense of uncertainty, according to a Reuters Institute for Journalism at Oxford report released Monday.

The Institute surveyed 303 news leaders from 53 countries and territories in November and December and found that only 44% were confident about their company’s business prospects this year. Roughly a fifth, or 19%, said they were not confident, and 37% expressed uncertainty.

“Even those that are optimistic expect to see layoffs and other cost-cutting measures in the next year,” the report reads.

Publishers at print and digital outlets alike raised concerns about declining traffic and advertising revenue. Broadcasters, too, are facing shrinking audiences. Meanwhile, inflation has caused costs to rise and many households to reduce their spending. 

Several large media organizations have already made cuts. Gannett shed 600 jobs last year, and CNN eliminated hundreds of positions. NPR froze hiring, and The Washington Post will lay off a “single-digit percentage” of its 2,500 employees this quarter. Overseas, the BBC cut hundreds of roles last year, and its director general has said the company is preparing to shutter its broadcasts and go online-only by the 2030s. 

An overwhelming majority of publishers, or 72%, said they are worried audiences will avoid news topics that make them depressed or overwhelmed. In an effort to counter news avoidance and fatigue, most publishers support explanatory journalism and Q&A formats. Ideas like focusing on solutions journalism and inspirational stories received less support. 

Nevertheless, 68% of news leaders say they expect digital subscriptions to grow this year. Outlets that derive a higher proportion of their income from digital or diversified revenue streams will likely be better equipped to handle the “perfect storm” of inflation and uncertainty, said the report’s author, Nic Newman.

“This is one of the most downbeat starts of the year, certainly from a business prospects point of view,” Newman said. “Having said that, these things are never quite as bad as people think. A lot of businesses over the last few years have really built up sustainable paths to profitability.”

More outlets may focus on bundling products and features to attract subscribers, the report predicts. The New York Times, for example, has had success offering packages that combine content from its News, Cooking, Games, Wirecutter and The Athletic products. 

Other areas where news organizations plan to invest include climate coverage, podcasts, email newsletters and digital video. Nearly half of news leaders said their outlet has created a climate team to improve their coverage, and roughly a third said they have set sustainability and carbon footprint goals. Audio and video content will also be a priority, especially as news outlets focus more on video platforms like TikTok and YouTube and less on legacy platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

“It’s a big shift,” Newman said. “Traditional models of pushing content out through Facebook and Twitter and the reliance of that has been such a big part of the landscape for the last decade or so.”

As Facebook’s user base and stock have shrunk, the platform has decreased its focus on news and turned instead to entertainment and commerce. Meanwhile, Twitter has experienced massive turmoil as Elon Musk reshapes the platform. Asked whether they thought the disappearance of Twitter would be good or bad for journalism, 51% of news leaders answered “bad” while only 17% said “good.”

Mastodon has gained some steam in recent months as a possible Twitter alternative, but only 10% of news leaders said they would go there if Twitter disappeared. The plurality, or 42%, of respondents chose LinkedIn as their Twitter alternative instead.

Advancements in artificial intelligence have also caught the attention of news leaders. Last year, generative AI tools that can create text and visuals from simple prompts, like Midjourney and ChatGPT, exploded in popularity. AI has also helped newsrooms tackle processes like transcription and image recognition. The majority of publishers, 67%, said they are experimenting with AI to drive story recommendations. 

“There’s just more tools now in the newsroom for things like transcription, automatic translation, tagging and automated subbing,” Newman said. “A big story over the next five years is going to be how newsrooms transform and use these tools to make things more effective, to allow journalists to focus on the journalism itself.”