The end of the year is fast approaching, and with that comes our analysis of some of the year’s hottest news and trends in media. If you followed our year-end report from last year, you can see that some of 2015’s biggest media stories are a direct fallout from what happened in 2014. It follows that as we prepare for 2016, it’s best to pay close attention to what happened this year.
From our view covering the media industry, here are the top 10 forces that changed media in 2015.
1. Distribution Shift: Publishers, Platforms, Control
The moment Snapchat Discover launched in late January 2015, it was clear the so-called sexting app had grown up. Discover allows publishers to release content on their own specific channels within the messaging app, giving publishers the opportunity to target the highly coveted millennial audience who eschew traditional media and even Facebook. But, it would also allow brands to buy advertisements that would seamlessly appear within a Snapchat story every few swipes.
Snapchat Discover started with an initial 11 media partners, and now 18 outlets have channels on the platform — and more media companies want to join the cool kids’ club.
In other huge distribution news, Facebook (which reportedly offered to buy Snapchat for $3 billion in 2013) launched Instant Articles earlier this year to allow a select group of publishers to post their content directly onto Facebook, instead of linking their audiences back to content on their respective websites. With faster load times than traditional links and new recent changes that will allow publishers to earn a premium on the advertising featured, the idea is that offering a better user experience will ultimately be a win for both publishers and Facebook.
Apple and Twitter also joined the fray into distribution with its News App and “Moments” tab, respectively, though both have earned somewhat less hype than Discover or Instant Articles. The same goes for Instagram, which launched its own version of Snapchat’s live stories earlier this year as well.
What all of these endeavors indicate is more of an acceptance — alongside wariness — that platforms are the new distributors. And with Google’s launch of its Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) project to “dramatically improve the performance of the mobile web,” these platforms are bound to attract more users, especially on mobile devices.
What it means for a technology company to be a gatekeeper for news and information remains a necessary conversation, however. The Journalism + Silicon Valley Conference hosted by Columbia’s Tow Center drew attention to topics like whether editorial curation by these platforms might result in a distorted understanding of the news — which, in hindsight, seems to have foreshadowed what occurred when audiences wondered why they didn’t hear about attacks in Lebanon and Kenya, even though information about the Paris attacks was everywhere on their news feeds.
The conference also put out the idea that perhaps media companies ought to be more like these technology companies when it comes to distributing content, instead of relinquishing all their control.
Prediction: 2016 will see more indicators of the shift toward distribution, but the focus will be less about how these platforms broadcast news toward wide audiences, and more about the trend toward private social media sharing. Snapchat may be the current media darling when it comes to distribution, but with 72 percent of Snapchat users using Facebook Messenger and 54 percent of them using WhatsApp, according to research from June, media companies will start working harder to distribute content across more messaging and chat apps. Looks like suspicion about the influence of tech will remain alongside participation in it.
2. Unicorns Rise As Niche Hubs Shut
BuzzFeed. Vox. Vice. This year saw the rise of the media “unicorns” — startups with valuations of more than $1 billion.
Following in their fundraising footsteps from last year, BuzzFeed landed a $200 million investment from NBCUniversal in August just a week after Vox Media attracted a $200 million investment from NBCUniversal itself. Walt Disney also invested $200 million in Vice in November.
But, can others follow?
Vox’s acquisition of Re/code earlier this year had media insiders speculating about whether Re/code’s small size and niche audience made it a liability alongside these media giants. The question of the sustainability of standalone journalism sites also made headway when the respected technology site GigaOm abruptly shut earlier this year after it couldn’t pay back its creditors (some of its assets were later acquired by Knowingly Corp., an Austin-based Internet startup). And Circa News was put on “indefinite hiatus” when it failed to attract enough investment.
As Mathew Ingram, formerly of GigaOm, put it, “being really huge can work, if you are BuzzFeed or Vice or Vox, because you have the kind of scale and reach that matters to advertisers.”
Prediction: The gap between hyper-niche news sites like The Awl and media beasts like BuzzFeed will grow larger, which in turn will push publishers to experiment with social media companies like Facebook more in order to attract audiences and advertisers. But it’s anyone’s guess whether these media powerhouses might go public.
3. Podcasts Are Hot, Hot, Hot — Now For Sustainability
There’s no denying that podcasts, podcasting and anything related to what people call the “audio renaissance” is super hot. With Serial back for its second season and fans going gaga over #mailchimpwithdrawal, podcast innovators and enterprises are also concentrating how to make podcasting economically sustainable.
— Aarti Virani (@aartivirani) December 11, 2015
Targeted advertising with the host reading out the advertisement — like the way Sarah Koenig does with Serial sponsor MailChimp — has always been the dominant advertising model for podcasts, according to Andy Bowers, the executive producer of Slate’s podcasts. Slate is also now experimenting with brand advertising — in other words, simply having a brand mentioned within a podcast rather than telling listeners to go out and buy it, — Bowers told the Mediatwits podcast in April. But the flip side to this kind of targeted advertising, he said, is that it is very difficult to scale.
Yet as Tow Center Fellow Vanessa Quirk points out in her excellent guide to podcasting, no one-size-fits-all solution exists for generating revenue. Different podcasts or companies have different media models, and those operational philosophies inform how they raise money and prioritize revenue streams. BuzzFeed, for example, is not trying to make its podcasts go viral because it is not dependent on the success of its podcasts for its funding.
And BuzzFeed’s entrance into podcasting typifies how entities who aren’t audio incumbents are trying to break into this landscape. GE, for instance, isn’t a media company — but its GE-branded podcast The Message did top the iTunes charts. The New Yorker launched the “New Yorker Radio Hour” earlier this year in partnership with WNYC. WNYC is set to produce several other podcasts, including one with Vice Media, as it launches a podcast division.
This emphasis on podcast rather than broadcast puts some stress on NPR and its public radio affiliates as its audiences shrink and age, especially with the investments that private podcast outlets like Gimlet Media and Audible are attracting. But what’s happening now in the podcasting world is quite similar to what happened with blogging about a decade ago, according to the Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton. There will be a lot of disruption, but for the listener — as it was, and is, for the reader — the variety is sure to be a hit.
Prediction: Podcasters will continue to experiment with different business models. Both Audible and Gimlet Media will attract more attention as rising competition. More news outlets will also jump in to see how they can utilize audio in their stories. This will mean a mountain of audio for listeners to scale. Regardless, podcasts will continue to maintain popularity, especially in the face of quick-take journalism.
4. 2016 Elections: Social Media in the Trump Age
With Facebook and Twitter increasingly becoming influential sources of news and Donald Trump’s political rhetoric becoming a news item on its own, the 2016 election is already posing questions — and concerns — about the increasing influence social media consumption habits have on the game of politics.
“I wonder, without social media, to what extent Donald Trump would be as successful as he is right now,” Pablo Barberá, a research fellow at New York University’s Center for Data Science, who researches social media and politics, told Wired’s Issue Lapowsky. Trump continues to beat his fellow Republican candidates when it comes to social media mentions.
Conversations swirled this year about how social media fuels more polarized conversations, eliminates nuance on complex issues like gun control or raises potential for misinformation to spread like wildfire.
Meanwhile, media focused on the 2016 elections, like NowThis Elections, is coming up as the voice of reason on social media to help audiences navigate this tricky terrain:
Prediction: With media under more self-scrutiny to hold voices like that of Trump accountable for what’s amounted to a load of lies, more fact-checking and aggressive reporting will emerge as November comes closer. The ability to keep apace with real-time social media conversation will be a challenge, however.
5. Ad-blocking comes to mobile with iOS9
Publishers have long been concerned about the effects of ad-blocking, but with Apple’s release of ad-blocking software on the iOS9 update, publishers had a right to be even more nervous. Readers now spend more than half their time with a publishers’ content on mobile, according to comScore. With the AdBlock extension already the most popular Safari extension for the web, it was bound that mobile users would download ad blockers.
But what makes mobile ads so annoying warrants a conversation of its own — most people download ad blockers because ads bog down load time and take up data coverage. That’s part of what made working with Facebook’s Instant Articles appealing to publishers — Instant Articles, even with their advertisements, load much faster than ordinary links.
As of December, however, publishers acknowledged that “the mobile ad apocalypse” hadn’t arrived — at least, not yet. But publishers are still worried about adblocking on desktop browsers.
Prediction: Trying to reconcile positive user experience with revenue growth will push marketers to come up with better advertisements, including sponsored content, that will be more intuitively ingrained in a particular story. Publishers will also increasingly use outfits like Facebook’s Instant Articles platform to deliver on both ends. As Google’s AMP project gets even further underway, it’ll attract more attention toward those battling stagnant load times.
6. Cord-cutting goes mainstream as services compete
This year at MediaShift, we launched a special series on cutting the cord and streaming TV. With so many options available — from Google’s Chromecast, Amazon’s Fire, Roku and Apple TV, to services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Instant Video — it’s safe to say that cord-cutting is now mainstream.
What comes with that for the various stakeholders is a fight over the emerging on-demand TV economy. Networks like USA, TNT and Showtime are increasingly offering viewers all the episodes of a show’s season at once — a practice known as “stacking” in the TV industry — so that viewers can binge-watch or watch as they please on their various streaming apps or on-demand services. But whether putting these shows out on services like Hulu might jeopardize their value or cut their profits remains a debate.
Meanwhile, streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are in competition with each other, alongside other competitors looking to tap into this market. With its recently launched subscription service “Red,” YouTube, for example, is seeking streaming rights to TV series and movies. And T-Mobile, in an effort to give itself an edge over its rival mobile phone carriers, has announced that subscribers will be able to stream content from popular services like Netflix and HBO Go without accruing data charges.
Prediction: 2016 looks to be a volatile year for the various competitors in the on-demand streaming market. Some networks might try different experiments, like Time Warner announcing fewer ads to win back cord cutters, but ultimately, these media giants will have to figure out how to navigate this new ecosystem by embracing it.
7. The rise of virtual reality journalism
Although media outfits like Frontline and Vice News had already started experimenting with virtual reality journalism, the world took notice when the New York Times stepped into this pool in November. It mailed out 1.31 million Google Cardboard headsets to its print subscribers to bring them into the VR experience. Far cheaper than other headsets like that from Oculus Rift (even though they’re expected to become more mainstream, and therefore cheaper), it made the possibility of immersing oneself in a story much more accessible to the masses.
But that user accessibility doesn’t necessarily match up with producer accessibility. Producing VR journalism remains a highly expensive endeavor, and only the “one percent” of news organizations can truly afford to do so. Ethical questions regarding artistic license and how “real” a story are also important concerns for this new media model.
But for the organizations who are already involved with VR, the capacity to earn a premium on VR stories is there. The New York Times, for example, is planning to extend its virtual reality endeavors into sponsored content. Other brands and marketers are also discussing the potential to entice audiences with VR.
Prediction: VR journalism is poised to become more popular, especially as the technology that enables it becomes more affordable. But given that the medium is still in its infancy, expect a lot more debate, especially on the concepts driving its hype and potential: empathy and impact.
8. Unionization of digital media
From Gawker to Salon, GuardianUS, VICE, ThinkProgress and Al Jazeera America, 2015 was the year that new media outfits unionized. Gawker’s entrance was perhaps the tipping point — it was one of the first digital publishers to do so. Now the Huffington Post is also moving forward with plans to unionize.
As Bernard Lunzer, president of the union NewsGuild-CWA, put it, “Digital media is growing up…and it’s time our digital reporters received the same benefits and protections as their print media colleagues.”
Prediction: As more money continues to pour into digital media enterprises, look out for other digital journalists to seek union representation in 2016.
9. Content Marketing
Content marketing — when brands or products use storytelling and journalism for its own gains — has sometimes been considered the dark side of journalism. But with sponsored content becoming more of an industry standard and many freelance journalists gravitating toward content marketing because of its rising demand and lucrative pay (alongside layoffs and shrinking budgets at news organizations), one can’t necessarily view it as journalism’s evil twin. In fact, content marketing helps journalism outfits thrive. The content marketing agency Contently, for example, is using its profits in part to fund its nonprofit arm focused on original investigative reporting.
Check out MediaShift’s special series on the content marketing boom, or listen to our discussion about it below.
Prediction: As content marketing increases around the web and across news outlets, executives at different companies will identify more as “thought leaders,” because of their ability to shape the conversation around a brand or product. Publishers will be ever the more transparent about sponsored content to avoid potential ethical controversies, but it might not make a difference to the average news consumer.
10. Live streaming with Periscope and Meerkat
Given the popularity of these tools among some circles, it’s hard to believe Periscope and Meerkat didn’t even exist before 2015. But journalists have already started experimenting with these livestreaming apps, and if offers the potential for citizens too to utilize these platforms if they happen to be at the scene of a breaking news event.
Meerkat and Periscope may be in competition with each other, though, especially since Meerkat is somewhat like Snapchat in that its videos disappear once the livestreaming is done (unless you save it to your camera roll). In this way, Periscope has a significant advantage.
Prediction: Although mobile livestreaming will become popular with some users, the potential for Meerkat and Periscope may get drowned out in the noise surrounding Snapchat. But if Snapchat is a preferred destination for publishers, perhaps Periscope might become one for individual journalists (after all, Periscope is a property of Twitter, a journalist playground). Look for it to be a feature of digital journalists covering the 2016 elections — but watch out as Facebook taps further into the livestream market and poses itself as competition.
Sonia Paul is a freelance journalist reporting in India and the United States, and is the editorial assistant at MediaShift. Her work has appeared in a broad range of media, including the Al Jazeera Media Network, Caravan Magazine, Foreign Policy, Guardian, Mashable, New York Times, PRI’s The World, Roads & Kingdoms and Vice News. She previously produced the grant-funded podcast series Shizuoka Speaks, based in Japan. She is on Twitter and Instagram @sonipaul.