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The great restructuring of digital news media

A computer cursor covered in newspaper clippings and scraps

Illustration by Robyn Phelps / Shutterstock / The Current

After two decades of adjusting business models for the internet age, the business foundations of digital journalism are cracking.

Many generalist news publications are struggling, with hundreds of roles cut just in recent months. Some, like Business Insider and TechCrunch, have been ditching coverage on some verticals to focus on a few core ones — business, tech and innovation — instead.

Meanwhile, paywall-reliant publishers like Time, Quartz and Gannett have been backtracking, giving ads another look as a key revenue generator. The New York Times is leaning on Generative AI to power its next generation of ads. Even subscription newsletter service Substack is reportedly in trials with a program to help its creators work with advertisers.

These shifts exemplify the challenging conditions for digital news publishers in the short term. But they also bring opportunities to reimagine how news can be paid for, while unlocking new advertising opportunities for many brands.

The growth in ad inventory from publications increasingly looking to ads to fund content can give advertisers more options in their toolkits to find fragmented audiences online. Meanwhile, a focus on niches could help publishers entice advertisers with cohorts of highly engaged readers that likely yield valuable, vertical-specific first-party data.

“[News] will remain an important category because of the trust and the regularity of use and the fact that many people who are consuming news are upmarket, so they’re important consumers for any advertiser,” says Nic Newman, senior research associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. “Mass audiences are tricky [to aggregate] and news still has that ability to do it.”

Getting back together

The decline of publishers’ interest in subscription models comes after years of strong competition in what is essentially a zero-sum game. “There’ll be a few upmarket national newspapers with scale but not very many of them. The New York Times in the U.S., Le Monde in France,” says Newman. “Essentially it is this winner-takes-most model, which means it’s going to be quite hard for everyone to benefit from that subscription wave, which is slowing down anyway.”

Just as the streaming giants are increasingly adopting the ad-supported business models of the TV and cable giants they supplanted, so, too, are many of today’s news publishers looking at advertising with fresh eyes.

The demise of cookies could be a key opportunity for publishers, who often have in-depth first-party data about their reader base and are able to build authenticated, privacy-conscious consumer profiles based around core interests, especially with identity solutions like Unified ID 2.0, ID5 and RampID – something that is increasingly attractive to marketers looking for a replacement to the cookie.

“The headline opportunity that I see is publishers and advertisers building closer relationships. The advertising model still works for publishers that have really rich content,” says Aly Nurmohamed, chief operating officer at Permutive, which works with publishers around the globe. “The relationship that the publisher has built with those users allows them to really understand the end consumer and build really interesting data products around that.”

Nurmohamed adds that the “trillions of impressions and billions of users” available through the world’s top publishers should assuage any worry around scale brought on by news of people’s declining interest in, well, news.

“It’s making sure that advertisers and the ad tech ecosystem know how to make the most of those publishers that’s the challenge,” says Nurmohamed.

Indeed, the latent opportunity that could unlock yet more value from publisher data is leveraging programmatic channels to scale that data for advertisers.

“Every major publisher will have their own first-party data strategy, and they’ll be working with advertisers, today that works in the direct sales world,” says Nurmohamed. “It can continue to grow by streamlining and extending direct sales in the programmatic world, enabling large-scale implementation.”

Niching down

As advertisers increasingly recognize the value of publisher data, some publications are tweaking their editorial coverage to focus on areas of strength. This shift could bring two benefits: It could allow publications to stand out by delivering more unique coverage while contributing to the accumulation of first-party publisher data in specific verticals.

“Publishers have been trying to move away from the reach model because they recognize that the future is going to be more in satisfying particular audiences and providing real value to them rather than a general news publishing model,” says Newman.

This has been evident for some time in the success of special-interest publications, whether in sports (The Athletic), politics (Politico) or business (Bloomberg, The Grocer, Skift), which have ridden the wave of media fragmentation and created online niches for readers to gravitate toward.

“Our job as journalists now is to make content that is relevant to people’s lives and reflects their dialogue, and I think the niche publishers are seeing more success here,” says Jonathan Paterson, managing editor at The News Movement and a news industry veteran.

The News Movement caters to Gen Z audiences, with a focus on verticals like sex, relationships and lifestyle. Indeed, these days, niches can be as varied as The Guardian US attracting advertisers with its climate change coverage, storied Black magazine Ebony turning to brand partnerships over paid subscriptions, or local news brands like The Boston Globe in the U.S. and the Manchester Mill in the U.K. finding profits in recent years.

“As much as we’re courting green dollars, it’s really a two-way street. Those corporations that have green dollars to spend are actively looking for the right environment to place those ad dollars,” Luis Romero, The Guardian US’s SVP of advertising, told The Current last year.

Gillian White, chief revenue officer at Capital B News — a Black-led nonprofit local and national news organization reporting for Black communities across the U.S. — tells The Current the impact of successfully catering to well-defined niches is apparent on the bottom line.

“When Capital B is able to cover unique stories that are being left untold and provide information that our audience actually needs, we see the affirmation of that work via our traffic and often are able to drive impact, and revenue, as a result,” says White.

The Current is owned and operated by The Trade Desk, Inc.