Deep Dive: How the future of publishing is taking shape in the ongoing coronavirus crisis era

The publishing industry has been in flux since the turn of the century, but 2020 has been a year like no other. COVID-19 hit revenue streams with a double whammy, causing an abrupt shock to advertising revenue while also wiping out the entire calendar of events that have been a life raft for many publishers large and small.

Meanwhile, with editorial calendars rendered redundant overnight,  content teams also had to improvise and adapt to a new world where no subject could be covered outside of the filter of the pandemic.

Digiday’s Deep Dive: The Future of Publishing, is a collection of videos, presenter slides and key takeaways from our recent Publishing Summit Worldwide Live that will provide valuable tips and key insights to inform your planning for what promises to be another rollercoaster year of challenges and opportunities.

The new publisher playbook

In the intervening months since the pandemic took hold, the industry has repeatedly demonstrated its tenacity. Advertising has bounced back to some extent, and events teams have made the best of a bad hand by rolling out innovative programming in the virtual realm. The bonds between publishers and their core audience have grown closer — and many outlets have enjoyed a bump in subscription rates.

Publishers have also embraced partnerships, both with other publishers and by reaching out to brands and other collaborators across industries. Many organizations drew their scope in and focused on a small number of key partnerships based on mutual trust. Big tech platforms have even been paying publishers for content. “There has been a philosophical sea change in how they value publishers and the importance of content creators for their own success,” said Josh Stinchcomb, CRO at The Wall Street Journal. This trend is set to continue as publishers get more strategic about which fields they want to get involved in and which partners are the best fit.

Diversification has been a mantra in publishing for many years, and the pandemic underlined why.  The organizations who had invested in building agile teams and a variety of complementary revenue streams were less vulnerable to the pandemic’s economic ravages. Those who were found wanting have spent much of 2020 catching up. Diversification will be an insurance policy against the storms to come, so publishers can’t afford to slack on this.

Communities have been a lifeline during the pandemic, and the pandemic helped publishers realize their audiences look to them as hubs of community. Audience growth is important, but publishers are zeroing in on well-defined core communities rather than casting the net widely and indiscriminately. That has implications for every aspect of operations, from content to advertising.

As if the ongoing pandemic and economic fallout weren’t enough to contend with, publishers are facing up to a privacy revolution that will upend targeted advertising. Third-party data and tracking are on the way out, but the industry sees a path forward in first-party and contextual data collection. 

Events have been a surprise success story in 2020, and will continue to be at the heart of publishers’ plans for the coming year. That means virtual events, but more ambitious, multi-layered and higher quality events than those we’ll remember 2020 for.

The year ahead will bring no shortage of challenges, but publishers are weathering the storm and learning valuable lessons from the battles of 2020. If publishers translate those takeaways into decisive actions, their organizations will come out on the other side stronger and nimbler, and the industry better equipped for a post-pandemic future.

Here’s what you need to know.

Finding the perfect partner is key

Partnerships have never been more important to publishers, and the pandemic only underlined the need to lean on an ecosystem of creative and commercial collaborators, platforms and other tie-ins to deliver compelling content and grow the audience.

Publishers are learning to be more strategic, thinking and planning ahead for what’s upstream and finding integrated solutions to challenges. “What the pandemic has done in many ways is refocus the need for that kind of thinking, which has been great for us” said Luke Barnes, CDO and CRO of Europe, the Middle East and Africa for Vice Media.

Barnes said that the industry will only become more collaborative, and that calls upon outlets to approach the future with an open stance. The goal is building transparent and trust-based relationships with clients and collaborators. “The long-term sustainability of our business and our industry relies on people being more collaborative and understanding of each other’s needs,” Barnes said.

  • Understand the deep connection your audience has with the big tech platforms. Make the most of your own partnerships with those platforms.

Although navigating the ever-changing landscape of Facebook, Google, TikTok and beyond can be exhausting and frustrating for publishers, they remain a vital channel for amplifying content and reaching and expanding your audience. “We know that the majority of the engagement we have with our audience is not with our own platform,” said Barnes, who urged publishers to go over contracts with a fine tooth comb to identify all the caveats that come with working with the big platforms.

  • Use TikTok to explore, innovate and build a relationship with the next generation. It’s the platform that’s on every brand’s mind right now, and that applies to publishers as much as any other business. The platform has actively courted publishers over the past year or two by offering resources to help them understand and adjust to the platform, and there are fantastic opportunities to collaborate with TikTok users and other organizations on the platform.
Bottom Line

Partnerships make sense for business, but as publishers build a role as community hubs, your choice of partners also reinforces a sense of brand identity that helps draw your audience closer to you. Identify the partners who best fit with your organization’s identity, and invest in the relationship.

Barnes said TikTok is “really exciting because it’s a place where we can test and innovate.”

  • Publishers are identifying appropriate partnerships across a variety of industries. The Washington Post has had a huge impact on the platform, largely thanks to skillfully grasping TikTok’s aesthetic and language. But the Post has also embarked on a series of partnerships including with the Financial Times and Nike’s running app. The Post and the FT gave their followers trial offers for the other publisher, which performed well enough that both sides are exploring a deeper collaboration.

“We have just begun to dip our toes in the water here,” said Miki King, CMO at the Washington Post. King said the Post is looking at tie-ins in the education, healthcare and finance space. “We have had a number of conversations across the course of this year, with brands that could make a lot of sense for us,” she said.

The future is smarter, more diverse media planning

For many publishers, the experience of the pandemic validated the moves they have made over the past few years to diversify their business. In many cases, those who had already built out a variety of content and revenue streams — whether that meant TV channels, podcast production, an in-house agency or a robust events operation — were well-placed to weather the storm wrought by the coronavirus.

For some publishers, the pandemic was in some ways a boon to business. In some categories, advertising remained resilient or increased and the need for information drove a surge in subscriptions for many major publishing brands. But in an industry where adversity and uncertainty are virtually endemic, future turbulence is guaranteed. Publishers have to build for scarcity, whether it comes in the near term via the pandemic and its economic consequences extending into 2021, or further down the line as one revenue stream or another faces erosion and decline.

  • If you’re not diversified, it’s not too late, but get to work immediately. Publishing is always about preparing for the next crisis – especially when we’re still in the middle of the current one.

The Wall Street Journal’s Stinchcomb, said publishers can’t rest on their laurels looking into the year to come. “I think we are expecting more volatility … there is going to be uncertainty, and that’s going to undoubtedly lead to some degree of volatility socially, economically and in the markets,” Stinchcomb said. “2021 is going to be a year where media companies that don’t have diversified revenue from consumers and advertisers … are going to be in for continued challenges.”

  • Publishers are diversifying their offerings, but that doesn’t mean trying to be all things to all people. In many cases, effective diversification is about broadening what the publisher does or how they do it — but not who they do it for. Identifying your core audience, both content consumers and clients, and doubling down on them is the watchword for many publishers.

“You’ve got to own your core,” Stinchcomb said. “I think it’s going to be very difficult to succeed as a media company that has a really broad but somewhat shallow relationship with a lot of different sectors and brands, because they’re going to retreat to the places [where] they most need to be.”

Bottom Line

Be clear in defining your audience, then set about diversifying your revenue streams, content and community offerings and building agile teams — all with the goal of better serving your audience and clients.

  • Effective diversification also means building creative teams to be agile and responsive to changing business environments and client needs. Amid the lockdowns and budget cuts of spring, advertisers were understandably fixated on metrics and ROI, and looked to creative teams who were able to switch gears from pure creativity into a more pragmatic problem-solving mode.

Barnes said Vice Media’s creative teams were able to make that pivot, helping clients stay on track to make their targets through the lean months. And that approach has paid off. As confidence has returned in some markets, clients are once again looking for “campaigns that will actually cut through, rather than the classic Zoom edits cut up for a 30-second spot, which is not very original,” Barnes said.  “They’re relying on the strength of the creative, rather than the need to just purely focus on bottom of funnel metrics.”

Publishers are striving to become hubs, not beacons

Increasingly, publishers are thinking of themselves as serving specific communities of readers and clients, rather than platforms for disseminating information. In this way, the concept of how publishers relate to their communities is dovetailing with that of brands in general.

The coronavirus crisis only amplified this trend, and publishers have leaned into their communities in 2020 unlike never before. Now, industry executives are looking for all the ways they can optimize their output to continue serving their clients and audiences, from content to events and ancillary partnerships. At heart, the essential dynamic involves the publisher creating an ecosystem and providing touch points that the community can relate to and bond over.

Stinchcomb described a “real return to core communities and how to preserve them,” forecasting the trend towards tighter relationships between publishers and their customers will go on into 2021 and beyond. “I think we’ll see a continuation of that, which again is probably going to accelerate this bifurcation between sort of the haves and the have nots and media.”

  • Get your team aligned to focus on your core audience’s needs. Teams are often siloed, but that doesn’t make for effective community-building. Instead, bring teams together to concentrate energies on delivering memorable experiences to the customer.

Rachel Baumgarten, CSO at Group Nine Media, spoke to the link between publisher content and the consumer spending choices. Baumgarten said it’s vital for editorial, e-commerce and advertising teams to be on the same page, and with holiday shopping season starting earlier than ever, publishers need to be having these conversations quickly. “It’s really necessitating publishers to start thinking earlier and earlier about how are you bringing all of these work streams together,” Baumgarten said. “Because it really is the opportunity to build this direct intimate relationship with our audience.”

  • Don’t presume to know what the audience wants — ask them. It’s easy for internal conversations to define a publisher’s output, but is your team’s sensibility truly in line with what the customers want? Publishers need to establish a genuine dialogue with the audience. Listen, learn and respond to the feedback — the community will be that much stronger as a result.
Bottom Line

Community is the future of the publishing business model. Publishers are learning to be less prescriptive about what their communities need. Instead, they’re giving the audience a voice, opening their organizations up to scrutiny at every level and focusing their teams on serving the community.

Dazed Media uses Facebook groups and builds “communities and councils” within its audiences to get to know its Gen Z audience better. “When you work at a brand or a publisher, you do get very in your own world,” said Izzy Farmiloe, Senior Creative Strategist at Dazed. “It’s important to do that research and speak to people outside your brand and company.”

  • Advertising can — and should — also serve the audience. There’s no reason why advertising shouldn’t speak to the reader, viewer or listener just as much as any of the publisher’s output.

Farmiloe said that younger audiences aren’t reflexively hostile to brands or advertising, but authenticity matters. “Authenticity and honesty are really important when it comes to speaking to audiences,” Farmiloe said. “Don’t underestimate the power of good advertising. I think storytelling is so important, and it needs to be about more than just overtly pushing a product.”

Tracking is toast — get ready for a first-party future

With Google Chrome killing off third-party cookies by the end of 2022, and Apple also introducing new privacy features in 2021, tracking is staring redundancy in the face, at least in the form we’ve known it for the past five years or so.

While these incoming changes herald a more privacy-centric era that many content consumers will welcome with open arms, the demise of ad tracking presents a headache for publishers and their advertisers. Brands and publishers are trying to figure out workarounds that will preserve some degree of targeting so advertising remains an effective and valuable investment — as well as a viable revenue stream for publishers in an already tough business environment.

Publishers have to be proactive about making sure they’re ready for this new era. Complacency will come back to bite those who sit on their hands, but Sasha Heroy, senior director of Ad Platforms at The New York Times, cautioned against pessimism. “I absolutely think publishers still have time to make preparations and I want to encourage them to do that if they haven’t … no need to give up.” 

  • First-party data is the way forward. When it comes to gathering and sharing audience insights with advertisers, publishers will come to rely on first-party and contextual data. Heroy said that trust and transparency are the keys that will move audiences to consent to sharing their data.

In the U.K., The Telegraph has successfully moved away from third-party data in 2020. It surveys a panel of 10,000 readers on a regular basis, constantly collecting data that can be shared with advertisers as well as informing successive iterations of the publisher’s products and output. “We ask them questions on a number of different topics,” said Camilla Child, The Telegraph’s head of Commercial Data Strategy. “And we’re able in that way to get really fresh, up to date, up-to-the-minute insights directly from their answers, and use that to share back with our advertising partners.”

  • Quality content will be a differentiator for publishers. As first-party data becomes the driver of sharable insights, publishers will be incentivized to invest in achieving deeper engagement on their platforms and with their content.

Karen Eccles, senior director of Commercial Innovation at The Telegraph, said they’ve adopted a “subscription-first” strategy as opposed to a model driven by advertising revenues. “It’s all about engagement and really quality time spent on the site, and a redesign of the site for that kind of experience necessarily means that you take out a lot of advertising,” said Eccles. “For example, you redesign the formats so that they fit the editorial aesthetic, not the other way around.”

Bottom Line

The era of third-party data is ending, but there’s no call for doom and gloom — publishers are charting a course into a future where first-party data is the backbone of an approach to targeting that is better for privacy and may be more effective for publishers and clients.

  • Publishers should be building out teams to align with this challenge. This is going to be a defining task for most outlets over the coming two years, and how well each publisher navigates the shifts at the intersection of advertising and privacy will determine their success in the subsequent period after the changes come online.

Ensuring your teams are up to the task demands creating and staffing dedicated roles to prepare for the coming changes. Heroy specified two roles that are a good place to start. “I think a combination of a product lead who can help understand the potential impact of the deprecation of third-party cookies and think through alternatives from a technical standpoint, paired with an analyst who can who can assess the total scope of such changes are important,” said Heroy.

A new vision for events

For some publishers, 2020 has ended up being a surprisingly busy year for events, albeit online and virtual rather than in-person. And although most of us are eagerly looking forward to being able to organize and attend physical events once again, this year’s experience has been the catalyst for introspection about what the future of events should be. Indeed, some publishers are excited about the opportunity to bring new ideas to life of what events programming can be.

Expect 2021 to offer a glimpse into the direction programming will take in the years to come, and look for creativity to flourish as events teams build on the work they did to pull off events this year under incredible pressure. We’ll probably see physical events return, at least on a small scale, and there’s potential to create interesting, exclusive events for VIP clients and audiences. Virtual events will be more textured and meaningful as organizers attempt to weave in features that offer a better approximation of the experience of attending a “real” event. And we can expect more hybrid events combining the physical and virtual.

  • Have fun within the limitations of what’s possible — and safe. Publishers can’t expect to reliably schedule physical events in the near term, but if the pandemic eases there will be opportunities to test the water with smaller activations. Use the opportunity to play around and test out ideas that you might not get the chance to try when the world of large-scale, high-stakes events returns.

Even in 2020, events planners in some markets were able to host in-person events on a limited scale. In Greece, 24MEDIA held a socially distanced beach event in partnership with beauty brands, with sun beds spaced out and reserved for guests. Guests were served food and could take turns to enjoy various treatments and learn about protecting their skin from the sun. “Of course, the brands were kind of scared,” said Chris Chatziioannou, director of Brand Experience, 24MEDIA. “But we took them to the beach two weeks prior to the event, we showed them exactly what we were going to do … We had all of the things we could do to make both the readers and the brands feel safe.”

  • Virtual events will be a hotbed of innovation. Yes, Zoom fatigue is real, but many publishers have grown fluent in hosting virtual events and conversations are ongoing about the enormous potential that exists to build on the impromptu conferences and seminars that have been the bread and butter of the 2020 events calendar.

The Wall Street Journal’s Stinchcomb said the potential of virtual events lies in a package that replicates the most compelling aspects of in-person events — the intimacy and networking — while setting limits on the production costs that tend to be a hindrance for publishers of any size. And most importantly, the scalability of the virtual model. “There’s got to be a lot of really smart evolution in that space,” he said. “The virtual event business I think will be a big part of the story of 2021, and probably well beyond.”

Bottom Line

We’re not going back to physical events for some time, but virtual events are only going to get better. This is a golden opportunity to experiment and have fun with events, and that’s going to lead to some thrilling experiences.

  • Less is more. The onset of the pandemic provoked a scramble among publishers to compensate for all the events that were lost. As a result, some organizations probably ended up hosting more events than ever before. In 2021, look for a less frenetic pace, as publishers focus on quality and delivering value to the audience and sponsors.

“2021 might see a rationalization in terms of volume of fewer and better events,” said Stinchcomb. We can look forward to fewer two-dimensional seminars, and more events featuring experiential elements like virtual breakout rooms and audience-led video roundtables. Bloomberg’s Chief Commercial Officer Stephen Colvin said Bloomberg’s Green Festival offered a taste of things to come. “People were able to go and check in and beforehand able to say who they would like to meet with virtually, and that was just via chat,” Colvin said.


“Clients in-housed a lot of things that they formerly outsourced to agencies, and I think that was because they had to be incredibly responsive and day-to-day they weren’t necessarily sure what their messaging should be or if it was going to change.”

Josh Stinchcomb, Chief Revenue Officer, The Wall Street Journal

Stinchcomb said many advertising clients have been “in-housing” both creative messaging and programmatic buying. The latter trend is driven mainly by concerns around data protection, but in terms of messaging and voice, the motivating factor is the need for responsiveness, quick decision-making day-to-day and fast turnaround in a constantly evolving environment.

Local journalism is extraordinarily tricky, but I think it’s also the most important thing anybody can be investing in right now

Cally Baute, Vice President & GM, Politico

The past decade has seen a hollowing out of journalism at the local level, as many smaller cities and towns now have no local newspaper serving the community. Politico has set a goal of establishing operations reporting news coming out of all 50 state houses across the United States. Baute said there are many challenges along the way — irregular legislative calendars in some states, building viable business models — but that the organization is committed to rebuilding local news.

“We’ve procured very flexible agreements, as opposed to slapping a one, two year deal down”

Matt Hoy, Vice President, Business Development, Revcontent

Hoy said Revcontent’s goal is to help publishers improve their revenue situation, and that the starting point is building trust. He said it’s counter-productive to lock publishers into long-term deals that can engender conflict and strain relationships between publishers and ad tech vendors. By starting with shorter deals running 30 days, each party has a chance to get to know the other and work from there.


WTF is The Ozone Project?

This UK-based initiative was launched in spring 2018 as a collaboration between some of the country’s largest national and regional media groups, including The Telegraph, News UK, the Guardian and Reach. The Ozone Project was built partly as a response to the GDPR and partly as an “alliance” intended to equip publishers to compete with big tech platforms on a more equal footing. Advertisers can use the project to buy space across a variety of publishers. The Ozone Project’s vast first-party data trove promises advertisers a high degree of targeting and the combined reach of campaigns across all publishers is competitive with Facebook or Google.

The Telegraph’s Eccles said The Ozone Project model helps to challenge the dominance of the tech platforms. “It just takes out a lot of the tech tax that happens in the middle as well,” Eccles said. “Because you’re still talking to a platform, but it’s directly representing those publishers themselves.”

WTF is OTT and CTV?

The two are often confused, but Over-the-Top (OTT) and Connected TV (CTV) are distinct forms of content delivery with correspondingly different approaches to advertising. OTT refers to TV content that is delivered over the internet. Think of Netflix and Hulu, services that deliver TV shows “over the top” of traditional modes like analogue TV and cable. OTT content and advertising can be consumed across any internet-enabled device. That’s the key distinction from CTV, which refers specifically to a  single device, like a smart TV. Unlike CTV advertising, OTT ads are skippable and clickable.

Lauren Wiseman, Xandr’s director OTT & Programmer Partnerships, and Tom Leveseque, director of Product Management, Digital Platforms and Publisher Products also at Xandr, discussed the increasing interplay between programmatic advertising, OTT and CTV. “Programmatic has been used historically as a backfill for remnants with the direct sales team driving, most of the business,” said Leveseque. “But we’re what we’re definitely seeing in CTV and OTT is programmatic moving up the funnel, so we’re seeing some buyers prefer to transact programmatically when when they’re dealing with OTT.”

WTF is the GDPR?

The General Data Protection Regulation, commonly known as GDPR, is a European Union regulation intended to protect the privacy and personal data of consumers within the EU. The law came into effect in May 2018 and requires businesses operating in the EU to comply with a variety of requirements covering the gathering and use of customer data. Among the GDPR’s key provisions, companies are required to receive consent before gathering consumer data, and collected data must be made anonymous.

The New York Times’ Heroy said that publishers who have already had to comply with the GDPR may be well placed to adjust to Google’s forthcoming nixing of third-party cookies. “The impact of regulations were felt in many areas within the company, but advertising led an assessment of the potential business aspect and that work prompted us to start talking in earnest about what that business without the use of third party data would look like,” Heroy said.

Event Video: U.S. Track

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Event Videos: U.K./EU track

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