News media has reached a turning point

As fake news becomes old news, Fairfax's chief revenue officer Matt Rowley looks at the future of trust in news media.

We humans are poor at predicting inflection points, we prefer forecasting in straight lines. 

However, I believe there is evidence that we are at a turning point in the way consumers view and value news media.

At the heart of this change is our understanding of the roles professional content creators (publishers) play versus platforms. 

Until the back end of 2016, platforms – notably Facebook through the era of the Arab Spring – were largely seen as forces for good. It was all about the democratisation of voice; giving everyone a podium.

That perception changed with the US election last year, when fake news ‘trumped’ real news on Facebook.

It’s left us with a leader of the free world who can paralyse his country with a single, unverified tweet (which he does with terrifying regularity).

This was seismic in recalibrating the way we all value media and the aftershocks have continued to rumble since. Just this month we discovered evidence of direct Russian meddling in that election as well as target advertising segments including ‘jew haters’ – both on Facebook. 

Consumers now realise that an algorithm isn’t a guardian of truth, having a platform doesn’t make you a publisher because it doesn’t give you the most valuable quality of all – trust.

This isn’t just a convenient story for publishers. Last month the Deloitte Consumer Media Survey for 2017  showed consumers voting with their thumbs, via a significant decline in use of social media as the primary source of news. 

This wouldn’t have gone unnoticed by Facebook, considering commenting on news is the single biggest source of engagement on the platform according to the survey.

The millennial cliff myth

But is this a blip in time? One of the reasons given for the inevitable demise of established publishers is that the smashed avo eating, social media obsessed youth of today don’t value them and so we are rolling toward a millennial cliff in readership.

In fact, counter to this accepted wisdom is that not only are millennials moving away from using social as first port of call for news (see above), for the first time the bell weathers of the social revolution – leading millennials – have started to consume less social media overall. Indeed 46% of them have temporarily or permanently deactivated social media accounts.

Perhaps this is because in a world of record amounts of BS propagated at increasing velocity, they place more trust in traditional forms of media than the generations before them, as demonstrated in this research just this month.

Even if you put this down to the optimism of youth, the differentials show that millennials value publishers versus platforms at least as much as any other age group. They too place value in truth.

Put this together with an increasing propensity for younger generations to pay for digital content and the future may well be far from bleak for publishers of trustworthy content.

Carpe diem

What this all means is that the door is ajar for publishers to reassert their direct connection with readers, but to do that they need a competitive editorial, technical and commercial product.  Considering most publishers have chased the promise of scale from platforms by commoditising content and ceding product control to those platforms, this isn’t easy. At Fairfax, we’ve re-built our tech and product stack from scratch to enable us to do just this.

Hampering the situation for publishers is that while consumers are realising where true value in accessing news media is, the advertising market is careening in the opposite direction. At some point (the sooner the better) we’ll collectively look back on the last few years of marketing and say “what were we thinking?”. 

Some of the biggest voices in marketing are already saying it. Take Marc Pritchard, P&G’s global brand officer last week at Dmexco:

“There’s no question ads should never be on ISIS recruiting videos. But how many cat videos should we advertise on? If you’re watching cat videos, do you really want to see a toothpaste ad?”


“People use social media to share things about their lives with each other. And let’s face it, ads are annoying in that context.”

There’s a lot of money being spent in that context; most of it chasing short term sales using attribution models so wrong they’re worse than no attribution model.  In the meantime, sales growth, as Pritchard points out, has stagnated. The explanation for this period of marketing history will be ‘but it was easy and cheap’.

Unfortunately there is no technological playbook passed back from the future. We have to figure it out as we go and that’s just what both users and publishers have done with platforms.

What’s now is not what will continue to be, no matter how unshakeable some of the protagonists appear.

Just ask Blackberry or Nokia. 

Matt Rowley is chief revenue officer at Fairfax Media.

Matt Rowley will be speaking on a panel at Mumbrella’s Publish Conference on the Future of publishers’ relationships with social giants. To find out more and buy tickets, click here. 



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