December 21, 2015 Last Updated 11:50 am

2015 Year in Review: Trends – silly ones that won’t die, and ones that might grow in 2016

Some media reporters push the meme that print is back and eBooks are dead, while two trends continue to move in opposite directions – comment threads become more open, while others are shutdown; and new paywalls are launched while some are loosened or closed

The 2015 year of publishing is almost over here at TNM. On Tuesday, we will post our last stories for the year, unless something comes up that is too juicy not to post something. Last week TNM posted reviews of the digital magazine business (here, though also look out for Part Two), and the newspaper business (for more downbeat, but you can find it here).

While compiling the stories, however, it was easy to spot some of the trends that ran through the year. Some posts tried to beat down silly memes, while others were first, second and third posts on the same subject.

Silly Trends:

Print is back!

Sure it is, and I’ve got a bridge to sell you, too.

I know of no one I respect in the digital publishing business that has made a living saying print is dead. What they say, and the numbers support, is that digital is growing, while the print side of things is suffering. Are there exceptions? Absolutely. Is the trend now towards print? Yes, just as we all will be returning to vinyl LPs.

Newspaper-revenue-PewDigital advertising grew 40 percent or so in 2014, and when this year ends we are expecting this trend to continue. Meanwhile, print advertising continues to decline, though the various trade associations supposedly representing publishers are trying awfully hard to hide the numbers. (The last numbers in the B2B are in the US have not been updated in 13 months.)

So why are we hearing this? Because there are those that benefit from such talk. They speak at industry functions, soothing the attendees with a message that says that there is nothing to worry about, you are not, in fact, falling further behind.

The nasty but real problem with the traditional publishing industry is the same one we’ve been dealing with for years: print can be very profitable when ad pages are up, while digital advertising margins are often too low to sustain staff sizes built up in the print era. As a result, print products that are number one in their field continue to do well, while those down the line are failing.

But look at digital, those that dominate digital are doing great – Google, Facebook and the like – while others are struggling to be in the black. The NYT and Washington Post dominate web traffic among newspapers, but are they driving huge profits? No, because in digital they compete with more media brands than just other print newspapers.

So, it remains a complicated picture , but let’s not fall for the ol’ return of print trope.

eBooks are not selling (variation of print is back!)
The NYT last year hired away a young writer from the WSJ to cover publishing. This year we got this article, which probably did more to make people misinformed than anything else written this year. Luckily, a few readers wrote comments to try and save the situation.

Gizmodo-ebooks-screenNo, eBook sales are not falling. They may be for traditional publishers, who boosted prices in order to make sure they would fall. But not overall. Are they rising? We actually don’t know for sure, but when you look at what sales are coming out of Amazon and other digital publishing and sales platforms, it sure looks like sales continue to rise.

But if you only talk to the traditional publishers, only stay in NYC, and live and breathe ink all day, you will see what you want to see.

I doubt this silly trend will die in 2016. The AAP and traditional publishers are fighting for their lives, they are invested in the idea that print books will eventually come back in volume. Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble wants to sell toys.

Trends that will grow

Comment threads are becoming more open, while others are closing down altogether. Look for this to continue in 2016 as there is real disagreement about how to handle increasingly unruly commenters.

Star-comments-screenThe Washington Post, as you may know, is trying to overtake the NYT in web traffic, and appears well on its way to do so. In October, the Post hit 66.9 million multi-platform unique visitors, beating out the NYT’s 65.8 million. Digiday wants to credit the Post’s efforts on other platforms such as Facebook and mobile, but the NYT is doing similar work. The one thing that might be credited with driving up these numbers is that the Post has become a magnet for commenters. A typical political story will have five to ten times more comments than the NYT, and each of these is counted as if it were a reader attracted to the story above the comments.

The NYT has, for a long time, more heavily moderated comments than the Post, but this may soon come to an end as the Post surpasses the NYT.

The Post’s comment threads may be nasty, rude, and filled with wrong information. But other websites see the same thing. But because they are not able to monetize their traffic as well as the Post, they don’t believe they see a real benefit to the traffic. If foul comment threads lead to some paid subscribers abandoning the publication, then open threads are a net negative.

The Toronto Star was the latest big name publication to close its comments, but Vice Media’s science channel, Motherboard, also decided to shutdown its comments section. So, too, did The Daily Beast and The Verge, though these decisions may be reversed at some point.


Like comments, this one is going both ways: metered paywalls continue on the rise, and many of those that have tried paywalls are opening up their websites again.

wsj-paywallTribune Publishing, which instituted a paywall a few years back will be instituting metered paywalls for its newspaper sites in 2016. The Sun, in the UK, is dropping theirs. The Toronto Star is, as well.

But the paywall business, like the Flash flipbook business, is out there still telling publishers that there is money to be made with paywalls.

There is, for some.

I’ve dealt with this issue since the launch of 2010, and my opinion concerning paywalls has not changed, so I think maybe, just maybe I might be on to something.

Paywalls work where readers see a financial interest in the information being provided: financial news sites, some B2B websites, and maybe also leading news sites such as the NYT. But what about the vast majority of websites out there? The evidence is less persuasive, though I don’t doubt there are a few success stories.

Because of the lure of incremental dollars, I have no doubts that more paywalls will be erected in 2016. I also don’t doubt that more solid paywalls will become a bit more leaky as publishers see their traffic numbers fall. I also think some will be pulled down completely.

Far too many publishers think their content is worth paying for simply because they are paying their employees to product it. Consumers don’t think that way, probably because I’ve never seen a byline on a story that also included the salary level of the writer. To readers, one Caitlyn Jenner is not worth more money than another.

But if the website offers up the latest news on a company you are invested in, or if the site produces news used to bid on a new construction project, that news is valuable and may be worth paying for.

I bet a number of readers are today wondering if they should renew their digital subscription to the NYT following their5 later screw-up. Most will, no doubt, but there are millions of websites out there, paying for access to one is not something readers will do automatically. Like that app dialogue box that appears on a new app asking you if you want to share your information, the default response is ‘No’. So it is with paywalls, as well.

Ad-blocker usage will grow, publishers will make sure of it

The introduction of iOS 9 meant that for the first time iOS users could employ an ad blocker through an add-on app. The publishing community trembled, then overreacted. Some website began to give readers who were using an ad blocker messages that said that if they did not disable their ad blocker they could not proceed.

StarTrib-adblockerReaders were not, to say the least, amused.

The problem, which far too many publishers would not acknowledge, was that they had junked up their website so much with pop-ups, autoplay videos and the like, that readers were actually trying to help them out. By using an ad blocker, these websites would load twice as fast and make them more readable. But force them to stop using their ad blocker and the reader would be forced to make a choice, one that usually would lead to them avoiding that site.

Forbes, for instance, is among the worst offenders. A visit to that site leads to an introductory page that actually delivers nothing other than a five-second delay, then one proceeds to the story the reader wants, that is immediately interrupted with a pop-up ad. The story I finally reached ended up being PR for the energy industry from a hack who was not identified as a paid lackey. I will not make that mistake again, I’m through clicking on anything that reads “Forbes”.

Many newspaper websites are just as bad, including those from Gannett and Tribune Publishing. I don’t see this trend of publishers delivering bad web reading experiences ending in 2016. Revenue is hard to come by for many traditional publishing companies, they will accept even the worse advertising as long as their credit is good. Look for more of this, plus more readers deciding that using an ad blocker makes sense.

Supposedly 10 percent of Brazilians already use ad blockers, and one study says one-third of US consumers are considering using them. But the percentages of those using an ad blocker remain fairly low. But their effects are starting to be felt in lower click-through rates.

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