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Jan 4, 2022

Axios Media Trends

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1 big thing: NPR's new pod push
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Data: Podtrac; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

NPR is adding a slew of new shows and subscriber-only bonus content to its new podcast platform NPR+, executives tell Axios.

  • It also plans to launch an on-demand podcast bundle as a benefit of membership to local stations in the second half of the year.

Why it matters: Subscription podcasting offers a new business model for NPR and its member stations. Offering podcast content to local members could grow station membership, which NPR relies on for revenue via affiliate fees.

Yes, but: NPR's long-standing mission to inform the public limits how much content the non-profit can put behind a paywall.

Driving the news: The new podcast bundle will give local station supporters extended access to an on-demand library of podcasts and digital content, akin to "PBS Passport," said NPR's Joel Sucherman, vice president for new platform partnerships.

  • This differs from NPR's current podcast subscription offering, NPR+, which allows listeners to pay to subscribe to their favorite NPR podcast, free of sponsor messages, for $2.99 monthly or $29.99 annually.
  • To beef up that offering, which launched in August, NPR is adding more shows and subscriber-only benefits to NPR+. NPR shares NPR+ revenue with member stations and co-develops podcasts with some of its local members.

Details: On Tuesday, NPR will launch a new podcast available on NPR+ called "The Limits with Jay Williams," hosted by the ESPN personality and former college and NBA star.

  • "For the first time, we'll be adding some bonus content that's available to subscribers," Sucherman said.
  • Sucherman notes that NPR may also test things like unedited interviews, member-only events and merchandise, like laptop stickers.

What to watch: This weekend, NPR will add weekend extensions to its daily afternoon news podcast "Consider This," and its morning news podcast "Up First."

  • Neither podcast is yet available as part of NPR+, but "will be at some point" said Neal Carruth, senior director of on-demand news programming at NPR.

By the numbers: With the launch of "The Limits with Jay Williams," NPR will have a total of nine podcasts available as a part of its NPR+ podcast subscription service.

  • It expects to add several more in the next few months, including "Life Kit," "NPR Politics," "Throughline," "The Indicator" and "Book of the Day," said Sucherman.

Go deeper.

2. Protocol launches new expansion after Axel takeover

Protocol is adding 25 new positions, bringing its total employee count to roughly 80 by the end of the year, its new president Bennett Richardson told Axios.

Why it matters: It represents a comeback for the company, which launched weeks before the pandemic shut down the country in early 2020.

  • Like dozens of other news outlets, Protocol was forced to make cuts in response to the uncertainty driven by the pandemic. It laid off 13 people, roughly 1/3 of its staff at the time. 

Details: Over the past year and a half, Protocol has focused on coverage of niche tech topic areas, like fintech and enterprise computing.

  • Its coverage is designed for business, technology and policy professionals, with roughly 1/3 of its audience coming from each category.

By the numbers: Richardson said the company now has 200,000 people who have signed up to receive at least one of Protocol's eight newsletter products.

  • Roughly 50,000 are signed up for Protocol's main daily newsletter "Source Code."

Catch up quick: Protocol was launched by former Politico owner Robert Allbritton and acquired by German publishing giant Axel Springer alongside its sister publications Politico and Politico Europe last year. Richardson believes Axel Springer is a good fit, and will help scale Protocol globally.

The big picture: "Our long-term ambition is definitely to build Protocol into a hybrid model with professional services and subscriptions," Richardson said, referring to a business model that closely mimics that of Politico's.

  • Today, Protocol is 100% advertising-supported, with 1/3 of revenue from branded content. "For us, it has meant a real focus on thought leadership," Richardson said.

What's next: Looking ahead, Protocol plans to launch "Protocol Climate," a newsletter focused on the tech industry’s role in combating the climate change and emerging climate technologies.

  • It's also launching "Protocol Policy," a new newsletter focused on tech policy sent three times per week.
3. News engagement fell off a cliff in 2021
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Data: NewsWhip, Apptopia, SimilarWeb, Nielsen; Note: Cable ratings only include Fox, MSNBC and CNN, from Mon. to Sun.; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Engagement with news content plummeted last year compared to 2020, and given the ongoing decline in interest in news about COVID-19 and politics, it doesn't look like 2022 will be much better.

Why it matters: The Trump era and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic created a one-of-a-kind media moment that will be hard for news companies to replicate, Axios' Neal Rothschild and I write.

  • With fewer singular storylines capturing America's collective attention, news consumption was more scattered and diverted to sports.

Yes, but: As Axios has previously noted, traffic to hyper-partisan and political publishers took a severe hit in 2021, while mainstream news publishers did better.

Be smart: The full-year drop in news engagement would have been even more dramatic were it not for the enormous amount of news traffic driven by the Capitol siege in January.

  • The Capitol riots drove a massive global traffic spike in Jan 2021, according to Bonnie Ray, the head of data science at traffic analytics company Chartbeat.
  • Overall, Chartbeat found that amongst 4000+ publishers globally, traffic declined 8% between 2020 and 2021, but when comparing overall traffic for December 2021 to January 2021, it's down nearly 20%.

What to watch: The Beijing Winter Olympics and the 2022 midterm elections could provide much-needed traffic boosts for publishers looking to hold on to fleeting subscribers.

4. Free press crackdowns intensify in Hong Kong

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Independent media is struggling to survive in Hong Kong, as the Chinese Communist Party looks to tighten its grip on pro-democracy voices, Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and I write.

Why it matters: Hong Kong's media environment, once among the freest in Asia, is growing gradually more similar to that of mainland China.

Driving the news: Citizen News, an independent outlet in Hong Kong, said it will close Tuesday, fearing the safety of its staff in light of new media crackdowns by mainland officials.

  • The move comes days after Stand News, another pro-democracy news site in the region, shut down following a national security raid that resulted in the arrests of seven journalists.

Be smart: Mainland officials began to systematically stifle the free press last year, shortly after passing a sweeping national security law in 2020 that dramatically reduces personal freedoms.

  • One of the biggest targets was Next Digital, a media company founded by press tycoon Jimmy Lai, which shut down in response to the new Chinese Communist Party restrictions last year.
  • Lai was sentenced to 14 months in prison last year and now faces a new sedition charge from Chinese officials.

Be smart: So far, the crackdown is focused on Chinese language publications and Hong Kong-based publications that aren't part of a larger international news outlet.

Bottom line: "No one except the quislings and enablers can kid themselves -- press freedom is dead in Hong Kong," said Mark Clifford, president of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong.

5. Local digital sites rising in news deserts

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

New, independent digital outlets and nonprofits have begun to fill some of the gap left by fading local newspapers.

  • But limited resources and the pandemic have driven many toward providing community news, information and services rather than traditional accountability journalism.

Why it matters: "It's not just about a legal or structural shift, but it also represents a shift in how the mission of journalism is changing," said Emily Roseman, research director & editor at the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN).

By the numbers: There are now more than 700 independent local news startups in the U.S. and Canada, according to Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION), a trade organization.

  • By comparison, at least 100 newspapers have closed during COVID, said Penny Abernathy, a visiting professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
  • Without additional government support, the U.S. could lose 100 more newspapers next year and another 500 over the next five years, she estimates.

Yes, but: Many local upstarts and nonprofits are still small compared to the newspapers that once dominated American journalism.

  • Most of LION's members (80%) have four or fewer employees. Many are individuals writing newsletters or blogs.

What to watch: The recent hostile takeover battle between the board of Lee Enterprises, one of the last independent local news chains, and hedge fund Alden Global Capital reflects the tension between the commercial market and local communities over the value of local journalism.

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6. 1 fun thing: Introducing, Kerry

Kerry poses with Falkor. Photo credit: Mike Murphy 

Please join me in welcoming Kerry Flynn to Axios. Kerry will be co-authoring a new, subscription newsletter on media, entertainment, telecom and ad tech deals, debuting this quarter.

Get on the waitlist.