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Registration, Retention, and Recommendation: 2020’s Top Trends in Newsroom Tech

What will happen next in the news? At the end of last year, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) at Oxford University in the UK surveyed 233 people from 32 countries to identify the trends on the horizon. Respondents to the survey held senior positions in newsrooms where they had responsibility for digital or overall strategy. Over a quarter came from the UK, followed by 14% from Finland, 12% from Spain, and 10% from Germany.  

The themes of the report ranged from the overall business outlook for media to specific formats like podcasting. The high-level takeaways included a strong editorial interest in using technology to generate better recommendations, followed by commercial uses such as using AI to target potential subscribers and optimise paywalls, and finally a broad interest in newsroom technology for bringing about efficiency gains. 

Given our focus on open-source tools for journalism here at Sourcefabric, the findings that stood out for us were in three main categories:

Registration: Paywalls and authentication services

As more content goes behind paywalls, publishers face a twofold problem: not just requiring readers to pay to their content but also asking them to go to the trouble of signing up and registering on their websites. Using one of the common sign-in services from Google or Facebook makes it easier for users but also means that publishers hand over the benefits of all that first-party data to the platforms (much as they already hand over the benefits of their content).

To find a way out of this dilemma, some publishers are banding together to create their own platforms for authentication and even for advertising. Nic Newman, the main author of the RISJ survey, points to three examples in Europe: 

  1. Portuguese alliance Nonio, which counts six of the country’s largest publishers to date;

  2. A digital advertising platform called The Ozone Project in the UK, which allows advertisers to buy ads across multiple publisher’s websites;

  3. The Amedia publishing group with about 75 local newspapers in Norway, which has created a single sign-on service for all of its titles.

Retention: Getting and keeping in-house tech talent in newsrooms

More than three-quarters of respondents to the RISJ survey said they were not confident about their ability to either attract or hang on to technologists in general, and data scientists in particular. While journalists themselves can become ad-hoc data journalists for the purposes of their reporting, data scientists have a specialised skill set that sits at the intersection of editorial and operations. “This job is more than a data analyst or a developer with statistical skills as they can work with big data and combine data sets, train AI algorithms, and find patterns in data,” explains Newman. Unfortunately for publishers, tech companies are also hiring data scientists -- at higher salaries and better job security.

Recommendation: Giving readers more of what they want

One of the study’s key findings was that over half of the publishers surveyed see the promise of artificial intelligence (AI) in delivering a personalised experience to readers. From customised front pages to lists of recommendations, publishers aim to use algorithms in the same way that retailers and social media platforms have already pioneered: to give readers what they want, even before they know they want it. 

Smaller publishers in the survey said they worry they can’t compete with the big publishers who are running their own big data initiatives. But all hope may not be lost. “There are certainly opportunities for smaller companies to rely on human curation and to make a virtue of that: e.g. brainpickings.com or any small niche publication,” says Newman. He adds: “Smaller companies will also be able to buy off the shelf AI services for recommendations at low cost via a SaaS approach.”


News organisations around the world today face many of the same challenges: finding new business models, acquiring and retaining readers, and simply staying relevant in a world already inundated with information and opinion.

At the same time, each organisation is charting its own course on the choppy media seas. “Some publishers are chasing mass audiences, others are looking at niches. Some need tech solutions for paywalls (subs businesses), [while] others are focusing on digital advertising and will need technologies that help target different audience groups effectively,” says Newman.

But it’s also worth noting that there are some core trends around tools for efficiency. According to Newman, it’s all about “ensuring that workflow and content management systems are as efficient as they can be and can deliver to multiple distribution points.”

Sound familiar?

If you’re a publisher looking for a digital-native tool to distribute content to multiple websites, head over to our Superdesk Publisher site for a free demo. To learn more about how Sourcefabric is supporting a more diverse media ecosystem, sign up for our newsletter or follow us on social media.