January 26, 2016 | Business | by Xavi Beumala

Silver and Gold: The Race to Win the Digital Content War

While traditional software and device companies alike are contending for the eyes and dollars of consumers who live on the cutting edge, content is the broader issue on everyone’s mind. With technology capabilities increasing exponentially and the use of tech across product platforms exploding, thought leaders are focused on how and where to provide daily news content to accommodate ever-evolving consumer preferences.

Never before in this young century has a communications medium raised the information (and entertainment) bar the way that mobile has. Nearly two-thirds of Americans own a smartphone, and a significant number of them rely primarily on their smartphones for access to pretty much everything. Yet even as mobile and social news habits keep changing, legacy platforms have by no means been abandoned. It’s just that some are performing better than others.

On the positive side, local TV continues to capture more broadcast viewers, with slight increases for evening (3 percent) and morning (2 percent) newscasts and larger ones for early morning and midday in 2014, according to Pew Research Center’s State of the News Media 2015 Report. Network television news saw a second straight year of audience growth (5 percent in evening and 2 percent in morning), for a combined average evening viewership of roughly 24 million.

Digital and mobile developments have also broadened the world of audio. Podcast listening is on the rise, breathing new life into audio journalism. Podcast downloads at NPR alone grew 41 percent year over year, according to the organization’s internal data. The percentage of listeners tuning into online radio via mobile devices continues to rise, while the percentage listening on desktops is falling. That means the online radio audience can listen nearly anywhere now—including in their cars, a traditional outlet for AM/FM radio. Whether this ends up a positive or negative development for news remains to be seen.

On the advertising side, mobile ad spending alone increased 78 percent, though that is a slowdown from the previous two years. Mobile ad spending now accounts for 37 percent of all digital ad spending, up from 25 percent in 2013. As new relationships are struck between news organizations and tech companies like Facebook, tech platforms continue to hold most of the control and reap most of the financial benefit. Facebook pulls in roughly one quarter (24 percent) of all display ad revenue and more than one third (37 percent) of revenue for mobile display ads.

On the other hand, the newspaper industry continues to be hard-hit. After an unusual year of small gains in 2013, newspapers saw both daily and Sunday circulation fall by 3 percent in 2014. These declines were felt across papers of all sizes. Newspaper weekday circulation has fallen 19 percent since 2004. Ad revenue is down, too, declining another 4 percent year over year, to $19.9 billion—less than half of what it was a decade ago. With the growth in circulation revenue among publicly-traded newspaper companies at a mere 1 percent, it’s clear that circulation gains are far from making up for advertising losses.

For cable news as well, 2015 proved to be another rough year, with prime-time median viewership down 8 percent across the three major channels—Fox News, MSNBC and CNN. Fox News fared the best, but still saw a 1 percent decline year over year.

Savvy media outlets, however, haven’t just been sitting back and watching their circulation numbers drop. Many have acknowledged the audience’s hunger for mobile news, and adapted. For example, the Wall Street Journal recently launched a new mobile app for subscribers called “What’s News.” The app isn’t meant to provide long reads, but simply the most recent “Top 10 News Items of the Moment,” with entries at 350 words maximum. This content is written exclusively for mobile consumers, and offered on the platform they want.

In this new space, as advertising has become increasingly synonymous with mobile platforms, editors will continue to worry about revenue. This is an integral part of the media industry, and it won’t be changing any time soon.

Yet content providers must continue to seek relevancy, even as distribution channels go in and out of style and media offerings chase new demands for share-ability, download-ability, emotional appeal, and speed. Just as the Wall Street Journal has done, news companies must address consumers’ mobile content consumption needs. If they’re not reading your blog (you do have a blog, right?), they’re reading your competitors’ blogs and content.

Our mobile devices may have become our most intimate companions, but like the ageless camp song goes, “Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other’s gold.” Distribution channels and technology platforms aside, in the end quality content will be the difference-maker and the biggest attraction for consumers. People will always want the news, and content will always be king—something the savviest of media brands have known all along.