The Media’s Annus Horribilis

Nick Hilton
12 min readDec 19, 2023


Old papery things from your grandparents’ era

Below is an edited transcript of a conversation I had with Ian Silvera, editor of the Future News newsletter. Ian is a former political journalist here in London, and now works for a swish public affairs agency, so he’s well placed to discuss all these issues. We touch on my pessimism about the media’s performance in 2023, and his cautious optimism. The conversation forms the main part of this week’s episode of my little podcast project, The Ned Ludd Radio Hour, so you can listen to it below if you’d prefer to rest your eyes and avoid reading.

Nick: So, Ian, I’ve seen a lot of analysis now at the end of the year where it’s being described as an “annus horribilis”. It’s been another brutal, bruising year for the media, not just in audio, which is my industry, but in print media and TV and digital. You write a newsletter that deals with all of this stuff. What’s your kind of overarching impression of the year that’s just been?

Ian: I’m a lot more positive than others, Nick, in the sense of we’ve seen some good innovations and people are thinking about their strategy around news media a lot more deeply. And now that we’ve gotten to know Web 2.0, so-called, and obviously with Web 3.0 on on the sort of horizon, I think people are delivering content better. There’s a higher level of professionalism and there’s a sort of road map now for news media companies, particularly when it comes to some of the big social media platforms. They’re very au fait with them and we can get into that a bit more.

Obviously we’ve seen at the start the year, around March, ChatGPT rocket out of nowhere. And we’ve already seen that dramatically change, in many ways, the industry. The content that you can create, you know a click of a finger. And there’s been various studies as well about the population of some news websites with AI content. So I think that’s one of the big stories of this year. It’s the rise of AI. Going back to your point about the media at large and the sort of advertising market as well, obviously it’s been a tough time in the wider macroeconomic climate. So it’s no surprise that I’ve been a slew of lay offs. People are repositioning their companies and obviously those ad revenues are being cut. Because usually, unfortunately, and in my day job as well, marketing can be the first thing to be cut, before anything else, particularly when it comes to more operationally minded business lines. So yes, a tough year. But I think there are some green shoots there, particularly as we look into 2024. And I think there are some positive things that we can touch upon a bit later into this.

Nick: OK, well, let’s let’s circle back to what you first said, which is that your positivity about the year that’s been comes to some extent from the fact you think there’s been a number of innovations. Now you’ve you’ve talked about ChatGPT, but what are the particular kind of news media focused innovations that have kind of got you going, got your motor running this year?

Ian: One of the things that I’m quite proud of, as a British person, is it’s great to see a bit of entrepreneurial flair and one of the interviews that I did earlier in the year was with Screenshot Media. They’ve been around a couple of years and really they’re teaching the rest of the industry how to deal with Gen Z and interact with Gen Z.

But they have a very sophisticated way of looking at social media, and it’s not just lumping different pieces of content across platforms. It’s actually giving the time and respect to each platform, understanding the risks, the layouts, the different people and how they react to the content. So a good example would be say, like Instagram. Obviously very photo driven. And then TikTok short videos. But what we’ve seen from the news industry in the past is that they’ve just recycled content across it. What Screenshot Media are doing very well is that tailored approach, and they’ve got millions and millions of views off the back of it. And they’re growing.

Another one that I would point out more on the negative side. Obviously we’ve seen a bit of rejigging around Newsnight. I thought it was terribly disappointing a number of years ago when they closed the dedicated YouTube channel for Newsnight, because we’re seeing this year that people are lapping up long form analytical content on YouTube. If it could eventually get into the millions of users, or even hundreds of thousands of viewers, I believe it could very much more than wash its face and become incredibly profitable.

With regards to AI, I think some news brands have adapted really quickly and the transparency has been fabulous. One of the ones that I would point to is CoinDesk, which is covering the Web 3.0 and crypto space. As you can imagine, as a site at the frontier of technology, they were well on top of this and one of the first to publish an extensive AI strategy.

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Nick: I want to pick up a couple of threads from that. The first one would be to cycle back to what you were saying about social media. You know your learnings from Screenshot etc. I speak to a lot of people in magazine journalism and newspaper journalism and it seems like the prevailing sense this year has been that social media has started to work against journalism, and there’s much greater friction. For a long time you’ve had this journalism base, and the social media has been a way of directing traffic towards that base (which they knew how to monetise). Now the trend, very obviously at Twitter, but also at Meta, has been to make it harder to redirect traffic from social media to traditional media. Which is pushing more and more brands to do what you’re talking about: integrated journalism directly onto social media. What sense do you have of the way that social media and journalism is evolving? And is there a way that brands can better monetise and exploit these opportunities in native social media journalism?

Ian: There’s a few things, and it goes into the business models of the brands themselves. But I would say a good example and perhaps a bit of a controversial one. We’ve just seen Nigel Farage come out of the jungle [Farage appeared on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!]. And GB News is doing a fabulous job across social media. They’re putting stuff up on YouTube and Twitter. They even have an in-house coordinator. You get a behind the scenes glimpse. It’s sort of like what Barstool have done very well actually over in the US as a sports media brand.

But it’s not giving the goods away for free. I remember when I was a full time journalist, we always found Twitter disappointing. It’s known the engagement rates were low compared to Facebook, and the Facebook was the best place to put your news article and follow through with hyperlinks. We’ve also seen the changes earlier this year. On X they’re not showing the the headline with the imagery. Now people are learning to do bespoke thumbnails. But I’m still to this day seeing major major news brands just using Getty Stock Images and doing no more than that. I think they need to think more carefully about their social media strategies. It’s not just pushing content out.

Where are we going to, Nick, and it’s where Chris Williams of the Telegraph told me a number of years ago we were headed, is getting driven towards quality. This is what people are willing to pay for. And we’re still seeing a rise of the smaller, leaner, I call them “journalism as a service”, you get “software as a service” [SaaS]. This is journalism as a service. So these are smaller publications with deep niches. You know, Politico have have shown us the model back in the day. So Axios, Punchbowl: similar models in a few places have popped up. I think the figures from Ofcom and Reuters show that people are actually turned away from News, and it’s only about 11% of consumers are actively seeking articles. Which is bad, but I still think there’s an awful lot of work to be done in the industry, and I would like to praise Rupert Murdoch. Many years ago, he put The Times behind the paywall, and that was entirely the right thing to do. You’ve got to keep your discipline. Don’t don’t give you good stuff away. Use social media to advertise yourselves. Get a bit of content out there if you can wash your face through social media. But otherwise you’ve got to have this strong discipline and really I think we are still going through this long process of this drive towards quality. And unfortunately I think we will see more brands topple over because they’re not able to deliver what people really want.

Nick: Yeah, it’s a curious one. I guess this long established fragile truce — the symbiosis — between journalism and social media has definitely been eroded this year. And that’s not just at the door of Elon Musk, who obviously doesn’t really like journalists. Because I do speak to people who work specifically on social media for news brands and they say that they have noticed algorithmic trends that want to push people away from content that contains links. And, for instance, they’re trying to sort of gerrymander the links into content without explicitly putting links because they know that they will be depressed. And it makes sense, if you’re Facebook or Twitter, that you want to keep people on the platform for as long as possible. Make them see as many adverts as possible, and that means basically every time they click on some sort of interesting journalism and go away from it, that’s time away from your platform. So it’s a difficult one. I think that, for a long time, news media has been overly reliant on social media as a way of driving audiences.

Ian: I would say, I think there’s been a bit of naivety in the industry. Listen, this is their business. News media is business and these are businesses. And I think the main reason as you say, they’re moving away from News, is because they don’t see that much money in it. There’s more money in Entertainment.

I feel for the people who are directly implementing these social media policies, but ultimately it’s for their bosses, as businesses, to say “we’ve got to back ourselves, we’ve got to grow sustainable business here”. And I would say for individual journalists themselves, great that you’re advertising your work on X/Twitter — it’s become a bit of a portfolio and you’re interacting with other journalists — but quite frankly, is that going to drive clicks ultimately to your stories and is that going to make money for your organisation? And I would say, unless you’re a rare example, it’s probably gonna be “no”. So you need to look at other things such as events, merchandise, etc. And I suppose it is sad, but at least now everyone knows you cannot rely on social media anymore. You can build a brand in the right way.

Nick: You’re touching upon, I guess, a big theme for me from the past year. You talk about this kind of rise of quality, niche publications rather than basically big news brands that trying to do everything. You also reference there the fact that creators, whether they’re on YouTube or podcasting or whatever, are doing more and more direct sales. And obviously part of that is being like “buy my hoodie” but also part of that is saying, “look, I’m I’ve got a Substack, pay £5 and and you’ll get this monthly e-mail”. It’s difficult for me to see that as like a really long term, sustainable model. I just think it it’s too atomised. People are getting too little for too much. It makes newspapers seem like really tremendously good value. Do you think that model is sustainable though, because it seems to be the only good idea that the media has kind of come up with, which is to pack a bunch of the unemployed journalists off and allow them to try and raise a bit of money off their own backs?

Ian: I think just like any free market, it will sort itself out. I think we have seen that massive rise, but they’re all private enterprises and we will maybe some of them will grow, and some of them will fall away. I mean, how I see the landscape at large is that I think we’re going to have probably about 3 or 4 massive global news brands. I think New York Times would be up there obviously has an obvious one. I think The Guardian is going be up there. The FT will continue to be there, Bloomberg, and then CNBC. And then you go further down, and you think more nationally. And it’ll be the same thing: there’ll be four or five big news brands and then at that level. And then it’s publications covering trends in sectors.

So in our game — futurism, the media — I think you would be silly not to subscribe to Benedict Evans’s newsletter. And then maybe 3 or 4 others. And that’s how I sort of see the more sophisticated news users. If you look at the facts and figures, most people are only subscribing to two newsletters at most. If it’s through work, they’ve got extra work subscriptions. That’s the landscape as I see it. Speaker 1

Nick: I know you’ve got a very free market approach to these things. I’m sort of always a bit ideological about the necessity for providing a sustainable news media. And I don’t particularly trust the free market to do a do a particularly benign job of this task.

Ian: Well, I agree with Paul Staines of Guido Fawkes [a right-wing political blog]. He told me many years ago that the best model for news media is: profitability. That’s it. And you can do great journalism if it’s profitable. You know how many times have we seen on X people sharing a free amazing article or people saying, “oh, that should be free”. Well, how is it paid for? How’s is a deep dive investigative piece of journalism, written over 6 months, paid for?

I think the BBC has gone from one issue to another this year. I think it’s a little bit silly, frankly, for the government not to give that funding for the World Service, which is fantastic for the U from a soft diplomatic point of view, and the journalism is great. But we also have to have a conversation about what type of public service journalism and media we want, namely around the BBC and what it outputs. I think they’ve done great things, partnering with local news brands and doing political democracy reporters and other initiatives like that.

Nick: Before we overrun, I’ve got to ask you one final question. I know you’re doing a lot of work on AI in your day job and also in Future News. I cannot see how the rise of ChatGPT is good for journalism, but I’ll leave it to you to offer some optimism!

Ian: I think the optimistic thought is that it’s a drive towards quality. I think, at news publications, it’s already a research tool. But I think there’s a technical aspect that everyone should be aware of at the moment. Multiple studies, even one by Google DeepMind, have found that AI, or the specific AI Large Language Models, are not good at self criticism. So with this fear of the rise of Artificial General Intelligece, it’s seems we’re still way off there.

I think the other thing it does is it could free up some of the reporters jobs. However, as you’ve probably seen the how are now news publications looking for AI powered reporters, so we’re already seeing that, which I think is a bit negative. In the industry, there are content producers or content farmers. I think people still want high quality journalism, and that’s fundamental. But for any business, you know, it’s not going away. You can’t put it back in the box. I know there’s a whole thing within the AI industry about slowing the technology down. But then you’ve got all these different brands, and there wasn’t really any consensus around that coming out of Bletchley [the AI summit last month]. Meta, interestingly, are saying they’re doing this more ‘open source’ approach. Others are saying that’s dangerous. So there’s still no consensus there. And while there’s still no consensus, the free market is going to carry on rolling out. So get used to it. Get your heads around it and think about how this is going to impact both good and bad. And then try and plan accordingly.



Nick Hilton

Writer. Media entrepreneur. London. Interested in technology and the media. Co-founder Email: