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16 trends and predictions for media and journalism in 2021

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism published its sixth annual edition of ‘Journalism, media, and technology trends and predictions’.

1) Covid-19 is accelerating digital transformations

One of the biggest trends to start in 2020 and push into 2021 (according to the 234 digital leaders from 43 countries surveyed) is the adoption of remote working with everything that it entails. Implications range from more video-conferencing tools and changing the way meetings are run to overhauling the entire newsroom workflow. 

(Find more in the Reuters report called Changing newsrooms 2020 that dives deeper into these changes.)

2) Health journalists and medical experts are important parts of the newsroom

Another trend underscored by the pandemic is the need for more medical and health experts. They can explain the illness itself, how it spreads and everything connected to vaccinations. Many medical experts have already become household names, such as Professor Christian Drosten working with German broadcaster NDR, or CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

3) Data journalism at the forefront

Hardly a day goes by without a new eye-catching data visualization in your social media feed. Newsrooms have built up expertise “in data and visualization to provide context while websites have used personalization functionality to help audiences quickly understand changing rules,” states the report.

2021 won’t be different, the pandemic is still ongoing, vaccinations have just started across the globe. Data visualization will play a big role in telling the story of how we continue to deal with the pandemic and its impact.

4) The next wave of misinformation: Anti-vaxxer campaigns

If 2020 was the year to fear election disinformation campaigns, in 2021 the “hot, new disinfo” topic will tackle vaccination efforts. Many nations are propping up vaccination campaigns to counter the anti-vaxxer community. 

Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg told Axios on HBO, Facebook won’t target anti-vaccination posts like COVID misinformation. That said, the Facebook CEO also said earlier they won’t remove or block politicians’ accounts. Then Donald Trump got suspended from Facebook

As newsrooms built up their fact-checking and debunking units for elections last year, this year they will most probably refocus on anti-vaccination misinformation.

5) The need for strong public media

When the pandemic hit last year, readers turned to the media at unprecedented levels to find out what was going on and how to protect themselves. But this bump in traffic wasn’t spread equally. 

As The Fix found in a survey of 40 media outlets from 10 European countries, public broadcasters saw the biggest increase in visits. Seen as more trustworthy, they public media saw traffic jump by 65% at the height (then) of the crisis in March, compared to just 24% for tabloids.

“Heavy usage of public broadcasters and their websites during the pandemic may have made it harder for critics to undermine existing funding models – a recurrent theme in many European countries,” the RISJ report notes.

6)  Accelerating shift to paid content

The push towards digital subscription and other forms of reader payment will continue. Interestingly, this not only concerns news media but also the broader social media landscape. Look at paid services like Cameo or OnlyFans that proved to be both popular and hugely profitable in 2020.

As the report put it, success comes from “relentlessly focusing on meeting specific audience needs.”

7) Retention will be key in 2021

One thing is to gain new subscribers when there is something important happening and your publication puts content behind a paywall. But it is a whole other thing to keep these new subscribers, members, or supporters. 

The keyword is “retention.” The simple best practice according to a report by the World Association of News Publishers, which I’m a big fan of because it is so useful, is that “Engaged Readers Don’t Churn.”

Source: A chart by the Reuters Institute [interactive version]

8) The next wave of revenue diversification: E-commerce and Live events

Many see display and native advertising as the most important revenue streams after subscriptions. But there has been a significant decrease in confidence year over year regarding advertising as a reliable revenue source. 

Obviously, advertising is still a large chunk of revenue for many publishers but every sign points to a future where it is not a primary source of income for most news publishers. Instead, it seems that e-commerce and live events are poised to become more prominent, and may displace more traditional revenues.

9) Publishers start to look more like retailers

According to official statistics on how e-commerce and retail have changed in 2020, the shift has been very dramatic with consumers accelerating online shopping and leapfrogging decades in one year. 

Affiliate revenue is an easy start for any newsroom to dip a toe in e-commerce revenue. Of course, there are examples like BuzzFeed that “will be creating a Sex and Wellness vertical aimed at a GenZ and millennial audience and has already created the first of a range of sex toys,” the report states.

10) Audience and data insights will drive innovation

Quote: “The increasing role of audience insight and data (74%) in driving innovation is highlighted in our survey – along with the importance of multi-disciplinary teams (68%) working to break down silos. Even senior leaders polled for this report recognize that their contribution is now less about generating new ideas (26%) and more about facilitating others – in a process informed by data.”

Source: A chart by the Reuters Institute [interactive version]

11) Better user experience and design

The report states that many respondents feel that websites and apps increasingly lag behind consumer expectations, especially when compared to the likes of Amazon and Netflix which people use every day. In the mind of the reader/ consumer/ user, the news app next to the Netflix app on their screens has the same value.

Unfortunately, many times the user experience is underwhelming. On the one hand, it is understandable as tech giants have much greater resources. On the other hand, the user really cares about a good experience and whoever will provide that will get their attention and possibly their money.

12) Platforms will start paying news publishers in various ways

Facebook’s news tab is coming to some European countries (the social media giant licenses content from publishers and pays them a fee), Apple News might come to more countries and because of new rules (for example, in France) Google will start paying publishers directly for content.

One thing to point out, content licensing money from tech giants usually serves the big publishers and the small ones are left aside. Plus, don’t expect any of the above mentioned to happen in smaller European countries anytime soon.

13) Impartiality matters more than ever 

The Digital News Report research showed that people in most countries still favor neutral and objective journalism, but a larger minority of younger people said they preferred news that shared their point of view. 

This report is doubling down on the impartiality reiterated by new executives as a core principle as well. Still, a partisan and strong point of view media will continue to attract younger audiences. This also appears to be the biggest risk linked to subscription based strategies, which encourage the creation of bubbles.

14) More money in newsletters for 2021

If your newsroom doesn’t have a newsletter strategy, 2021 is ripe for you to come up with one. Subscription-based newsletter services like Substack has been on the rise in 2020 and will continue to flourish this year.

15) Podcasts and audio will continue to grow

The effect of podcasts and audio for newsroom will be twofold: As 2020 has shown, and I have written about this as well, audio in general and podcasts specifically are good retention tools for publishers. 

Second, podcasts will continue to generate more revenue and publishers will start exploring paid podcasts or other forms of audio behind a paywall (i.e. audio articles for paying subscribers or supporters).

16) Artificial intelligence is the next big thing

Most digital leaders surveyed for the report said they see AI as the biggest enabler for journalism over the next few years. Though most agree that AI will benefit big publishers. 

Nonetheless, it’s possible for a smaller organisation to shift focus on AI with some specific applications if they have or can develop the needed expertise.

Find the whole report over here as a PDF.

By David Tvrdon

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission. The Fix is a solutions-oriented publication focusing on the European media scene. Subscribe to its weekly newsletter here.