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“Make our journalism that much more essential”: What publishers need to know about keeping readers engaged in 2021

2020 was an extraordinary year for publishers beginning with the pandemic and ending with the presidential election. It was extraordinarily challenging and required quick shifts in strategies to adapt to the pandemic. Publishing saw tragic job cuts and closures, but also record levels of traffic and subscriptions growth. 

Now that the world is looking forward to normalcy as vaccination drives launch all over, it’s time for publishers to reconfigure their strategies once again.

NiemanLab invited some of the brightest minds from media and publishing (including academics) worldwide to write about what lies ahead in their Predictions for journalism 2021 series. Here we share their thoughts on ways in which publishers can serve their readers better based on learnings from 2020. 

“Shift for newsrooms”

There will be a “shift for newsrooms,” writes Marcus Mabry, VP, Global Programming, CNN Digital Worldwide. “Our audiences can be expected to decline. This will force an expansion of the service and personal journalism that was growing as audiences shrank before Trump hijacked the news cycle.” 

As fewer users read, watch, and listen to us out of anxious necessity, we will need to make our journalism that much more essential to their lives.

Marcus Mabry, VP, Global Programming, CNN Digital Worldwide

“Journalism that serves readers will give answers — and reassurance — to people who are just plain tired after this slog of a year,” says Megan McCarthy, Executive Editor for Growth, Reviewed. “Readers will have questions about vaccines, public health, and economic policy, and the outlets delivering that information in a clear, accurate, and direct way will thrive. 

“Think straight news with a dollop of traditional service journalism. What information will improve readers’ daily lives?” 

“We should get ready for what comes next”

Cory Haik, Chief Digital Officer, Vice Media Group and Francesco Zaffarano, Editor-in-chief, Will Media emphasize that publishers should ask their readers what they need. 

We journalists always ask ourselves what are the most important stories for us to report on, but we spend far too little time asking our audiences what it is they want from us. The prejudice that journalists know best is deeply rooted and hard to kill.

Francesco Zaffarano, Editor-in-chief, Will Media

Zaffarano says that publishers got paradoxically lucky in 2020 as, “it wasn’t hard to recognize that a global pandemic was something people really wanted to know more about.” News publishers played a key role in helping the public navigate the complexity of the pandemic. However, he cautions, “This honeymoon is not going to last, and we should get ready for what comes next.”

A resurgence of trust in news sources is another encouraging sign. “One way of looking at it is that,” writes Zaffarano, “in 2020, we actually gave people what they needed — which in turn resulted in a spike in trust. 

“Ultimately, what the comparison between 2019 and 2020 may show is that if journalism responds to people’s needs, people will trust it more.” 

If the lesson to be learned from the resurgence of journalism during the pandemic is that people do need journalism — but only on the condition that journalism proves relevant to their everyday lives — then the best way to meet this demand is to ask people what kind of information they need.

Francesco Zaffarano, Editor-in-chief, Will Media

“Our audience is not a monolith”

“We need to be essential,” says Haik. She recommends that rather than chasing groups of people based on macro trends revealed by data, publishers should focus on the micro. 

“Our audience is not a monolith, as we’ve long tended to talk about them. ‘The youth want X,’ ‘millennials need Y,’ ‘conservatives believe Z, now use Triller,’ and so on,” she explains. 

Haik suggests asking practical and existential questions: “What do audiences need from us? Not in the macro, but the micro. 

“That new franchise you’re building, that podcast, the video series: Who is it for? What need is it serving? What will the audience do with it? Do they really want it, need it? Or are we just trying to keep their attention long enough for the ad to serve? These are the questions we need to be asking so that our content — how we serve our audiences — can steer our strategy.”

[Journalism] has to meet audiences where they are rather than where it would like them to be. In other words, it has to stop pretending that it can just talk and lead, and instead agree to also listen and be led. 

Pablo Boczkowski, Professor, Communication Studies, Northwestern University

“Future resilience of the world’s media”

Tshepo Tshabalala, Director of the Journalism and Media Lab, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, recommends going niche. “The future resilience of the world’s media lies in focusing on niche audiences and verticals. Its success lies in organizations that speak to very specific interests and the need for credible content,” he writes.

The era in which every news site covers more or less the same set of topics and stories is over. The challenge now is differentiation and segmentation — the rise of the niche, if you will. The clearer the editorial profile of a particular niche, the higher the potential to build a loyal and paying audience around it.

Pia Frey, Journalist and Co-founder, Opinary

Audience insights will play a key role in running a niche newsroom successfully. Publishers will “need to know and understand every single thing about their audiences,” writes Tshabalala. “Ample audience insights will lead to loads of revenue opportunities that many traditional media are missing.”

Frey says that one way of attracting a paying audience to a niche is to hire journalists with an established profile and following in that area. The New York Times did that by hiring Kara Swisher and Ben Smith for covering tech and media respectively. The same “can also be done in a way that is simpler and with more humble ambitions,” she adds. 

Frey refers to the trend of journalists going independent on Substack—many of them are generating substantial revenues through paid email newsletters. She says that publishers can take a cue from this and build communities by channelling their journalists’ expertise via newsletters. 

“Cut through the barrage of cacophonous digital signals”

She recommends publishers to invest in such journalists and experts, “hire and put them into the center of a growth strategy, and then let them guide the entire marketing subscription funnel, including their own newsletter, podcast, and weekly column. 

“Their communities don’t even have to turn into brand promoters for the entire organization, so long as they’re registered and keep coming back to their respective favorites.” 

Eventually, those personality-centered communities may even serve as an excellent gateway for advertisers to reach their target audiences.

Pia Frey, Journalist and Co-founder, Opinary

“A key advantage of niche news media is that their narrow focus can allow reporters to become subject-matter experts,” writes Tshabalala. “Niche platforms become valuable as they provide more deeper insights on focus areas that larger but broader news organizations are more likely to miss.”

Mabry adds that publishers should go beyond informing and entertaining their audiences and try to give them ways to impact their world. It could involve “helping others in danger of losing their homes in the coming eviction crisis or helping them envision their role in strengthening our democracy through our weekly interactive series, CITIZEN by CNN: What Next, America?”

“Every media organization has been trying to find ways to be essential in the lives of our audiences,” he says. 

“How else to cut through the barrage of cacophonous digital signals assaulting them from the time they wake up until they go to bed — and then some.” 

Only if readers, listeners and viewers feel like they need us, will we be a part of their media diet.

Marcus Mabry, VP, Global Programming, CNN Digital Worldwide