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Models for news media in 2021

Four themes from NiemanLab’s predictions

2020 has certainly been an unpredictable year. We don’t know what 2021 has in store for us, but it’s always an interesting exercise to guess what lies ahead.

NiemanLab asked dozens of top thinkers in journalism and the media to try and envision what’s coming for the industry this year. We picked four themes focusing on business models for the media — traffic and readership, newsletters, podcasting, and virtual events.

Traffic and readership: niches, bundles, and drops in readership

In 2020, many media outlets saw record traffic due to the pandemic. It’s only natural to assume readership numbers will fall in 2021 as life (hopefully) returns to some version of normal. 

This will be especially true for US media now that the election is over and Trump is on his way out. As María Sánchez Díez from The Washington Post puts it, “traffic will plummet — and it’ll be ok.” Newsrooms will have to pay more attention to relationships with readers and better understand their audiences.

One of 2020s big trends was the success of niche publications, from cooking magazines to Substack newsletters on politics. This trend will be relevant in 2021. South African media researcher Tshepo Tshabalala points out that there are many success stories of niche brands in his country and beyond.

Yet, too many niches is not a sustainable model. Nicholas Jackson and Ariane Bernard remind us that going solo to publish on Substack is difficult and might work well only for a fraction of content creators.

Bundles are an obvious solution. In 2021, we might see more of them — and not only for Substack newsletters but also for traditional media companies. (In October, The Fix wrote about the story of a top outlet in Ukraine that built a novel membership model with integrated partner benefits — predictions suggest that we might see more such examples in other countries).

Newsletters on the rise

We’ve yet to see whether journalists can make money by publishing their own newsletters at scale (there are certainly loud successes of individual creators, but less certainty on a market-wide level), but newsletters will definitely be an important tool for newsrooms.

Jacqué Palmer predicts a comeback of “the simple plain-text email” as the audience is fatigued by bright and shiny retail newsletters. She advises publishers to invest more in newsletters (a 45-to-1 ROI is a strong argument in favor) as a tool of audience building, while focusing on innovation and forgetting about automation.

Podcasting: the struggle for independence as big platforms move in

Podcasting is one of the fastest-growing fields in the news media, largely immune to the corona-crisis and helpful to establish a connection with younger and better-educated audiences.

In 2021, it will remain a highly promising industry. But Eric Nuzum predicts that “2021 will bring some significant bumps — ones that won’t upend podcasting but will dull the shine on the industry’s outsized buzz,” partly because of the general decrease in traffic and partly because of the lack of clear acquisition success stories.

The worry about podcasting independence emerges in a couple of predictions, with big platforms, such as Spotify and Apple, positioning themselves as increasingly important players.

Kerri Hoffman reminds that podcasting has always been an open and democratized medium built on the RSS standard. She fears that “with high-dollar acquisitions and big-splash content deals now regular news in the industry, the threat to podcasting’s open standard now looks far less theoretical.”

Steve Henn goes on to lament that “instead of building an open and more interactive audio ecosystem capable of supporting meaningful journalism, the big tech platforms, led by Spotify, are rushing to build vertically integrated networks.” Henn identifies a major problem for the podcasting community — a lack of accessible membership models, which leads to an unsustainable reliance on advertising dollars.

Virtual events will find a way to stay

Publishers that relied on events for monetization were among those who took the hardest hits during the pandemic. Virtual events are hard, but some newsrooms managed to successfully take their events online.

Rick Berke predicts that “virtual events are here to stay,” even despite their limitations. Rodney Gibbs points out who exactly might benefit from webinars and online discussions — niche publications. Those investing in creative formats, such as online dance parties or Twitch streams, will be more likely to succeed.

By Anton Protsiuk

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.