We love writing about the profound and rapid digital changes happening across the industries amid the shock delivered by the coronavirus pandemic. Nationwide lockdowns and other restrictions have mutated our old habits and created new ones. However, 2021 is the year we will find how fundamental those changes have been. While many of us crave the “normalcy” to return, the reality is likely to be different as we enter warily into the post-pandemic era where the virtual and physical coexist in new ways.
2021 is the year we see economics worldwide reshaping and publishers leaning onto e-commerce and subscription, two future-facing business models that the pandemic has powered up.
Even though the uncertainty has enhanced audiences for journalism, almost everywhere, publishers who continue to depend on digital ads and print revenues might face a difficult year with more consolidation, closures, and cost-cutting. And by the time 2021 ends, we may also see journalism a bit more segregated from the information masses published on the internet.
And as Nic Newman from Reuters pointed out (1), new technologies such as AI would also drive greater efficiency and automation across several industries, including news media. However, as AI moves out of R&D labs into real-life applications, we can expect to see heated debates on its impact on society, fairness, and transparency.
The Impact of Pandemic on Journalism
Last year, at this same time, many predicted how our lives would be turned upside down professionally and personally by the coronavirus (2). Even when we are on the edge of the pandemic, it continues to cast a shadow over all our plans, and its impacts are likely to be with us for times to come.
Undoubtedly, the pandemic has sped up digital transformations, including our working practices, business modes, and journalism.
The most obvious change in journalistic practice is the remote working with online collaboration tools such as Slack and Zoom. Several surveys highlight how journalists like the new flexibility (3). At the same time, news companies realized that it was possible to create websites, newspapers, and even radio and TV news programs from our homes.
News companies mostly operated with a small number of key staff in the office, field, and at home. However, at the height of the pandemic, several newspapers were made without anyone in the office, which is an industry first. The most prominent stories of the year, including the incident of George Floyd and the US election results, were all coordinated and assembled with online tools.
However, at the same time, experts are worried about the impact of long hours and increased complexity of work on staff’s mental health and creativity. According to a Changing Newsroom report published last year (4), almost 77% of people think that remote working has made it harder for them to build and keep relationships. Several managers talk about effective communication and handling the pressures of employees.
The critical challenge in the post-pandemic era would be moving from crisis mode to a sustainable hybrid model. According to Warren Fernandez, Editor of Straits Times, Singapore, companies need to reexamine the newsroom’s physical workings and introduce more flexible arrangements. There are also predictions that face-to-face reporting would be back by the end of this year.
The Refocus of Journalism
One of the most unforeseen by-products of the pandemic is confidence in journalism. The validation of fact-based reporting comes from a backdrop of years of news media’s criticism by some critics, politicians, and others. In the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, the news companies showed strong innovation in technologies to help explain the science.
Companies that invested in specialist resources before the pandemic are in the best position to enhance their reputations. Health journalists and medical experts such as Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN have become household names in sharing their knowledge across media platforms, answering audiences’ questions, and correcting false information. Other publishers increased expertise in data and visualization to offer context, while websites utilized personalization to help people quickly understand the crisis.
It is important because those who follow the news media closely know more about the pandemic and, by implication, are better positioned to stay safe (5).
It is also worth highlighting that news media companies have explained official messages and delivered numerous powerful, independent investigations into how governments handle the crisis (6, 7). And the unreliable information about the pandemic and other issues spreading via social media platforms have further strengthened the position of journalism.
The Shift Towards Paid Content
There has been a push towards digital subscriptions and other forms of paid content for quite some time now. The pandemic gave it a further boost, with Zuora reporting that media publishing for the second most prominent segment after video service services like Amazon Prime and Netflix. According to Zuora, there was a 110% increase in the average subscriptions across news than the year before, as of May 2020 (8).
Notably, The New York Times alone added more than a million net digital subscribers in 2020, citing an unprecedented demand for original, quality, and independent journalism (9). However, according to reports, only a few big national and international names have taken the lion’s share regarding reader payment. At the same time, other small and medium-sized media are left with staffing stripped to the bone.
According to several publishers, growth in digital subscriptions won’t be enough to compensate for the fall in print circulation and print and digital ad revenue. And it leads to our burning question, in the future, how to retain those new subscribers who came on board amid the pandemic.
With more publishers chasing a small number of audiences ready to pay, it can become even tougher as the economy worsens and tightens personal finances. Two possible outcomes are differential pricing and cut-price offers. Publishers like The Wall Street Journal have already placed special “save deals” for people who have lost their jobs. We can expect more cheap deals for students, the underprivileged, etc., as a way of countering critics about rising information inequality.
Nonetheless, there is support for subscriptions. It is already underway with Apple News+, Google subscription, Facebook, and Substack for independent writers (10). We can also expect more seamless subscription integrations with a wide range of native platform experiences. Podcasts are one arena where there is a scope for integration, possibilities for publishers to offer bundled print and audio subscriptions.
The Rising Need for Revenue Diversification
The pandemic has made the news media industry realize its need to break free of an unhealthy dependence on digital ads as news publishers see little to no growth in their digital ad revenues.
There are arguments that sustainable independent news media need a different approach, supporting multiple revenue streams. There has been a visible shift with companies putting less emphasis on ads and giving more attention to subscriptions. The shift indicates the importance of revenue diversification.
These hybrid models are already showing positive results. The Independent, which had shacked its print edition for over four years, combines e-commerce, digital ads, premium subscription, affiliate revenue, and a contributions model. It is also expanding to other languages like Spanish. The Independent is also accelerating new initiatives like more international expansions, TV propositions, and targeting rapid revenue increase.
All of these indicate potential growth areas for media companies. Publishers can position themselves like a retailer in the upcoming future as ecommerce spending is likely to double over the upcoming few years to 7 trillion USD worldwide (11).
Publishers are increasingly thinking about curating content to create the right intent to purchase and get a chunk of this growth. Stand-alone review sites such as Wirecutter from the New York Times, the Strategist from Vox Media, and IndyBest from the Independent are only a few instances of successful platforms making significant contributions to the bottom line from affiliate revenue with additional benefits of collecting valuable first-party data.
Other publishers are creating new content verticals to take advantage of the e-shopping boom. For instance, BuzzFeed has built its range of branded cooking products linked to its popular Tasty Brand. Earlier this year, BuzzFeed also started building a Sex and Wellness vertical aimed at Millennial and GenZ audiences and offered a range of sex toys (12).
Publishers can also benefit from the wider subscription trend, including entertainment, music, learning fitness, food, and flowers.
The pandemic needed publishers to rewrite their event strategies and get their activities online. The rapid consumer adoption of online tools such as Google Meet, Zoom, and Houseparty opened new opportunities. When the millions turned into live concerts, inspirational talks, and fashion shows, publishers found that virtual events have a lower cost base, higher profile guests, and a bigger audience than physical events.
We can expect to see more professionalization around these events and new features that would help deliver more compelling online experiences (13). While our craving for human contact is rekindled and Zoom fatigue is becoming inevitable, the future is likely to be a hybrid.
Podcasts and Emails are not new technologies. However, these resurgent formats are promoting independent and entrepreneurial journalism. Meanwhile, they have also become a critical tool for established media companies to engage audiences more directly and deeply (14).
Last year was dubbed as the “newsletter year,” with a cohort of high-profile writers leaving conventional jobs to set up their businesses, mostly email-based. Amid the pandemic’s uncertainty, many were intrigued by the promise made by new platforms such as Lede, Substack, TinyLetter, which offered direct control for writers and rewards running into millions of dollars. Casey Newton, formerly of The Verge (15); Andrew Sullivan, formerly of New York Magazine; and Alex Kantrowitz, formerly of BuzzFeed, are some well-established journalists who made the switch.
The trend imitates the start of the blogging revolution over a decade ago, which gave writers the freedom to write on topics of their passion without the constraints of a conventional newsroom. The difference is these new platforms are focused on subscription instead of ads, which fosters a quality-based approach to content that may establish more sustainability. Based on common charges between 60 to 100 USD, a list of mere 1k subscribers can offer a comfortable income.
Simultaneously, mainstream media have also started to turn to email for engagement strategies. Data insights have consistently indicated that signing up for a relevant newsletter is the best way to lessen churn for existing subscribers or build new relationships with potential customers.
Last year, giant media firms also realized the move towards “journalist-led” emails, encouraging talented writers to create their channels even if it meant de-prioritizing their work’s other elements. Today, the New York Times runs more than 70 newsletters and has millions of subscribers, indicating the value placed on human curation (16).
The Backlash on Newsletter
There are reports that soon, consumers would struggle to get through the large number of emails they have signed up for during the lockdown. Meanwhile, some writers are also struggling with the pressure to develop new ideas day after day.
By the end of the year 2021, we may witness some high-profile writers back to mainstream media, which offers more variety and legal and editing support. Platforms such as Substack may also grapple with showing that they can reward and showcase new and diverse opinions and proven writers on niche subjects.
Audio and Podcasts
Podcasts continue to grow, and news podcasts expanded strongly throughout 2020, once known only for being a comedy genre.
According to reports, companies like The Daily and the New York Times get more than 4 million listeners a day, a number which, according to the CEO Meredith Levien, “almost twice as huge as the paper was at its apex.”
On the platform side, 2020 also witnessed major developments, with Amazon going further into podcasts. We are already witnessing big platforms directly controlling the production and distribution of podcasts. The year 2021 started with Amazon’s scooping up Wondery, among the last independent podcast publishers left standing.
Spotify has also acquired Anchor, Gimlet Media, The Ringer, Megaphone, Parcast, and more. Podcasting has become a version of the video-on-demand streaming battles with similar dynamics.
According to Deloitte, the podcast market would exceed 3.3 billion USD globally, about 3x its current size (17). Besides platform payments, there would also be opportunities to sell subscriptions via existing podcast apps; players like Substack also extend the independent journalist model to the audio. Moreover, platforms like Patreon are supporting contribution and donation models.
While video podcasts have been around for a long time, Joe Ragan’s success has pushed several other creators to attract whole new audiences via film shows. And with Spotify adopting it, the format is set to drive further, especially with the rising popularity of screen-based smart speakers.
Broadcasters have started experimenting with dual-use podcasts like the BBC’s Americast and Newscast, which are also shown on TV. Vox and other publishers have successfully turned audio ideas into a video by developing them simultaneously or subsequently (17).
The Times made a strategic move with its visual and audio storytelling in the past few years, and publishers may push further into documentaries. The Daily already features written articles’ audio versions, and we can expect the trend to grow further across a range of news media companies.
Next-generation technologies like augmented reality, artificial intelligence, smart devices, and 5G are also affecting journalism in a big way.
According to recent surveys, news media companies see AI as the biggest enabler for publishers over the upcoming few years (18).
Media firms have increasingly gripped AI technologies such as NLG, natural language generation, machine learning, and speech recognition to find new customers and stories, speech recognition, and enhance distribution.
One of the most interesting is the semi-automation or automation of new formats from the text. The BBC is working on turning a text news story into a “visual story” suitable for mobile phones with animations and pull quotes. It may help media companies fulfill different format preferences between demographics without breaking their banks.
Publishers are also looking to offer summarized news options as an alternative to a full article and plan to add audio versions of their stories with a wide range of synthetic voices.
Machine learning advances have driven automated translations, including neural models enabling high-quality translation in more than 100 languages. They are integrated into audience apps, allowing them to translate news articles and posts instantly. We can expect to see publishers take advantage of these technological advancements.
Smart Devices and 5G Networks
We know 5G networks are faster than the 4G networks we use today. It will allow quicker browsing, high-quality video streaming and make it possible to connect multiple devices simultaneously – the backbone for smart cities, smart homes, and autonomous vehicles for the near future. Yes, its adoption is taking longer than expected.
For news companies, 5G would enable reliable HD mobile reporting and make it easier to package media from remote locations. For users, it will bring benefits to apps such as gaming, video streaming, VR, and AR. Better screens and faster speeds would accelerate the push to personalized news, mobile formats, and visual journalism.
Beyond our smartphones, a new range of devices equipped with IoT, always-on internet connectivity, and sensors would help us live smarter lives, including health-focused wearables, hearables, smart speakers, smart glasses, and more (19). And a life more dependent on big tech.
In 2021, journalism as a business is embracing its transformation. The pandemic has comprehensively made a case for rapid change towards an all-digital future, a catalyst of much-needed change for journalism as several other industries.
We will see new hybrid models getting tested in the road ahead as newsrooms innovate new digital formats to engage audiences successfully. We are in a decade where we will see text-based news media investing heavily in online video and audio content, data, and snackable visual stories that work well on social media platforms (20).
Nonetheless, it is a greater challenge for broadcasters to retain their audiences as they migrate to other digital services at lightning speed.
The key is to offer more relevant and engaging content and create a deeper connection with customers. In 2021 and beyond, digital is no longer about apps and websites; it is increasingly about expressing journalism across multiple channels, including online video, emails, and podcasts.
Stay tuned to find out more about which habits will remain or which will be temporary. We will also see how publishers will seize the new opportunities and emerge.