As we shift into high gear into 2021 – and put 2020 in the rear view – there is seismic digital change on the horizon in the wake of an unprecedented year that saw a global pandemic and political chaos that shook us to our core.
Lockdowns, riots and storming of the U.S. Capitol feel like an endless movie that has trapped us in a catatonic trance. It’s time to exit the theater back into reality.
While many of us crave a return to “normal,” the reality is likely to be different as we emerge warily into a world where the physical and virtual coexist in new ways.
This will also be a year of economic reshaping, with publishers leaning into subscription and e-commerce – two future-facing business models that have been supercharged by the pandemic. While uncertainty has boosted audiences for journalism almost everywhere, those publishers that continue to depend on print revenues or digital advertising face a difficult year – with further consolidation, cost cutting, and closures.
For giant tech platforms, the pandemic has forced a rethink on where the limits of free speech should lie. With lives at stake, and under threat of regulation, expect a more interventionist approach on harmful and unreliable content and greater prominence for trusted news brands – along with greater financial support. By year end, journalism could be a bit more separated from the mass of information that is published on the internet.
New technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) will also drive greater efficiency and automation across many industries including publishing this year. But as AI moves out of research and into real-life application, we can expect more heated debate about its impact on society – about the pace of change, about transparency and fairness. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism recently conducted a survey of the top editors, C-Suite leaders and digital executives to predict trends for 2021 and beyond. Here are the key findings:
How do media leaders view the year ahead?
- Three-quarters (76%) of our sample of editors, CEOs, and digital leaders say Covid-19 has accelerated their plans for digital transition. Business plans include more remote working and a faster switch to reader-focused business models.
- Driving digital subscriptions was rated an important or very important revenue focus for 76% of our sample, ahead of both display and native advertising. The reverse was true when we last asked the question in 2018. E-commerce and events were the next most important priorities, with revenue diversification set to be a key theme. Publishers say that, on average, four different revenue streams will be important or very important this year.
- Overall, the majority of those polled (73%) say they are confident about their company’s prospects for the year ahead, though fewer (53%) say they are confident about the future of journalism. Concerns relate to the growth of misinformation and disinformation, attacks on journalists, and the financial sustainability of smaller and local publications.
- Publishers seem to have a bit more confidence in government support than this time last year. More than a third (36%) felt that policy interventions might help – twice as many as 12 months ago. Almost half (47%) felt interventions would make no difference and a further 17% said they could make things worse.
- With platforms set to pay significant sums of money to some publishers for news content this year, there is disagreement over how the spoils should be split. Around half (48%) of our respondents think that just a small number of ‘quality’ news organizations should get the money, with a third (32%) preferring a system based on quantity of usage that might see most publishers paid. Despite extra money for both content licensing and innovation, publishers think that tech and social media platforms could still do far more to support journalism.
- Traditional notions of journalistic impartiality and objectivity are coming under pressure in an era of greater political and social polarization – with more partial news outlets set to launch this year. Despite this, the vast majority (88%) of those surveyed, which includes a large number of senior editors, say that the concept of impartiality matters more than ever. At the same time, almost half (48%) agree that there are some political and social issues where it makes no sense to be neutral.
- Creating a more innovative culture remains a key preoccupation for many digital leaders. But it turns out the best ideas don’t always come from the top. Audience and data insights (74%), multi-disciplinary teams (68%), and learning from other media companies (48%) are considered the best ways to generate new ideas these days, according to our survey, compared with just 26% for top leadership.
- Our survey also shows the critical role played by product managers in coordinating and shaping digital innovation. More than nine in ten (93%) say the role is important but less than half (43%) say it is well understood in their company.
- Media companies are betting on AI as a way of delivering more personalized experiences and improving production efficiency. Over two-thirds (69%) of our sample say these technologies will have the biggest impact on journalism over the next five years, ahead of 5G (18%), and new devices and interfaces (9%). But many think that AI will benefit big publishers disproportionately, leaving others out in the cold.
And what else might surprise us?
- We can expect a thirst for face-to-face contact after a year of lockdowns and restrictions to movement. Real-life events are set to make a comeback this year as Zoom fatigue kicks in.
- Journalists will get out of the office more, freed by technology to deliver more face-to-face reporting, becoming more embedded in communities.
- The price of talent goes up as subscription-focused platforms like Substack demonstrate the value of exceptional journalists working in a niche. But will growing pay disparities between stars and the rest create new tensions in newsrooms?
- Online video becomes a key focus of concern around misinformation, with the rise of hyper-partisan opinion-led channels and video podcasts distributed via platforms like YouTube and Spotify.
- Accountability journalism continues to get tougher as politicians look to take advantage of concerns about misinformation to tighten restrictions on freedom of speech. These trends will also be apparent in some liberal democracies (as illustrated by the controversy around France’s new national security law).
- Audio continues to be a bright spot for news media, with strong innovation in content and business models. Expect to see an increasing focus on paid podcasts and platform payments widening the range of monetization options.
- 5G rollouts gather pace across the world, along with a proliferation of new devices including wearables and smart glasses. All this suggests publishers will need to prepare for a future that involves taking content and brands across more and more devices and distribution channels.
Changing newsrooms and remote working
The most obvious shift in journalistic practice has been the forced adoption of remote working practices, using online collaboration tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack and other platforms. Many previously resistant journalists found they liked the new flexibility, while news outlets found it was possible to create newspapers, websites, and even radio and TV news, from bedrooms, living rooms, and kitchens.
The biggest stories of the year, including the police killing of George Floyd and the drawn-out, nail-biting U.S. election results, were coordinated and packaged using online tools.
But while efficiency may have improved, newsroom leaders worry about the impact on creativity, at a time when long hours and the increased complexity of production have added to pressures on staff.
In the midst of change, us communicators will pivot, adapt and embrace the technologies and digital platforms that will help reach broader audiences for a better tomorrow!