The state of news media heading into 2021 

Future News 78

Expect The Washington Post to challenge The New York Times’ global digital print supremacy next year. The Jeff Bezos-owned outlet has unveiled its expansion plans, with breaking news – rather than original/investigative reporting – at the heart of its strategy and the planned establishment of new hubs in Europe (London) and Asia (Seoul).

The Post is lagging around three million online subscriptions behind The New York Times, which saw former CEO Mark Thompson leave the helm of the publicly listed publisher earlier this year after successfully moving its model towards monthly subscriptions. 

Those visible and recurring revenues helped the company hit a record share price of over $51 at the end of December. Rupert Murdoch-controlled rival News Corp also had a strong end to the year, with a five-year share price high of $18. Its Dow Jones division did particularly well and The Wall Street Journal can boast of 2.4 million digital subscribers, more than the FT’s 945,000. 

However, Lionel Barber’s successor as FT Editor Roula Khalaf is hoping to change the balance in business print journalism with an expansion into North America. FN reported earlier this year on how the outlet had changed its breaking news strategy, partnered with PBS Frontline and now, among other things, will launch a new newsletter about Wall Street and the business of finance. The Economist should not be overlooked either, with just under 800,000 subscriptions and its own growth strategy for North America under CEO Lara Boro and Managing Director Bob Cohn. 

As for digital challengers, BuzzFeed, which is acquiring HuffPost, is reportedly exploring a listing (we’ve been here before) via a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC), otherwise known as a blank cheque vehicle. Much has been said about the company’s desire to exit, but little has been written about the investment case for potential institutional and retail shareholders.

Axios, meanwhile, is also allegedly heading towards profitability, while Politico, the publication which effectively spawned it, is expanding its B2B reach with the acquisition of energy outlet E&E News. Vox Media also claims to be in a “really strong position” heading into 2021, despite losing co-founder Ezra Klein to the New York Times, according to Jim Bankoff

Substack (the platform which this newsletter is published on) also made a lot of noise in 2020. Conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan joined the network, a piece on Paul McCartney went viral and a hitherto unknown historian called Heather Cox Richardson became its breakout star. The platform only launched in 2018 and it’s easy to compare its apparent early success to the blogosphere boom of the 2010s. However, since it provides a fully integrated service for writers (especially around revenue collection), it makes it less likely that the most popular talent will jump to mainstream outlets, as was the case with the big bloggers. 

Beyond digital print, the social media platforms, namely Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet-owned YouTube, are leaning more and more to a mix between human and machine learning moderation, especially after the US Presidential election in November. Twitter’s decision to flag misinformation from Donald Trump and his allies set a precedent for all politicians, campaigners and everyone else who uses the platform.

The Facebook Oversight Board, meanwhile, was finally able to launch in late October. It is yet to be seen what the organisation’s real impact on the company will have. Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has a controlling stake in the business and is still very much the boss at the Menlo Park-based business. 

What is clear, however, is that these companies, especially Facebook and Alphabet, face antitrust pressures from US and European regulators. We will have to wait and see how Joe Biden’s administration deals with Big Tech, if at all, but apparently he’s no fan of Facebook despite recently picking an ex-lawyer of the Big Blue to become his White House staff secretary.

Never to be overlooked is Amazon, which is technically one of the world’s biggest search engines. It has snapped up podcast network Wondery for an undisclosed sum right at the end of the year. Spotify, which acquired rights to the Joe Rogan Experience and Bill Simmons’ The Ringer for a combined and reported $300m, will be taking note as it targets 345 million monthly active users and plots an expansion into South Korea

This is all partly thanks to our pandemic-induced changing consumption habits. Advertising  may have taken a hit at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, but it rebounded and subscription-focused models have benefited from mass digital onboarding. This leaves broadcasters in a sticky spot: do they stick with their knitting or double-down on digital?

For Fox News it’s probably going to be the former after setting a cable news record of 1.9 million viewers per day and 3.6 million in primetime, according to Nielsen. CNN, meanwhile, won the election day ratings war, while Newsmax substantially grew its audience thanks to pro-Trump positioning. 

Publishers and broadcast chiefs will probably be quietly sad to see the celebrity-politician leave the White House. Biden kept his cards close to his chest during the campaign, even refusing to divulge his position on potentially ‘packing’ the US’ Supreme Court. There is no current evidence that he will change his near-silent tune. 

The UK, however, is going to be a much noisier place, with the planned launch of GB News and New UK’s own video project after going live with Time Radio in late June. The GB News project is chaired by former BBC interrogator-in-chief Andrew Neil, who also heads up The Spectator and the very successful YouTube current affairs hit Spectator TV (one episode has nearly reached 200,000 views). The outlet also continued its expansion into the US and launched Covid-19-focused newsletter, attracting more than 110,000 subscribers

Its left-wing rival The New Statesman and New Statesman Media Group has unveiled three new websites, including Investment Monitor, Energy Monitor and Tech Monitor. The New Statesman also appointed a new Head of Digital and Innovation, David Tomchak, and Deputy Online Editor, Rachel Cunliffe (formerly of City AM). 

Talking of freesheets, The Evening Standard saw George Osborne bumped up to Editor-in-Chief, while Emily Sheffield was installed as editor. Christian May also left City AM and journalism, with Andy Silvester taking over as Editor. Both titles will be hoping that commuters return to London’s streets in their droves again once the UK’s Covid-19 restrictions are eventually lifted. The same can be said for The Village Voice, which will re-launch in print and online next year in New York. 

Returning to the UK, the BBC’s new Director-General Tim Davie has outlined a series of cuts as the pressure on the £157.50 per-year TV licence fee (in the streaming world of Netflix, Disney Plus and Amazon Prime) continues, not least from the Conservative government. Around 520 jobs are expected to be axed in BBC News, with 450 roles being shed across its English regions. 

The losses will come at a pivotal time for regional and local journalism. So-called ‘news deserts’ are emerging across the Western world, as reliable and trustworthy information runs-dry. UK publisher Reach (formerly known as Trinity Mirror) is approaching 2021 with “optimism”, while the US’ largest regional print news publisher Gannett saw a “rapid rebound” in its Q3 earnings ended 30 September, surpassing one million paid digital-only subscribers.

With that in mind, perhaps other regional and local publishers will embrace the paid-for model in 2021. It has worked well in Norway, where 64% of news consumers subscribe to a local outlet. 

As for how we digest the news, it’s telling that podcast and newsletter editors have become defined and important positions within news media outlets. The Telegraph, which has around 335,000 subscribers (just behind The Times’ 337,000), is on the lookout for a Deputy Head of Email and Newsletters, by way of example. 

All in all, we head into 2021 with the news media industry’s shift to digital catalysed by the pandemic. Serious challengers have emerged into the mainstream, while established outlets have used new mediums (podcasts, newsletters and video streaming) to cement and grow their market place positions. The main takeaway from 2020 however is the importance of diversification – both across revenue streams, content and innovation. Producing good journalism is not enough any more. 

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