Of course the biggest story in 2021 will continue to be COVID-19 pandemic, the rollout of vaccines, the reopening of businesses, gathering at sporting events, holidays, family celebrations and getting back to normal.
Though we're not sure what "getting back to normal" will actually look like.
We do know that reporters, who had to adjust to covering the impact of the pandemic on their particular beats, will continue to cover both their beat areas and the pandemic. For example, sports reporters continue to cover games, trades, etc. while also reporting on games cancelled because of athletes who tested positive. What might be different is that they're testing positive to COVID, not to steroids. (As compared to a decade or so ago when steroid use in baseball was a big problem.)
In this post, we will look at six additional trends we think will be important this year. If they look familiar from 2020, they are. These are long-term trends affecting the media world, and are important to note because they address the daily circumstances that affect reporters. With an understanding of some of the variables reporters contend with can help when pitching stories to the media, developing marketing campaigns with media outlets, etc.
- In a post-truth era, media polarization will continue and media credibility will decline. For years now, Americans have been living in a post-truth era – in which there’s a lack of shared, objective facts. Unfortunately, the growing distrust of the media and the chasm between media bubbles will get worse in 2021, especially on social media. This is bad for business because it exacerbates polarization and diminishes the credibility of all media outlets – making it harder for marketers to reach broad population segments while making it easier to unintentionally alienate parts of the population. Bonus thought: we expect the phrase post-truth to be used quite often in articles that look at the current lack of unity inside the U.S., fueled by social media and conspiracy theories and the immediate past administration.
- The news flow won’t diminish in the first half of the year. The chaos of news over the past few years boosted engagement with news sources as people tried to keep up and make sense of it all. Despite a change to a presumably more-disciplined/boring administration, we expect the news flow to continue at its current levels through the fall due to the ongoing pandemic, its impact on the economy and continued volatile political situation. We also expect Doomscrolling will drop off but not fade away in 2021. The implication for marketers is that it may be hard to get the attention of reporters and producers as well as from consumers while they continue to be distracted by the latest developments.
- From a business perspective, the media sector will face a challenging year. Although we’re confident about demand for news will stay steady, we know demand by itself has not been the panacea for the media. In broadcast news, there’s a battle for viewers between Fox versus NewsMax and OAN plus a possible new threat if Donald Trump launches or buys a media property. Meanwhile, among newspapers and magazines, the New York Times, Wall St. Journal and Washington Post, and People are doing well, but the rest haven’t found a sustainable business model, especially because retail advertising has dropped due to COVID. Keep in mind: despite the strong demand for news, thousands of newsroom positions were cut in 2020, especially at local media, and that, sadly, will continue in 2021.
- More newsrooms will be shuttered. Since the start of the pandemic, most reporters have been working remotely so some companies have decided to save money by shuttering physical newsrooms including New York Daily News, Hartford Courant, Orlando Sentinel, and other big papers, much less at smaller, regional papers. That’s not a good thing because we feel there is real value in training junior staffers, which becomes harder when they’re working remotely from mentors. It also makes it harder for PR functions because it’s much harder to call reporters when they’re working from home, and have given up or rarely check their office voicemail.
- There are fewer reporters working, but it seems like there's more news than ever. Especially at local media, which increasingly seem understaffed, reporters are overwhelmed. They have to file more stories with fewer resources and less time between in which to develop stories. In years past, they would have had time to talk to the executive and get an original quote and add some insight into the announcement. We're not blaming reporters -- we blame the economics that have resulted in the layoffs of tens of thousands reporters over the last few years. Given smaller staffs, there's just not enough time to interview every executive. At some outlets, reporters are told they must file a certain number of stories per day. And when they're done with a story, they need to cross-promote it via social media.
- Substack won’t save most reporters. An email newsletter platform designed to enable reporters to turn readers into paying subscribers, Substack has lured dozens of prominent reporters with the claim of a better business model for journalists to control their destiny and make money. Some, like historian Heather Cox Richardson, have thousands of paying subscribers and generate significant money via their Substack newsletter. But it’s not a solution that will scale and save the industry or even help most reporters. For PR professionals, it will mean evaluating new media targets and explaining to clients why a Substack newsletter represents a worthwhile opportunity.