This year, we asked 12 industry experts and commentators to share their predictions for digital journalism in 2022. In this article, we round up the insights from five of them, and you can read further predictions here.
Apart from one expert who works with CNN, they are all independent consultants and creators. This gives them a unique vantage point as they talk about trends in audience engagement and growth, digital strategy, diversity and inclusion and newsroom leadership. The topics are listed in alphabetical order.
Dmitry Shishkin, independent digital consultant
In 2022, more newsrooms will switch to user needs-centric models of content creation.
Success in digital publishing is to be found at the intersection of two axes: focus and quality. Ignore the former, and you will not be distinctive enough. Ignore the latter, and your pedestrian nature will be found out soon enough. User needs-based content models address both axes. Our product counterparts have understood it about 20 years earlier than the media did, but thankfully we are catching up.
The sooner you identify your audience’s needs and start creating content to specifically satisfy them, the better. It is all about doing it creatively, strategically and consistently.
The beauty of a user needs model is simple: it comes from the audience. It is external, not internal - it challenges newsrooms by reminding them not to preach but to listen, before starting on with their commissioning.
Create content that does something useful for your audience, whether you inform them, or educate them, or connect them to their own place of living.
Niche newsrooms, and B2B publishers are leading the way. Their product-market fit is much easier to find and agree on, and internal singularity of purpose is more achievable. Travel, finance, sport, entrepreneurship, lifestyle, art, local - as long as you identify specific needs, you will be of value, and your ‘focus + quality’ paradigm will be easy to support.
In 2022, ignore user needs at your peril. Ultimately It is about answering a million-dollar question: what will happen in my audience’s lives if our media disappears tomorrow. Many newsrooms will not like the answer.
Corinne Podger, director and principal, The Digital Skills Agency
My prediction is that newsrooms will stop using the word “audience”.
I observe two broad camps of newsrooms: those that actively interact with and consult target audiences about preferred content, formats, and products - and those that still do not. No prizes for guessing which outlets are raising more reader revenue and doing a better job of building trust and public support for independent journalism.
Consider banning the word “audience” from your newsroom, and replacing it with words like “community” and “customers”. Identify and learn to use online and offline methods to research and understand the needs that exist in your community that you can meet with public service journalism.
Look, too, for needs that are best met with a commercial product. Then gauge demand from target customers for that product, to see if they actually want it, and what they would be willing to pay.
Lucy Kung, strategic advisor, board member and author
The shift from generic to specific will gain momentum. More publishers will seek to ‘own’ specific niches that are compelling both to audiences and commercial partners. The obvious candidates – big tech, China, climate, crypto – are pretty much occupied (often by digital pure plays who combine depth with speed and great UX), so newsrooms will need to get creative in terms of identifying the next crop. The game plan is often to spin these up into ‘prosumer’ (think Politico) and B2B offers, but this move is harder than it looks. A prime exponent of this strategy is Axel Springer (purchased Morning Brew in 2020 and Politico in 2021).
Back to scale - but through acquisitions, not via organic growth
2022 will be all about growth. Covid brought a welcome uptick in subscription numbers, but organic growth (that is, in the core business) from here is likely to be hard-won and slow. In response, media companies will seek to buy growth through acquisitions. Vox’s purchase of Group Nine fits this pattern, as does Future’s stellar growth fuelled by acquisitions including Time Inc and Dennis Publishing. The one to watch in this regard in 2022 is The Daily Mail.
Content goes community, activist, advocate
Many newsrooms have discovered that ‘community’ content is a magic bullet, so expect more newsrooms to focus on projects that bring real benefits to the communities they serve. This is about becoming a platform where publishers identify challenges and bring various actors together to solve them. This is an extension of the pivot to readers (the closer you get to audiences, the more you know about the issues that matter most to them). Strategically it also makes sense. This type of ‘active content’ is highly differentiated, builds a visceral link to audiences, and is an area where platforms cannot compete.
Diversity and inclusion
Shirish Kulkarni, journalist, researcher and trainer
To make predictions for the future of journalism, I would have to have some confidence that the industry is willing and able to respond to the systemic problems facing the trade in a rational and ethical way. 25 years in the industry has done little to give me that confidence. I do, however, have some hope that individual people and organisations are doing work that is building momentum for change, showing the wider industry that there is a better and more effective way to tell stories.
Properly engaging with the problem would mean acknowledging that journalism has routinely underrepresented or misrepresented many of our people and communities. It would mean working with those people and communities to create connections, build relationships, and enable them to better tell their own stories. The only way to inspire trust is to do trustworthy things.
It would mean truly understanding that our industry does a terrible job of reflecting the diversity and richness of the people we are here to serve and doing something to fix that rather than making it worse. That would start with working to make our industry less systemically racist, sexist, ableist, transphobic etc. rather than tolerating, creating or working for platforms whose business models are built on (or pander to) hate and discrimination.
That in turn is driving transformation in the established industry. There have been great examples this year, including The Elephant's Trail’s film, "Made in Bury” supported by The Guardian, and the "Is Work Working?" project carried out by The Mirror and ITV News (in partnership with my own employer, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism). These have shown how truly collaborative journalism, created with people with genuine lived expertise can open up new forms of storytelling that engage, inform and inspire in ways that "business as usual" simply cannot or will not.
As I say, I never make predictions, but my fervent hope is that we are at a turning point.
We will see a return to face-to-face journalism conferences and this will exclude diverse voices from journalism discourse, just as the industry has begun making real progress on confronting and fixing its diversity problems.
A true silver lining of the pandemic has been the opening up of international forums and conversations to journalists who normally cannot attend industry events around the world. It has democratised access to knowledge and ideas in an unprecedented way.
This is not the time to push diverse voices and experiences back into the margins. If you are planning a face-to-face event in 2022, decide now how you will make it truly accessible. Choose platforms that will benefit remote attendees as well as people actually in the room. Create online networking opportunities, and invite remote speakers and panelists.
Think about what a successful hybrid version would look like, and build that into your planning and budget from the outset. Commit to being free from manels, whanels and – to coin a term - "fanels", the people fortunate enough to be able to come along in person.
Blathnaid Healy, senior director EMEA, CNN Digital International
Empathetic, collaborative and inclusive newsroom leadership will be essential in 2022 and I predict that we will increasingly see an emphasis on this in the news industry. Candidates will have more choice in what will be an increasingly competitive job market where attracting and retaining top journalistic talent will become more difficult. These leadership essentials can no longer be relegated to soft or discretionary skills. The journalism we publish and the newsrooms we lead depend on them.
More than ever in 2022 recruiting the best and brightest into our teams and organisations will require a mindset akin to that of an A&R (artists and repertoire) person in the music industry – always scouting and searching for potential hires should openings arise, widening personal networks and developing and learning from those entering our industry through mentoring or other means.
I predict an acute need to strongly make the case for journalism as a career choice as adjacent industries become more attractive to those already in our industry and younger generations considering how their work can best impact the societies they live in.
Embedding the right cultural values by investing in learning and development resources – be it coaching or peer-led support structures – will reward organisations. So too will elevating leaders who centre these attributes and inspire the confidence of their teams giving them the grounding to deliver bold and compelling journalism.