The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) has published a new report this month (7 January 2021), "Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends and Predictions 2021", that analyses the disruption brought about by the coronavirus pandemic and other major events of the past year.

It pulls in insights from more than 200 industry leaders, including editors and CEOs, with one common finding: 2021 will bring substantial change to the media sector, faster than many had anticipated or planned. Here are some of the main findings.

Paid vs free content: high-quality journalism will accelerate subscriptions

The paid versus free content conversation gained pace in 2020 as some publishers made their covid-19 coverage free while others kept it behind the paywall. What became clear though is that the publications with a subscription or a membership model fared generally better than those who gave their content out for free.

This only highlighted a broader debate about news content monetisation and the report suggests that digital subscriptions will flourish this year. Subscription specialist Zuora reported that media publishing was the second-fastest-growing subscription segment, behind video streaming platforms.

Several news organisations have managed to ride the subscription wave successfully. In the past year, the New York Times added more than a million net digital subscribers, while subscriptions for the Guardian's paid-for apps saw 60 per cent year-on-year growth.

RISJ's senior research associate and the author of the report Nic Newman said that the challenge for the year ahead will be how to retain these subscribers, particularly as people's finances tighten.

"News is riding the subscription wave, but also has to contend with all these other subscriptions that people have," he explains.

RISJ report 2021 - impartiality

Courtesy RISJ

According to the research, people are prepared to pay for independent, trusted journalism which is good news for independent journalists. Entrepreneurial journalism is an area that saw an important growth thanks to services like Substack and Patreon. Although 2020 has seen more independent journalists launch their new brands, they seldom make enough money from publishing alone to sustain their business.

Journalists who master specialist subjects will thrive

Throughout the pandemic, the public has come to appreciate the importance of reliable, carefully sourced information. This has highlighted the vital role of specialist journalists who sourced and correctly explained data from health and medical experts, while visualisation helped translate this data into more digestible graphs and charts.

"As a journalist, it will be more important than ever to be a 'specialist' in something," says Newman. "It could be data journalism, video or podcasting, or it could be a specific subject area like climate change or vaccines." 

Newman added that newsrooms will start placing more value on journalists that “can explain these complex issues to a general public”. 

"There is also a need to go faster in addressing priority subjects around broader environment and technology themes, as well as content for younger audiences," argues Phil Chetwynd, global news director for the AFP News Agency, cited in the report.

AI will help journalists do their jobs better

Journalism is poised to gain from the advances in 5G, wearables, and artificial intelligence (AI) if these are harnessed correctly.

One of the most serious problems journalists are grappling with is information overload and working 24 hours a day because the news cycle never stops.

“AI will augment journalism and enable people to do more through monitoring things they’re interested in but also packaging news more quickly,” says Newman.

AI can notably help with personalisation which is notoriously costly because of the amount of data and trained staff it requires.

With this comes a discussion about fairness and bias in algorithms, which at the end of the day depend on those who create them. Transparency and balancing editorial selection and algorithmic selection will be key.

There is also an agreement in the industry that journalists will have to think beyond the 1000-word article as more formats and channels are becoming available.

With changes in technology, revenue diversification, and reader preferences, 2021 is sure to be a turbulent year for journalists and the stakes for independent, trusted journalism are great but so are the possibilities, concluded Newman.

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