Nieman Lab’s predictions for 2021: our top picks

We wish everyone in our Future of News community a happy and healthy new year! With 2020 firmly in our rear view mirrors and a strong belief that 2021 holds a lot of potential for news innovation, we are looking forward to a year full of invigorating discussions and exclusive events for our community. So join us today as we review our top picks from Nieman Lab‘s annual list of predictions from leading media innovators.

Back to basics for newsletters

While some predictions were bearish on newsletters, Jacqué Palmer, senior content strategist focused on newsletters for Gannett, argues newsletters are here to stay. This year publishers have even more reasons to invest in their editorial email strategies, thanks to a 45-to-1 return on investment.

To benefit from this though, publishers will need to start the year with a fresh email strategy: don’t bring any newsletters into the new year that aren’t performing. Review the data and focus on the newsletters that have high engagement, retention and loyalty rates. Going back to basics applies to the format of emails as well, with a focus on simple text and limited images.

Redefine your relationship with your subscriber via the more simple and intimate: plain text. Plain text is where it’s at, my friends.

Jacqué Palmer, senior content strategist focused on newsletters for Gannett

Read the full prediction here.

Bridge print to digital journey with digital editions

This past year accelerated plans for reducing print days at many newspapers. With publishers in countries prevented from printing or delivering the print newspaper, legacy news organisations saw the growing importance of creating digital habits in even their most loyal print readers. Jim Friedlich, CEO of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, believes in 2021 we will see even more stopping of the presses.

While print subscribers today have clear habits, and are willing to pay good money for their print subscriptions, the cost of printing and distributing the newspaper is still high. Following the lead of many European publishers, American newspapers will continue to reduce print days in 2021. To do this successfully will require top level product experiences, strong digital subscriptions, and an open conversation between audiences and publishers. In order to not lose subscribers when cutting print, publishers need to invest in bridge products that will guide print readers in their digital journey. A key bridge product is the digital replica of the newspaper; it’s called a variety of different things from ePaper to digital edition but in its essence, it is a digital experience that is very print-like.

The sooner and more candidly newspapers embrace a future less focused on print, the better. Their readers figured this out years ago.

Jim Friedlich, CEO of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism

Read the full prediction here.

Growing geographical diversity

2020 was the year of Zoom, with everything from Zoom kindergarten to Zoom weddings. At work, it seemed everything turned into Zoom calls and we quickly reached ‘Zoom fatigue‘. But after the initial learning curve, 2021 brings all new possibilities thanks to Zoom. While some news organisations have already taken this as an opportunity to reduce office space or get rid of the newsroom all together, Sarah Stonbely argues in 2021 we can leverage Zoom to achieve more geographically diverse teams, as well as a broader focus on news beyond a few coastal cities where large media organisations are based.

Observers have long lamented that national news, especially, is so focused on a few coastal cities like New York and Washington, where both media companies and power structures are based. But with the distance allowed by ubiquitous videoconferencing, people in more remote locations or with less access to power are now just as accessible as the think tank two subway stops away.

Sarah Stonbely, research director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University

Read the full prediction here.

Platform competition goes local

The relationship between publisher and platform, no matter the platform, is one fraught with often competing needs. Over the years, we have seen more and more publishers prioritise owning the relationship with their audience directly, rather than being at the mercy of the platform. Local publishers especially have distinguished themselves as being the only source of vetted, quality journalism in the community.

Edward Roussel, chief innovation officer for Dow Jones, argues that this will change in 2021. As local newspapers continue to struggle, technology platforms focused on local communities such as Citizen and Nextdoor will swoop in.

The relentless shuttering of local newspapers will continue, but in parallel a handful of tech-savvy mobile apps will raise substantial funding and aggressively close out a process of creative destruction sweeping the industry, opening across all major American cities.

Edward Roussel is the chief innovation officer for Dow Jones

Read the full prediction here.

Carefully designed product experiences for news

In 2020 we spent March seemingly in an endless doomscroll, which quickly took its toll. In a year with more breaking news than most, readers increasingly embraced news experiences that were respectful of their time and mental bandwidth, finding curation a valuable service. Kawandeep Virdee, writer advocate at Medium, believes in 2021 we will develop healthier digital boundaries, and go back to media that is “less demanding”. He believes healthier digital news products will have thoughtful narratives and clear boundaries, with readers choosing how they interact and content requiring clear intention.

In 2021, we’ll wave goodbye to the doomscroll. The scale of the mental health impact of this horrible design will give rise to mounting social pressure on companies to make changes on ethical grounds. 

Kawandeep Virdee, writer advocate at Medium

Read the full prediction here.

Democratisation of subscription success

By now, successful subscription strategies aren’t anything new. However in recent years there has been a theological divide in the news industry: are subscriptions something that only work for national titles or can local media benefit as well? In 2020 the debate evolved as high profile individuals left legacy news organisations to launch personal newsletters, often via Substack. Delia Cai, creator of media newsletter Deez Links, believes this expansion of successful subscription strategies to include individual creators will ultimately benefit the middle: from newer media organisations, to campus newspapers, and local news as well. She cites the success of Substack newsletters as proof of a phenomenon that people are “willing and able to pay for good content”.

What a relief it is to find that people are finally comfortable — even willing — to pay for relevant and high-quality journalism, especially if it meets a niche that can’t be filled anywhere else, especially when written in voice-y, approachable editions that show up in your inbox like a close friend.

Delia Cai, creator of media newsletter Deez Links

Read the full prediction here.

Make sure to subscribe to our Future of News community to keep updated on the latest trends in digital publishing and receive invites to our events this year. Check back next week when we cover the key takeaways from Reuters Institute’s journalism predictions for 2021.

This article was written by Mary-Katharine Phillips, Media Innovation Analyst at Twipe from 2017 – 2021.

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