‘Produce Work That Fits Their Needs’; 2021 Predictions Focus on Being Essential

While none of us has a crystal ball, the journalists and media execs that NiemanLab chooses every year for their predictions usually come pretty close to being right. In the cross-sample I’ve chosen, we are encouraged to think about what worked well in our COVID coverage to apply elsewhere, be essential to our audience, and over-deliver on value.

“Pull out the red pen and start crossing out what’s no longer working,” writes Jacqué Palmer, a senior content strategist focused on newsletters for Gannett, in NiemanLab’s annual Predictions for Journalism 2021. “Do not go into 2021 with the mentality of ‘this is how we’ve always done it.’ This year has shown us that we need to adjust how we serve our audiences.

“Pull all the email data you can for the past three years. If the data is showing you that no one’s reading your sports content in email, pandemic or not, then nix that newsletter. Find out what other channels resonate more with that audience, create a strategy around serving them there, and invite those newsletter subscribers to join you. Do this for all your newsletters. Commit to developing a more intentional strategy around your newsletters that have high engagement, retention and loyalty rates.”

Palmer’s assessment is just one of many excellent entries in this year’s predictions. Here are three more that seem especially on target for us (see them all here):

Take the COVID resources idea into other areas. “When the coronavirus pandemic first hit northern Ohio in early spring, our team at Mahoning Matters poured their efforts into building resources on topics like ordering from local restaurants and educating kids at home, as well as updating a rolling FAQ, writes Mandy Jenkins, general manager of The Compass Experiment at McClatchy and publisher of its two local news sites.” Of course, we saw similar efforts from many SIPA publishers, but then Jenkins goes further: “We took the same approach in compiling our voter guides for November’s election—including content on the issues and candidates on the ballot as well as the basics of how to register to vote. These resources and guides ranked among our most visited stories of the year, serving our regular readers and attracting new ones via social shares and search.”

Don’t chase — build. And build with integrity. “I believe 2021 will be (should be) the year we embrace audiences of all shapes and sizes and work to produce work that fits their needs—as opposed to chasing as many people as we can to pay attention,” writes Cory Haik, chief digital officer at Vice Media Group. “We need to be essential. Here is a non-comprehensive list of some of the things I’m thinking about as I consider the needs of my audience, as opposed to my own business bias in how I serve them:

– Ask your audiences what they need. Talk to real people; be a reporter about it.
– Tell your advertisers what your audiences say they need.
– Community and connection are part of the value proposition of a digital publisher, which can be the opposite of “race for as many eyeballs as possible.”
– People follow people, not brands. Consider how you show up in places where you weren’t really invited (i.e., TikTok).
– Our products should be content-led; we are content companies.
– Dig into the insights and source material. Understand the why and the need being served before launching anything new.”

Deliver more value than expected. “If growing content personalization and the rise of AI were journalism predictions of past years, the prediction for next year goes further—combining both, accelerating personalization to become more comprehensive and integrated,” writes Renée Kaplan, head of digital editorial development of the Financial Times.

“We’ll be developing much more than just the customization of content preferences, combining it with understanding preferred modes of accessing and consuming content. We’ll seek out and leverage every possible kind of behavioral data about our users, trying to understand their day, their seasonal habit shifts, their weekend evenings, their professional aspirations, their families, their holidays—understanding what topics in what formats or devices we need to prioritize for their needs, whether it’s shorter audio briefings in the morning, an email digest of text links on Saturdays, or a customized desktop homepage during working hours.

“The future of news media is one in which we deliver more than what subscribers think they paid for. We compete with not only other similar news media but every kind of frictionless and dynamically adaptive content experience that users get from all the other content apps on their phones. As always—for better or for worse—excellent journalism, even the perfect customized mix of journalism, isn’t enough anymore… We need to learn how to anticipate a specific kind of content need and develop an adapted editorial product for it: the capacity to offer our journalism in a content experience suitable to any (ideally all!) of a user’s needs.”

These four happen to be all from women leaders. Fitting then that the last one I’ll mention is titled, Let’s Normalize Women’s Leadership,” by Errin Haines, editor-at-large at The 19th.

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