Forecasts for Journalism in 2021

Ray Garcia
Journalism and Liberty
11 min readJan 4, 2021

--

Advisers from the Center of Journalism & Liberty share their predictions, thoughts and concerns about the year ahead.

As the Center for Journalism & Liberty celebrates the end of its first year, we asked our savvy crew of advisers to share their journalism predictions for 2021. The predictions appear by the source’s association with one of our three advisory boards. Leveraging their professional expertise and insights of a turbulent year, here are some of their responses and posts.

Adviser Richard John
Professor of Journalism at Columbia University

“Platform regulation should be a priority — and section 230 is likely to be on the agenda. Political forums have always been regulated. They are now. Prior to the commercialization of the Internet, the courts, legislative bodies, and civic groups monitored U. S.-based media platforms. Democratic self-government presumes that speech is spatially bounded and temporally limited. And with good reason. Transgressivity is not a norm. Accountability is a necessary precondition for free expression.”

Adviser Ju-Don Marshall
Chief Content Officer at WFAE, NPR (Charlotte, N.C)

“In the coming year, our challenge remains providing fact-based journalism that’s well-received by the public in an environment that has become increasingly intolerant to anything that does not affirm partisan positions. Journalists will have to work extremely hard to re-engage our community members in healthy civic dialogue. There will be some who will opt out of those conversations. My hope is that enough people of diverse backgrounds and ideologies will step forward to lead us back to a place of civil discourse as this country continues to grapple with some of the biggest challenges of our time. It is also my hope that we can reduce the rhetoric regarding the veracity of journalism while encouraging our communities to hold us accountable if we fail to provide the facts and context necessary for them to understand the world around them.”

Adviser Victor Pickard
Professor of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania

“Looking ahead, we must come to terms with the uncomfortable fact that there simply is no business model for local journalism. One might argue that we shouldn’t see journalism as a business to begin with — it is, of course, a public good. But regardless, with the collapse of the 150-year-old advertising revenue model for news — a historical construct that gave us the illusion that journalism should always be a profitable commodity — the market cannot support the local news media that democracy requires. We must find ways to subsidize local journalism via public investments, much like we do for public schools and the postal system.”

Read Pickard’s 2021 prediction for Nieman Lab here.

Adviser Teresa Wippel
Founder and Publisher of MyEdmondsNews

“I see two main challenges for community journalism as we enter 2021: First, can local news organizations — already operating on the margins — survive as the financial impacts of the pandemic to both individuals and businesses become more clear. Will a cut in advertising and subscription dollars push more publications out of business? Second, what type of impacts will ‘government by Zoom’ have on local decision-making, citizen involvement and transparency? What types of shortcuts are being taken because officials are literally operating behind a video screen? What about those citizens who have given up because they can’t figure out the technology? We have taken many emergency measures in 2020, and 2021 is when we will assess the damage.”

Fellow and Academic Adviser Nikki Usher
Professor of Journalism and Communication for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

“All signs point to big tech beginning to get its comeuppance in the U.S. in 2021, perhaps with news publishers benefiting from the smackdown.

The U.S. seems more ready than ever before to bring the gauntlet down on Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Facebook’s impending lawsuit brought by the FTC and 48 state attorneys general is a win, and should be celebrated as such — regardless of what happens, especially given all the dark money and technical campaign support Facebook lavishes on lawmakers.”

Read Usher’s full prediction at Nieman Lab.

Academic Adviser Stephanie Edgerly
Professor of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University

“A key challenge facing us in 2021 will be how to get quality, fact-based information in front of people who are not regular consumers of news. Many individuals have daily media habits that do not involve news consumption and they are not the ideal target audience for many news organizations. As a result, there are important stories — about the safety of vaccinations, about the legitimacy of election outcomes — that do not flow easily toward these people. In its place I worry that rumors, conspiracy theories, doubt, and distrust will take hold. The challenge (and opportunity) in reaching new audience segments is necessary. Especially because, as this year has taught us, we are all in this together. Critical mass for quality information is needed.”

Academic Adviser Ellen Goodman
Professor of Law at Rutgers University

“Trust decay. We’ve put so much stake on transparency and labeling, but it looks like labels don’t do much to slow misinformation. How can we build back trust in authority?”

Goodman is also concerned about:

  • Local news deserts and private-equity decimation of surviving papers
  • Polarization and filter bubbles — “To that end, I wanted to share this and so worry about the ways in which social media furthers filter bubbles NOT only algorithmically, but in the technical affordances it gives us to respond.”

Academic Adviser Jesse Holcomb
Professor of Journalism and Communication at Calvin University

“Taking a moment to think about what could be in store, I recall convening a forecasting exercise about the future of nonprofit journalism… in February. It was the last time I set foot on a plane before COVID-19. Suffice it to say, it’s not easy to see around a corner. Those of us in the room acknowledged the imminent possibility of recession, further assault on a free press, even resource scarcity and its impact on the news business. We did not forecast a global pandemic that would bring the United States to its knees.

But even with the unprecedented curveballs that 2020 threw at us, public service newsrooms — local, national, for-profit and nonprofit — endured. Some shuttered, but many survived. Some shined. In that regard, it was all a bit more predictable than I would have predicted.

Now as I look ahead, where I think all bets are off is in the social platform arena. Not necessarily because of regulatory moves, nor because of internal actions taken by executives and staff. No, I think the most mercurial of all are the billions of people who use these tools. Generational churn, marketplace competition, and consumer preference may well determine Facebook’s future before Washington will. It could happen slowly, or all at once. Not unlike an old house that rots from the inside, languishing, but eventually collapsing on its own weight. Now you see it, now you don’t.”

Read Holcomb’s 2021 prediction for Nieman Lab here.

Academic Adviser Sarah Stonbely
Research Director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair (N.J.) State University

“As there is more than enough bad news to focus on, I will highlight what I think is one of the silver linings of the pandemic that defined 2020, as it relates to journalism. The lockdowns and quarantines that resulted from the coronavirus pandemic have caused an unprecedented reliance on remote working and videoconferencing, as all but the most essential workers (read: underpaid and other service workers) generally worked from home in 2020. As a result, all manner of meetings, conferences, and conversations have migrated online, leading to a massive increase in the use of Zoom, Microsoft, and other video conferencing applications for day-to-day business functions. Journalism and news talk have adapted similarly, as a glance at any cable news program will show.

My hope for journalism is that the newfound comfort with videoconferencing will lead journalists to sources and places they may not have looked before. Observers have long lamented that national news especially is focused on the powerful and the coasts — primarily because they were within reach of journalists in the same social echelons and cities. However with the ease of communication allowed by the ubiquity of videoconferencing, people in more remote locations or in less well-known groups are much more accessible. Journalists should take advantage of this development to broaden the range of people and places in their stories.”

Read Stonbely’s 2021 prediction for Nieman Lab here.

Academic Adviser Shyam Sundar
James. P Jimirro Professor of Media Effects at Penn State

“The major challenge for journalism in 2021 is maintaining interest among news consumers. The news rush we had over the last four years from the Trump administration has raised expectations to such extraordinary levels and so numbed us to scandal that no amount of antics by the Biden government is going to attract us to news, let alone satiate our appetite for news. News organizations will have a difficult time sustaining their audiences and maintaining their relevance. They will have to work harder, just as late-night talk-shows will need to in order to find material that will engage their audience.

The silver lining of the fake news era is that people have become skeptical of clickbait and informal information they receive on social media. This signals an opportunity for legitimate news organizations to step in and correct misinformation. The key is to creatively swoop in on platforms where users are most engaged, which are often social media on their phones, and provide real news in an engaging way.

The last four years have been good for investigative journalism. News organizations went into overdrive with exposés about political and sexual scandals that had far-reaching impact. Citizen journalism, in the form of laypersons wielding video cameras, found its footing. Most of us witnessed first hand the mobilizing power of activism spurred by journalistic revelations. A key challenge going forward is to sustain this momentum and figure out ways to make journalism relevant in the lives of future generations.

I predict that Smart Speakers will come into their own as a primary vehicle for delivering news and public affairs information to consumers, alongside music, information and shopping. Alexa will make radio cool again by essentially replacing radio and offering a much more personalized experience, by listening to her users, even snooping on them, initially raising their privacy concerns but ultimately serving them so well that they will not care anymore.”

Trans-Atlantic Adviser Martin Moore
Director of the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power at King’s College London

“My tuppence worth would be that 2021 is going to be the year democratic governments across the world really start to try and rein in the tech giants. From antitrust action against Google and Facebook in the US, to new legislation to oblige the platforms to take on a ‘duty of care’ in the UK, to two big new pieces of EU legislation — the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act. And there’s more. All this will be a bonanza for policy wonks, but my worry is that with all the horse-trading, back-stabbing, lobbying and lawsuits, the bigger picture — of how we make democracy work better in a digital world, and how we keep independent journalism afloat, will get lost.”

Trans-Atlantic Adviser Johnny Ryan
Senior Fellow for the Irish Council of Civil Liberties

“Journalistic businesses may finally grasp the fundamental truth about the online market in which they operate. The truth is that a publisher of news has one primary asset: its unique audience. Across the world, nearly all news publishers have paid no heed to the fact that technology companies steal their audiences as a matter of routine. News apps generally incorporate components (SDKs) from many companies to do things like show videos, maps, share buttons, et cetera. News websites incorporate countless technologies over which they have virtually no control. For example, when a person visits a news website it is customary for detailed information about that person to be broadcast to tens or hundreds of other companies in order to solicit bids for the opportunity to show that person and ad. This allows all of the companies that receive this information to target that person at far lower cost on alternative websites. The business of journalism when conducted online has for years inadvertently turned its audience into a commodity, and permitted tech companies large and small to arbitrage that audience. I see the first indications of a change, now, finally. Some publishers in Europe in particular have realised their mortal error. In the Netherlands, a publishing group called NPO removed all third party tracking advertising technology from its websites and apps. Despite a catastrophic advertising market because of COVID-19's impact on the economy, and NPO grew its revenue massively. Other publishers are experimenting too. Perhaps it is too early for optimism, but I hope that 2021 will be the year in which smart publishers kick most technology companies to the curb, and finally protect their audience data.”

Trans-Atlantic Adviser Justin Schlosberg
Senior Lecturer of Journalism and Media at the University of London (Birkbeck)

“For me, the major challenges are twofold. First, there remains a fatal blind spot in conventional media policy thinking which considers the agenda power of tech monopolies vs legacy media as a zero sum game. Far from it, all of the empirical evidence suggests that major algorithms are serving to reinforce the dominance of a small number of major news brands over public conversation. Problems related to both digital disruption (and sustainability in news markets) as well as disinformation are obscured when viewed through this lens.

The second and related challenge is that tech monopolies are increasingly self-regulating for ‘news quality’ in efforts to preempt state regulation. This has already presented serious chilling effects with legitimate independent journalists and press outlets on both sides of the political spectrum (but especially progressives) falling victim to blunt and automated forms of censorship and marginalization.”

CJL Director Jody Brannon

“Expect another tough year for journalism.

Neither dual antitrust lawsuits against Facebook from the FTC and 46 state attorneys general nor the DOJ’s monopoly case against Google will funnel money to news operations in 2021. Wonks and media watchers will tune to C-SPAN, hopeful that legal action will ease the duopoly’s chokehold on ad dollars, but that won’t happen without a prolonged fight. Remember: The Microsoft case spanned nearly a decade. And many journalism outlets can’t survive that long without radical evolution.”

Read Brannon’s full prediction at Nieman Lab.

--

--