It may be a new year, but many of the challenges facing journalism in 2021 are not new. The question of how to make news pay remains, as do concerns over trust and truth, both of which have been eroded in the digital age.
In the US in particular, the battle to establish facts that can be agreed upon by both sides looks set to continue into the Biden administration, as popular support for Trump and his claims of “fake news” remains.
Adjusting to the pandemic (and then post-pandemic) work culture offers up yet another challenge for news organisations, while finding a sustainable business model for journalism is still top of everyone’s list.
We asked top journalists from the UK and US to respond to the question: “What is the biggest challenge for journalism in 2021 and how are you going to address it?” Their answers set out the key issues facing our industry.
Marty Baron, executive editor at Washington Post:
“The biggest challenge for journalism is that facts aren’t accepted as facts any longer. Societies can’t agree on a common set of facts. We can’t even agree on what constitutes a fact. That’s a challenge for journalism, which traditionally has been an arbiter of fact, relying on expertise, experience, education and, above all, evidence to assess what’s true and what’s false.
“But expertise, experience, education and evidence are now routinely dismissed and denied. This is not only a challenge for journalism. It’s a challenge for democracy itself. What becomes of a democracy when large segments of the public inhabit an alternate reality – more bluntly stated, a world of myths and make-believe?
“It’s hard to know what to do about this, given that today it’s easy – and often rewarding – to disseminate falsehoods and zany conspiracy theories. We can certainly be more transparent, revealing more about how we go about our work. We can puncture stereotypes about ourselves because we are not the caricatures people have made of us.
“Finally, we can work harder to cover people in all corners of society, ensuring that they see themselves, their concerns and their aspirations accurately and sensitively reflected in our journalism. Will that work? I can’t be entirely confident, but I can remain optimistic.”
Roula Khalaf, editor at Financial Times:
“This will be the year of transition from Covid, and the year of uneven global recovery. Some countries will bounce back faster than others, and while some businesses rise from the ashes others will vanish forever.
“An overarching priority for FT journalism will be to continue reporting the Covid story with agenda-setting insight, original reporting and data analysis and to cover how leaders and businesses adjust to the new normal.
“My job in 2021 will be to sustain the effective remote newsroom we built at the start of the pandemic as we face new lockdown restrictions and pressures of prolonged home working for many of our global colleagues.
“The FT newsroom is built on solidarity and team spirit, but also constant innovation. I am confident that our resilience and flexibility will allow us not just to withstand but advance our strategic priorities, including in visual journalism and on diversity, during another disruptive year.”
Greg Williams, editor at Wired UK:
“The challenge for journalism in 2021 will be the same as it’s been since digital transformed the publishing industry: reaching audiences in new ways and finding ways to monetise that.
“At Wired the nature of our content means that we spend our days talking to innovators, founders and business leaders, which means that the team has a strong entrepreneurial outlook.
“At a time when media brands are competing with a firehose of content on a vast array of platforms, combining new initiatives such as newsletters or podcasts while ensuring that you have a clear identity and consistency across all channels is crucial to developing audience loyalty.
“My view is that, while it’s important to engage with as large an audience as possible – particularly on digital channels – the opportunities for growth depend on a core audience of loyal readers who are so invested in the brand that they will buy tickets to events, beauty boxes or access to members programmes.
“And, while affiliate marketing has proved to be a new and profitable avenue for many publications, the foundation of everything, naturally, will be the integrity, quality and authority of the journalism and storytelling. This remains true, whatever the platform. “
Gina Chua, global managing editor at Reuters:
“With the rise of misinformation, the impact of social media and stark political divisions around the world, the erosion of public trust on the news industry will be a significant challenge to address in 2021.
“Fact-based and impartial reporting is more important than ever, and are core principles embedded in Reuters’ values that we remain committed to as we enter the New Year – and as we always have over the last 170 years.
“We’re also continuing to see challenges to a free press worldwide. It is critical that journalists are allowed to report the news in the public interest without fear of harassment or harm, wherever they are.”
David Higgerson, chief audience officer at Reach:
“I think the biggest challenge still facing our industry is how to sustain it, and my worry is that too many people just write off advertising and instead charge towards shouting at readers ‘you must pay for this’ without doing the spade work to explain why people should pay for it.
“In fact, even telling people why they should pay for news is the wrong way of looking at it. If you believe that people will pay for news, you need to focus on making it so indispensable to their lives that it’s second nature to pay for it. The reality in the UK, especially in local news, is that there is yet to be proof people will pay for news in anything like the numbers needed to sustain it at the scale we have at the moment.
“The other risk with saying ‘make people pay for news’ is that it invites a rose-tinted view of the world back into our thinking, harking back to days when people bought a local paper six days a week and read every story, and it was only ever local news and sport which people read. We run the risk of chasing a past which never really existed as we remembered it, and jettison our reach, and engagement, with a larger readership than we’ve ever had.
“I keep hearing that the advertising model is broken, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed – and that’s where the focus should be.”
Emily Wilson, editor at New Scientist:
“The biggest challenge is the same as it’s always been: to follow the facts in a steady manner, without being blown off course by hype, political-posturing, political-pressuring, Twitter storms, downright lies, and all the other noise and fury the world throws at you.
“Our plan therefore is simple: to remain steady, and follow the facts.”
Nicholas Carlson, global editor-in-chief at Insider:
“The biggest challenge for journalism in 2021 is also one for the world: The truth is not dead but it’s been beaten to a pulp by politicians, media personalities, and grifters – all for mere power and profit.
“These are all knowable facts: Climate change is real. The 2020 U.S. Elections were the most secure in history. Systemic racism exists. Covid-19 is killing people. The earth is round. And yet each of those demonstrable truths are somehow considered controversial.
“The challenge for Insider, and newsrooms all over, is to not just be a source of truth in a confusing world – but to investigate the attempted murder of truth in order to hold accountable those who are responsible.”
Lionel Barber, former FT editor (2005-2020):
“We can go further and deeper into understanding how the combination of the pandemic and technology will change the way we work, change economic behaviour and offer great challenges but also opportunities. I think that’s a very fertile area.
“And I also think that while we should hold the government to scrutiny, we should also contribute to a discussion about solutions – and that also applies to Brexit.
“There is a market not for sunshine news, but trying to contribute constructively to a debate and ideas about the future…
“If you look at the following [on Twitter] of people like The Secret Barrister [432,000] or David Allen Green [231,000] these people are writing specialist analysis and commentary in a sober way which is illuminating and they’ve got lots and lots of followers.
“So I think part of the answer is to go deep in certain areas so that your publication has a reputation for having expertise. And if you build around that some interesting voices, people who can write, then I think you’ve got the beginnings of a product that can thrive with quality.”
Nicholas Johnston, editor-in-chief at Axios:
“We’ve seen in polls about the pandemic and the election results that there can be massive gulfs between how people of different political persuasions view the world. A great challenge is creating journalism that can inform both sides to bridge those gaps.
“At Axios we’ll face that challenge by being calm and clinical in our reporting, judicious in our use of social media and as clear as we can be about the facts and why they matter.”
Richard Tofel, president at ProPublica:
“The greatest challenge for the American press in approaching 2021 and the Biden Administration, I think, is how quickly and effectively we can return to coverage of a normal government and more normal politics, and how much we can learn from the extreme abnormality of the last four years.
“One key aspect of this will be to avoid the temptation of distractions offered by Donald Trump from offstage, still tweeting and still influential in Republican politics, under investigation, but no longer with executive authority. But an even greater part will be to turn attention to long-neglected but critical subjects like government effectiveness and accountability…
“So much of our journalism in the last four or five years has been breathless and ephemeral. It is time, I hope, to put some of that aside, and return focus to the most compelling problems we all know our society faces.”
Polly Curtis, managing director at PA Media:
“In 2020, journalists from across the industry rose to an unprecedented challenge. We built whole new systems for reporting the news while telling the biggest story of our lives. The thirst for verified information grew and audiences turned to trusted news brands to guide them through the turmoil brought by the pandemic.
“The challenge for 2021 will be to sustain this excellence as the industry rebuilds for a post-pandemic future.
“At PA Media our mission is to help the news industry to mitigate these pressures and to be its greatest ally. As always, we will focus on providing the fast, fair and accurate multimedia reporting service that our customers rely on.
“We will launch new training products to help support journalists through their careers. We will expand our apprenticeship training programmes in response to unprecedented interest from across the industry, demonstrating that even in these times there continues to be an urgent focus on diversifying newsrooms.
“In 2020 we all had a tough lesson in disruption and change. In 2021, we will continue to make sure that everything we do helps our customers navigate this new world.”
Mark Allen, chairman at Mark Allen Group:
“I do so much hope that I’m wrong but 2021 is going to be a very hard year for journalism. For a start, our ‘industry’ is likely to be decimated with magazines and newspapers closing and journalists made redundant. The talent pool will get smaller.
“Then there is the existential crisis from which journalism will continue to face. The demise of our craft/profession as a result of the phone hacking scandal and the way that it has been undermined by Trump’s ‘fake news’ pronouncements have left it enfeebled. This, coupled with the increasing power of social media, where everyone can be a ‘journalist’, has exacerbated the situation further.
“The standards of newspapers, in particular, but also magazines, will continue to decline as publishers lose faith in print and look to cutting costs.
“There are two positive notes. Firstly, there will be some notable exceptions to the overall downwards spiral. Great journalism will always triumph but it is far less ubiquitous now than it ever has been. Secondly, journalism still commands immense popularity with young people, many of whom are tremendously talented and uncynical.
“The challenge for publishers like me is to give young people a chance. That is where the destiny of journalism finally lies. Surrounded by the detritus of journalism, can we find a place for the up and coming Young Turks? That is the question.”