Top journalists make predictions for 2021

Every year, top journalists share what they think is coming. Here are some of their predictions for 2021:

👉 https://www.niemanlab.org/collection/predictions-2021

I love stuff like this. It's a giant dump of experts talking about the future of their field. That makes it a potential goldmine for indie hackers looking to spot trends and opportunities to capitalize on.

I took some notes below on my favorite passages, trends, and predictions.

Nieman Lab

It's worth noting that the source this stuff comes from, Nieman Lab, is itself interesting. It's funded by Harvard, and they describe their mission as "an attempt to help journalism figure out its future in an Internet age."

Basically: They do a lot of work to find out what's happening in journalism, then they publish their findings for free.

Their "Business Models" section seems like particularly useful reading for founders. Want to find out what is and isn't working for journalism? Here you go.

Business Models for Journalism

Like all opinions on (and off) the internet, these are heavily biased and prone to error. It's journalists discussing what they think journalism needs.

So you can't just turn off your brain and accept what they say as the gospel truth. Rather, it's better to treat this as a source of problems to which you can apply some indie hacker analysis.

I occasionally send out this newsletter with my thoughts on indie hacking. Subscribe to get new posts in your inbox. Courtland

My Notes on Predictions

There are over 100 journalist predictions on the page. I read through a handful and skimmed the rest.

1️⃣ First, the obvious themes
  • Politics is dominating the discussion. It's clearly the majority of what journalists are thinking about. At least in the US.
  • On that note, journalists are overwhelmingly left leaning.
  • The biggest political topics are: the spread of misinformation, the erosion of trust in journalism, and promoting diversity in media orgs and news rooms.
  • There's lots of uncertainty about Substack and paid newsletters.
  • Journalists are cheering to see Big Tech broken up, and hopeful it will mean more advertising dollars for the media.

And here are some interesting passages, along with my notes:

2️⃣ Misinformation and Missed Perspectives

For between 15 and 20 hours a week, I moderate misinformation in the comments section of Wall Street Journal articles. Based on the things I read there, I believe our current levels of discord and misinformation could be significantly reduced if people felt their experiences were more accurately reflected in the journalism they are consuming. (source)

  • What do people want to see reported that isn't being reported?
  • Perhaps it's worth perusing the comments sections of some large media orgs.

Also, the case for more diversity in news rooms is strong.

  • A lack of diversity among journalists means many niches don't get the coverage they should, because writers aren't familiar enough to understand or care.
  • This doesn't necessarily mean there's business value here.
  • But anyone working to solve this problem would, at minimum, enjoy good will and support from a great many journalists.

(The same is true of fact checking and stopping the spread of misinformation. The business value isn't obvious, but support is massive.)

3️⃣ Podcasting and Advertising

In podcasting, the download is the King on the chessboard — a useless figurehead and status symbol that must be protected at all costs… On the other hand, the listen-through rate is a true and mighty figurehead whose worth can be strengthened, measured, and influenced over time by creators and business owners. (source)

There's so much focus on helping podcasters and writers find advertisers…

  • …but who's helping advertisers find the right content creators?
  • In podcasting in particular, numbers are opaque, and download counts are often mis-measured and inaccurate.
  • What's the actual reach of a podcast or a newsletter?
  • Do advertisers even care? They probably do.
4️⃣ Social Media and Traditional Media

What do audiences need from us? Not in the macro, but the micro. That new franchise you’re building, that podcast, the video series: Who is it for? What need is it serving? What will the audience do with it? Do they really want it, need it? Or are we just trying to keep their attention long enough for the ad to serve? (source)

Traditional media is just as concerned with engagement and selling ads as social media.

  • Same business model, different methods and technology.
  • At their worst: sensational headlines vs addictive feeds and notifications.
  • At their best: sincere conversations and social connections vs high-quality journalism and well-researched editorial.
  • Are there analogs from successful social media companies that should be back-propagated to traditional media companies?
5️⃣ Interest and Effort

The way readers find information will continue to shift. It’s stressful to articulate an issue and seek out an answer, and I suspect most Americans will want to cut out stress from their lives. And after a year of urgency and chaos, I predict many people will be fine with a low-information diet. (source)

People spend more time consuming infotainment than dense, educational content.

  • This isn't a bad thing so much as it's an inescapable fact of the world.
  • Learning is tiring. I think there are opportunities to make it easier.
  • In news media, Axios burst onto the scene a few years back with a new, concise, internet-inspired format for reporting that's ultra skimmable (example). It seems to be working.
  • What else needs to be re-designed for short attention spans?
6️⃣ New and Old Channels

TikTok will grow exponentially, but news outlets will never be able to harness it beyond brand building. And they shouldn’t! It’s not a social network so much as a boredom cure. The app’s time-agnostic algorithms are the opposite of newsy, but they’re perfect for entertainment purposes. (source)

Not every new channel is worth investing in.

  • Important to understand the mechanics of a new channel, and whether or not it's a match for your business.
  • I see too many people jumping on the hot new thing and spreading themselves thin.

On the flip side, sometimes "old" channels hit their stride in terms of adoption, and become more attractive than ever.

  • I bet more people will "get big" on Twitter in 2021 than in the last few years combined. I'm seeing lots of accounts who are cracking the code to Twitter growth.
  • YouTube is interesting for similar reasons. The startup/entrepreneurship niche on YT is shockingly nascent.
7️⃣ Local News

2021 will be a really good year for the business of local news. Local news is one industry this pandemic did not disrupt. The pandemic shined a light on the need for local journalism and local news outlets will benefit from new relationships residents are building with their local news providers. (source)

What other types of global trends are best delivered through local news? I bet there are stories local news should or could be telling that it isn't. Or ways of telling these stories that would resonate better with younger generations.

But the field is starting to see a different type of collaboration emerge, especially at the local level: collaborations centered on local news organizations’ business sides, focused on the development and strengthening of revenue streams and operations capacity. (source)

Local news is far from dead, and will never go away.

  • But it's tremendously under-resourced, and thus unlikely to enjoy many of the tech benefits that larger news orgs are.
  • How many local news orgs are struggling with their websites, their comment sections, their newsletters, etc.?
  • If you wanted to start a local news org from scratch, what software would you use to get your digital side up-and-running so you can focus more on stories?
  • Perhaps this software doesn't exist?
  • Or perhaps it could use a fresh coat of paint to adapt it to the age of newsletters, podcasts, and solo operators who build media businesses.
8️⃣ Unbundling and Bundling

If media is a cafeteria, there’s no question that this year’s Popular Girl was Substack. It felt like every few weeks, someone new was getting invited to the cool kids’ table… to launch their own screamingly profitable personal newsletters. And while much ink has been spilled over the lucrative new incomes, the unleashed creative potential, and the sweet, sweet uncensored freedom entailed, there’s also been plenty of smart criticism over how the Substack model has most immediately rewarded established those with Twitter megaphones and decades-old followings. (source)

Okay, so lots of less-famous-but-very-talented journalists are struggling to make the jump to independence.

  • They just can't build the same kinds of audiences as famous journalists.
  • What kinds of resources might help them? Coaching, courses, or info products? Audience-building tools?
  • Perhaps new platforms, like a Substack that helps with distribution?

I strongly suspect 2021 will be a year in which we see the rebundling of independent-creator content… It’s one thing to pay $40 or $50 for a single newsletter from a writer you adore. It’s quite another thing to suddenly be faced with a newsroom’s worth of them, all charging more than most of your Hearst or Condé Nast annual subscriptions. (source)

I've been saying this for a few months. People in the creator economy are going indie. When everyone else is indie, there are benefits to joining forces (or providing tools and platforms to help people join forces).

  • It might be interesting to see a publication that bundles together writing from indie journalists with newsletters to help them with distribution.
  • The best newsletters won't have much incentive to join, but the struggling journalists might.
  • In what ways would this be different from starting a traditional media org?
9️⃣ The Upshot

Regardless of what you think about the various predictions and opinions, I think it's clear there's a lot of opportunity here.

More indie hackers should be building in the "content" space.

Not just for other people in tech, but also for people and companies in the media who've been underserved.

Thanks for reading!

I occasionally send out this newsletter with my thoughts on indie hacking. Subscribe to get new posts in your inbox.

  1. 3

    Damn, thank you for sharing this with us Courtland. Your posts (they feel more like articles) never dissapoint.

  2. 2

    "Learning is tiring. I think there are opportunities to make it easier."

    Is anyone aware of sites that make topics easier to learn? I am talking more than just a single tutorial or video series, something that combines all the resources out there to create a curated collection of tutorials, videos, tools, and communities for a specific topic.

  3. 2

    Great read, Courtland. Can you expand a bit on this:

    "YouTube is interesting for similar reasons. The startup/entrepreneurship niche on YT is shockingly nascent."

    I'm going to start a couple of Youtube channel's this year. One focused on being and making it as a creator and one for more general edutainment. Curious to know your thoughts on the opportunity on Youtube. It's something I've wanted to do for a long time and will soon be in a position to start.

    1. 3

      Not too many thoughts on it. I just think it's surprisingly… early. There isn't as much competition in that niche as there really should be on YouTube, given that it's 2021 and YouTube is decades old. It's still a good time to get started there.

      I'd chalk it up to the tech community not taking YouTube and the creator economy seriously until only recently. We've seen it as something we build, but not participate in. That's rapidly changing, but for now, there's still a dearth of tech people making high-quality YouTube videos. They're mostly tweeting, podcasting, blogging, and writing newsletters instead.

      This also might make distribution hard. Are tech hopefuls and aspiring founders even searching YouTube for videos? Only a bit. Might be good to start a bit adjacent, build an audience in a related-but-bigger niche, and slowly pivot over. For example, I think lots of people are trying to learn to code on YouTube.

  4. 2

    This is very valuable stuff.

  5. 1

    Great post mate, thank you very much.

  6. 1

    This feels like it's just what they want based on internal whims and nothing at all to do with reality.

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