2021 in Review: 5 Big Stories in Media & Journalism
At the end of 2020, we looked back at the pandemic’s impact on the media industry throughout the year. As we near the end of another year dealing with COVID-19, we are still feeling some of those same effects.
In January, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism made its own predictions for how media and journalism would adapt to the new normal in 2021. A few of the predictions included:
- Publishers would lean into subscriptions and e-commerce.
- Social media platforms would have to navigate issues of free speech.
- Outlets would disagree over how they should split the money they receive from content licensing deals with tech platforms.
- Traditional ideas of journalistic impartiality and objectivity would be challenged.
Turns out, on these and other predictions for 2021, RISJ just about hit it on the nose.
We’ve looked back through our weekly media news roundups and spotted several trends in the media industry in 2021.
1. Union Wave
2021 was the year of the media and journalism union wave – and it was a largely successful one. The labor movement within the media industry saw record numbers of organizing – close to doubling the number of union drives it saw in 2015, according to Poynter.
Among the reasons for union drives: low pay, few benefits, pay inequity, calls for more diversity, clearer policies and more. “There’s a real concern for the quality of the work — that they be able to have the time and the resources to focus on quality in addition to feeding all of those different platforms,” Mary Cavallaro, chief broadcast officer of the SAG-AFTRA News and Broadcast Department, told Poynter.
Among the big union news from the year:
- More than 650 tech workers at the New York Times unionized in April. They cited pay equity, health care costs, job security, and career advancement as concerns. After repeated clashes with the paper, the union held a half-day walkout.
- Insider staffers formed a union with calls for more transparency, diversity, and support for parents.
- Three NJ-based newspapers, all owned by Gannett, announced the formation of their union in February. They were seeking job security and a more diverse workplace. The move caught on and a few months later, even more NJ papers unionized.
- The union at the 101-year-old Daily News was reborn when more than 80% of newsroom staffers decided to organize.
- MinnPost’s executive director voluntarily recognized the staff’s union in May.
- Digital producers on Gannett’s Atlantic Digital Optimization (DOT) team formed a union that covers employees working on 37 websites across New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland.
- The Atlantic recognized its staff’s union. The union’s mission reads, “We have faith in our leadership, but in a time of upheaval in our industry and nation, we also wish to ensure that all of the staffers who contribute to The Atlantic’s successes are justly rewarded for their labor and free to speak their mind on matters of concern.”
- About 315 MSNBC workers, including producers, bookers, writers, and fact checkers, announced plans to unionize in June. It became official in August after a successful vote of 141-to-58.
- Politico staffers began their union effort over the summer. According to Axios, Politico’s newsroom is one of the largest to have resisted organizing efforts in the past. The union was recognized several weeks later.
But it wasn’t just union moves within media outlets that made the news. Labor became a popular beat in 2021. Major publications expanded their labor coverage, and niche publications like Labor Notes and Strikewave launched.
2. Layoffs + Moves
Unfortunately, the section recapping layoffs has become a regular piece of our annual media news recaps. The pandemic continued to have major impacts on newsroom staffing around the country in 2021.
CJR broke down some of the layoff trends in March. Its tracker map shows where outlets were hit the hardest and visualizes how the crisis is “an upheaval that hurt newsrooms, journalists, and—by straining journalism’s margins—the communities that those newsrooms and journalists are charged to serve.”
Let’s recap a small portion of the year’s cutbacks.
- As a result of the decision to outsource printing of the Tampa Bay Times, 150 jobs were eliminated. The paper also cut full-timers’ pay by 10% for six months.
- Two North Carolina newspapers, both owned by McClatchy, also stopped print production and outsourced it, costing about 80 jobs.
- In February, the Philadelphia Inquirer sold its printing facility for $37M, a decision that resulted in the loss of 500 jobs last October.
- The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) moved its printing operations to Des Moines, impacting more than 30 jobs.
- Baltimore Sun Media’s proposal to outsource its printing could result in 139 lost jobs if the shift happens as planned in January 2022.
- In one of the wildest media stories of the year, Ozy Media’s stunning collapse in October resulted in the loss of 75 jobs. But just several days later, CEO Carlos Watson said the outlet would have a “Lazarus moment”
- and wouldn’t shut down after all.
- Bloomberg laid off about 90 employees in February when it restructured in an effort to streamline the editing process.
- In March, Sinclair Broadcast Group announced it would cut its workforce by 5%, which meant hundreds of layoffs across the country.
- Shortly after it was acquired by BuzzFeed, HuffPost was hit with several big bombshells, including nearly 50 layoffs, the departure of two executive editors, and the shuttering of HuffPost Canada.
- WNYC implemented cost-cutting measures that impacted 4% of staff. Among the layoffs was Gothamist’s editor-in-chief John Del Signore.
- Soon after Vice announced another pivot to video, Vice Digital and Refinery29 were hit will fewer than 20 layoffs, including writers and editors.
- In October, The Devil Strip, a “community-owned magazine” in Ohio, shut down without warning that community. The nearly 100 co-owners weren’t made aware of the outlet’s financial struggles or consulted on the decision to shutter the magazine and lay off the staff of nine.
2021 was also a year full of high-profile staffing changes. It seems like journalism’s top jobs were not immune to the “Great Resignation” and turnover is high.
As more vacancies appeared at the top of respected outlets’ mastheads throughout the year, Poynter asked, “Who Will Lead America’s Newsrooms?” Among the exits:
- The year started off with a bang when Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron announced his retirement.
- Former Politico reporters left the outlet to launch Punchbowl News in January.
- Richard Tofel, ProPublica’s first employee and president since 2013, announced his retirement in February.
- After leading the newsroom for the past decade, Stephen J. Adler retired from Reuters News. Alessandra Galloni was named its next editor-in-chief, making her the first woman to lead the news agency in its 170-year history.
According to data released by Pew Research over the summer, U.S. newsroom employment dropped by 26% (a loss of about 30,000 jobs) from 2008 to 2020. Silver lining? Employment at digital-native newsrooms has gone up 144% over that same period.
Here’s hoping this section has a different story to tell at the end of 2022.
On a brighter note, multicultural outlets are seeing a growth spurt. Read more in our look back at the year’s major news in multicultural media.
3. (Still) Figuring out How to Write About COVID-19
This far into the pandemic, there still seems to be a new term every week that journalists are tasked with breaking down for their readers. Reporters need to tell their readers what’s happening with precise language that effectively explains what’s known and what isn’t. And with mis- and disinformation basically considered their own pandemic, journalists had to be hyper-aware of the words they chose when writing about the pandemic this year.
Some of the year’s language challenges included:
Fully Vaccinated: Many of us were vaccinated (at least partially) in the first half of the year and considered ourselves to be “fully vaccinated” once we received our second dose. But when Colin Powell died of complications from COVID-19 in October, that language came into question. Since Powell had not yet received a COVID booster, for which he was eligible, was he really “fully vaccinated”?
Perhaps not surprisingly, Oxford Languages’ 2021 Word of the Year was vax.
Confusing Terminology: For Slate, Josh Kerbel wrote about how we are stuck with linguistic tendencies dating back to the Cold War. Among them is using terms incorrectly or interchanging terms that actually have different meanings. Complicated is different than complex. Prediction is different than anticipation. Kerbel argues that these linguistic habits are “stunting our ability to transform our thinking as demanded by fundamentally new and different strategic circumstances.”
Snowclones: Snowclones are phrases that can be constantly replicated (or cloned) by switching some of the words. Popular examples include “X is the new Y,” “the mother of all X,” or “X in the time of Y.” While they have been described as “phrases for lazy writers,” The Conversation’s David Tizón Couto has a different opinion. He says, “I see snowclones as creative devices that have helped journalists to disguise dramatic changes in a palatable and easy to comprehend template. In this way, they have helped readers to better digest social and economic shock.”
CJR’s Jon Allsop explains, “All of this matters beyond pedantry. Our collective understanding of language informs our collective understanding of the pandemic, which in turn informs how we behave in almost all aspects of our lives.”
So what’s the best approach? The Atlantic’s Ed Yong, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his pandemic reporting, has some advice. He told Discover Magazine that “science writing should be about everything and that everything is a kind of science writing.” He recommends looking at the story with a wider lens and getting more perspectives to help enrich your writing.
Our quarterly AP Style roundups regularly feature rules and reminders for writing about COVID-19.
4. The Media on Social Media
How the media deals with social media was a recurring theme throughout 2021. Whether it was newsrooms suing Big Tech, writing about social media giants, or trying to navigate their own social media guidelines, 2021 had it.
Making Big Tech Pay for Content
Countries introducing bills to force Google and Facebook to pay outlets for their content was a regular occurrence over the year. In February, Google launched its News Showcase product in the U.K., making it the first time the tech giant would pay for news content in the country. Across the world, Australia’s news media bargaining code – which requires digital platforms like Facebook and Google to pay local media outlets and publishers to link to their content in news feeds or search results – was made law at the end of February.
And the trend isn’t over. Canada is preparing to launch its own legislation in 2022, which is expected to bring up to $150M to publishers each year.
And in the U.S., over 200 newspapers are suing Google and Facebook for monopolizing digital ad revenue that would otherwise go to local news.
The Facebook Papers
About half of U.S. adults (53%) say they get news from social media “often” or “sometimes,” according to a Pew Research Center survey. And of the platforms regularly used as a source for news, Facebook tops the list. But Facebook was the one in the news this fall (or really all the time, right?) when 17 news outlets collaborated to analyze thousands of the company’s internal documents and released the Facebook Papers.
Where journalism many times focuses on scoops, “in this particular case, that doesn’t serve the audiences,” Poynter’s Tom Jones says. “When it comes to these groundbreaking stories, the audiences are best served if there is some sort of coordination — mostly because there is just so much.”
Newsrooms’ Social Media Policies
Newsrooms also struggled with social media internally this year. The Associated Press received backlash over the summer for its decision to fire Emily Wilder, a new reporter. The AP said its decision was based on her violation of the company’s social media policy. When staffers signed a letter criticizing the outlet’s lack of communication and arguing that Wilder was instead the target of a smear campaign, the AP said it would review its policies.
Wilder’s firing gave new life to conversations about journalistic objectivity. A recent CJR study found that journalists feel their newsroom’s social media guidance is “unhelpfully ambiguous and unequally enforced.” In particular, women journalists and journalists of color feel they are both unprotected from abuse on social media and singled out for how they use the platforms.
Read our recap of top stories on social media in 2021.
5. The Newsletter Boom
The wave of writers exiting big name publications to create their own newsletters picked up speed during 2020 and has yet to let up. Outlets (and social media platforms) made headlines this year when they launched new products to attract those independent writers and their subscribers.
The year began with Twitter acquiring newsletter platform Revue. Although it took until the fall to really start implementing the tool into Twitter, some of the features make it an appealing one for independent writers.
And over the summer, Facebook announced big name writers like Malala Yousafzai and Malcom Gladwell were joining its independent publishing platform, Bulletin. Writers in the initial test phase received multi-year licensing deals to start their newsletters and build a relationship with readers, according to Axios. The company also said there was $5 million committed for deals with local reporters.
Twenty years after it published its first newsletters, the New York Times announced in August that it would make more than 15 newsletters only available to subscribers. The mix includes current reader favorites like Well and On Tech as well as new Opinion options from writers like Kara Swisher and Peter Coy.
In October, The Atlantic launched a unique plan to bring newsletter writers (and their subscribers) under the company umbrella while remaining semi-independent. The plan seems like a good one for The Atlantic, a site that, like many others, has seen a website traffic slump in a post-Trump world. “Since declining traffic makes it harder to convert new readers into subscribers, anything that brings in new eyeballs — let alone an injection of paying readers — would be welcome,” Recode’s Peter Kafka explains.
Can’t get enough newsletters? These are a few of our favorite media and journalism newsletters.
Another Year Down
It was another year full of ups and downs for the media industry. But despite smaller staffs and a hectic news cycle, journalists continued to put out incredible stories to inform and educate their readers about the world around them.
As we move forward into a new year, members of the media will continue to adjust to this new normal, and we can’t wait to see the innovative storytelling that comes out of it.
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Rocky Parker is the Digital Content Lead at Cision PR Newswire. She works with journalists, bloggers, and content creators to create their targeted newsfeeds from PR Newswire for Journalists. Rocky has also counseled on content writing best practices. Check out her previous posts for Beyond Bylines. In her free time, Rocky can usually be found cooking, binge-watching a new show, or playing with her puppy, Hudson.