Our podcast: How 2021 changed journalism

In this episode of our 'Future of Journalism' podcast we look back at the year in journalism and what might be in store for 2022
A firefighting airplane makes a water drop

A firefighting airplane makes a water drop as a wildfire burns near the village of Ellinika, on the island of Evia, Greece, August 8, 2021. REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis

21st December 2021

In many ways, 2021 saw a continuation of the world-changing events that took place in 2020. Far from emerging from COVID-19, deadly waves of the pandemic continued to have a marked impact on livelihoods, economies and health systems worldwide. We also saw an acute focus on the climate crisis, through extreme weather events and the landmark COP26 summit. In this episode of our Future of Journalism podcast we look at how these events and other trends in society and politics have affected how journalism is practised and consumed and how newsrooms are addressing these challenges.

The speakers

Our host is Eduardo Suárez, Head of Editorial

Our guests are:

The podcast

Listen on: Spotify | Apple | Google

The transcript

On hybrid working 

Eduardo: So let’s start with you Federica, 2021 has brought forward discussions and issues around flexibility, and it has also accelerated the shift to remote work, and hybrid work – so you are the lead author of a recent report about these topics, how have news organisations dealt with the inevitable trade-offs throughout this year, is there any interesting examples out there?

Federica: Thanks Eduardo, yes as you mentioned in the Changing Newsrooms report we published in November, we look at the shift from enforced remote to hybrid and flexible working, in those places around the world where it was possible to do in a safe way, of course. And it turns out that many of the leaders surveyed say that there are many organisations that are still really figuring out how to do this hybrid shift, and really re-thinking what the office is for. Among some of the trade-offs, and things to consider when you navigate this is a sort of like balance between flexibility, equity, and operational requirement that this shift requires.

So concretely who and when is in the office, what roles might be more suited to be in the office, and who decides when and how to be in the office. And throughout that, of course, they need to navigate the complexity of the gains that we have seen in efficiency, for example, but things like collaboration and communication has been made much harder, according to our survey respondents, and things like how to run inclusive hybrid meetings. What about proximity bias, the fact that the people who might be in the newsroom in front of their bosses might have some sort of like favourite treatment, even if not a conscious one, by just being – by the virtue of being there and being in person.

Also, making sure that hybrid working does not reinforce disparities; like think of people with childcare responsibilities for example, or caring responsibility in general. Thinking about the added pressure on managers who are the ones left with navigating all of this complexity, so many levels of complexity that will require careful, and very intentional planning from newsroom leaders.

On newsroom diversity 

Eduardo: And of course, it’s not just about the remote and hybrid working, 2021 has been a year of reckoning again for the news industry, in terms of addressing its lack of diversity, in terms of output, the leadership stuff, and yet our survey of leaders suggest that many newsrooms are doing actually nothing to tackle these issues. For any of our listeners working on one of these companies, could you give us any examples of news organisations actually taking useful steps to tackle this diversity problem?

Federica: Of course, as you said, what is clear that there is still a lot to be done on the diversity front, some of the things that our respondents in the survey mentioned is, for example, tracking data on diversity of staff, tracking data on diversity of leadership position, for example, having someone in charge of diversity and inclusive path practise. But having a budget to put behind those things, I think the examples that are interesting from this area is both in terms of like increasing the pipeline, for example, we have a few respondents who mention initiative to try to attract people from less advantaged backgrounds.

And for example, hosting events for students, or young readers from those less advantaged backgrounds to show how the news industry works, and making it look more appealing, and more representative for them as well. But of course, thinking about all the levels of the organisation, companies like Quartz, for example, have turned into a fully remote, and work from everywhere company. And they said in our report, that that helped significantly with increasing, for example, diversity of the candidates that could apply for jobs and really help them increase their performance in terms of diversity. So really thinking about both getting diverse people with diverse backgrounds with – in the door in the first place, but once they are in the company really thinking about how can we have truly inclusive newsrooms and news organisations.

On our new climate journalism network 

Eduardo: Let’s go from diversity to another issue that news outlets are struggling with, and that is climate change. Meera, in early October we launched the Oxford Climate Journalism Network, a project whose goal is to help newsrooms improve their coverage of global warming around the world. You are one of the co-founders of the project, and you’re actually leading the project itself, so how are we going to achieve this goal?

Meera: Hi Eduardo, yeah so, the Oxford Climate Journalism Network is going to create a network of journalists from around the world from key newsrooms, and from key reporting outlets, and the network is designed to give them the skills, the space to discuss, and to learn from experts that were put in front of them through a series of online courses, and also, crucially from each other. And the idea is to create a kind of global knowledge sharing network where the knowledge sharing goes in all directions. And we’re also going to work with senior editors, and key newsroom managers, to figure out how to build newsrooms in order to do the kind of new kind of journalism that we need to report the climate story effectively.

On improving climate coverage 

Eduardo: Because I guess, I mean the question there is what would you say are the main challenges faced in journalism when improving the coverage of this very, very important topic, is it the nature of the topic itself, is it the structure of the newsrooms, or is it also the lack of the literacy of reporters and editors around this issue?

Meera: I think it’s a combination of factors, the key thing is that the climate story is both incredibly immediate, it’s happening outside your window right now, and it’s also very, very long, it’s something that will really unfold over decades. And the news agenda, and newsroom beats are in many ways not quite geared up to report on this, to report on something with tremendous intensity, and to get the attribution correct, for example, to report on the uncertainty, but also to stay on the topic, both in terms of science, and holding policy makers to account, for policies that they’re not going to possibly live to see the full implications of. So this is kind of part of the problem.

And the other issue is several newsrooms are now setting up climate desks, and climate hubs, and this is really vital, and we want to work with them to kind of make sure that everyone has the right skills, and knowledge, but also to really understand that climate reporting is not a separate beat that can be hived off into a corner, that it’s something that effects politics, and sport, and travel, and economics, and social affairs as well.

On important lessons learned 

Eduardo: That is so important, you’re also the Director of our Journalist Fellowship Programme, and you select and host 1,000s of very talented journalists every year, and listen to their conversations here in Oxford, as a former Journalist Fellow myself, I’m curious – I’m really delighted to ask what did you learn from them throughout this very difficult year?

Meera: Absolutely, we learnt so much, the key thing is that connections matter, so we’ve had an in-person fellowship, and people have really made an effort to come to Oxford, wear masks, get vaccinated, and be in the room together, and they have gained a huge amount – we’ve had journalists from Kashmir, from Hong Kong working with journalists from London, and from the United States, and they have all come from, in different ways, very difficult environments, and they’ve gained a lot of solidarity, and a lot of strength in being together.

What we’ve also learnt from journalists is how much courage it requires to be a journalist, and when do you keep your head down and stay out of trouble, and when do you go into battle to get the story out. And it’s a balance that sadly, that too many journalists are having to deal with pretty much every day.

On perceptions of fairness in news coverage 

Eduardo: Thank you Meera, Richard – one of the challenges of this year's Digital News Report explains how different groups perceive how the news media covers them, and some of this has to do with politics, authorisation, or diversity as we discussed before with Federica, which groups feel unfairly treated by the news media, and what can you tell us about the grievances?

Richard: Yeah, so as you mentioned, this is one of the areas that we explored for the first time in our Digital News Report this year. So just as a reminder, this is a survey of news audiences across around 40 different media markets, and what we were looking at was whether people think that people like them are covered fairly, or unfairly by the news media. And because we wanted to go beyond people’s general view of media coverage, we asked more specific questions.

So we asked, for example, whether people think the news media covers people their age fairly, people with their gender fairly, people with their political views fairly, where they’re from fairly, and so on, and so on. And when it comes to age, we found that in most countries people who were aged around 50 are the most likely to think that people their age are covered fairly by the news media, but when we look either side of this, so looking at the older age groups and the younger age groups, we see the figures start to fall.

And in particular, the youngest age group in our data, the 18-24s are in some countries the least likely to think they’re covered fairly. And in a country like the UK, just as one example, the 18-24s are twice as likely to say they’re covered unfairly versus fairly, so a big difference within that group. In some countries, women are less likely to think they’re covered fairly by the news media than men, and this is particularly true for younger women, who again, in some countries are more likely to say they’re covered unfairly versus fairly.

We also saw some interesting differences in around how fair people think the coverage is of where they live, and the patterns vary according to which country you look at, but I can give you a sense of it. So in the UK, people who are further away from London are less likely to think where they live is covered fairly, for example. And you can see a similar pattern in the US too, so if we start at the east and west coast, and then look further inland, people are more likely to say that they’re covered unfairly in that case.

And also, we see a similar pattern again in Germany, where people in the former eastern states are less likely to say that the media covers where they live fairly. And lastly, the other really important factor for these kind of judgements is politics, so political partisans on both the left and the right are typically more likely to say that they’re covered unfairly, compared to people who put themselves in the centre of the political spectrum.

Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that these are people’s perceptions, so we can’t necessarily use the data to learn what we think about the coverage itself because it may or may not be a result of the coverage, it could also just be people’s perceptions. And this is particularly relevant when we think about something like political partisanship because research on the so-called hostile media phenomenon has shown that partisans from different sides can sometimes think that the same coverage is biased against them. But nonetheless, perceptions are still really important, especially as we think about something like trust, for example.

On social media and diversity of news diets 

Eduardo: Talking about politics, I would like to raise one of the articles that you have published this year, along with some of our colleagues, and that’s a piece that suggests that people that you search on social and aggregators have actually more diverse news diets, contrary to what many listeners may expect, and contrary to some of the talk about filter bubbles, and echo-chambers, etc., so how did you reach this conclusion, and what do you make of it?

Richard: Well, and this finding is based on some desktop and laptop web tracking data collected by YouGov in the UK in 2017, and as you mentioned, in line with other research, we found that rather than enclosing users into filter bubbles where algorithmic news recommenders supposedly filter out information that people don’t want to see, or don’t like, we found that social media search engines aggregators, and other similar services are actually more likely to show people news from outlets they wouldn’t normally use.

But ultimately, leaving them with more diverse news diets, and also news diets that are more balanced across different outlets with different editorial lines. And we think this happens in part because if people are left to their own devices when it comes to getting news online, most people don’t have particularly diverse news repertoires, so many people hardly use any online news at all, even if they’re using lots of news offline. But also, outside of platforms people from strong habits where they voluntarily choose to go back to the same websites over, and over again.

But it’s also in part because when people are using social media search engines and aggregators, they really have less direct control over what outlets they come into contact with. So if someone goes to a search engine, for example, and puts in a news query, they often in practise end up clicking on an article from an outlet they wouldn’t normally go to. A process which we’ve called elsewhere automated serendipity, and on social media similar things can happen, but in addition, because many people don’t log on to social media with the specific intention to look for news, they can also be incidentally exposed to news while they’re looking to connect with friends, entertain themselves, or just pass the time.

And of course, this is something that’s particular important for diversity among people who don’t otherwise consume very much news online. That being said, I think it’s also important to stress a couple of points, so first, although people who more often use search engines, social media, and aggregators do not have diets that are more skewed to either the left or the right, they do end up consuming more partisan news from both ends of the political spectrum.

And of course, this is in a sense, is part and parcel of what greater diversity really means. And the second point is that many people who use platforms for news still don’t have particularly diverse news diets that span the full range of what’s available online, they just have more diverse news diets than people who mainly rely on direct access. And just to give you a sense of that, one of the most striking bits of data from this piece of research was that the average number of different news outlets people used over the entire one-month tracking period was just three.

Eduardo: Amazing, I mean I’m not sure our listeners would have guessed that, so yeah, thank you Richard.

On government support for journalism 

Eduardo: Rasmus, we’ve seen some bright spots in 2021, but of course, many news outlets are still going through a rough time financially, and one of the most striking findings from this year’s Digital News Report is that actually most people don’t know about these financial struggles of the news media. Our data also suggests that only a minority support government intervention as a possible solution, so I would like to ask, what do you think this means for public subsidy packages, like the ones that are in place, or being discussed in different countries around the world?

Rasmus: Well, I mean first of all I think we have to be realistic and recognise that industry revenues for news media is declining, and will continue to decline for the foreseeable future, even as some individual titles are doing very well, and the challenges facing the commercial provision of news are particularly acute when it comes to local news, and to news that aims to serve less privileged parts of society. And that of course raises the risk of market failure, and in that situation, I think we really need to sort of be very clear that public policy can make a difference for the better.

A New Deal for Journalism, a recent report from the Forum on Information & Democracy, reviews many of the different policy options that are backed by evidence, ranging from direct, and indirect support for private independent news media, to easing the creation and funding of non-profits, and to public service news. It’s a purely political choice whether we as society, decide to use some of these options, that’s for each of us to make up our own minds about as citizens, whether we think is right, whether we think it’s a good opportunity in the society where we actually live, and the context in which we operate.

But what we can say from research is that if we go by what is currently in place, what policy makers are proposing, and what public opinion research can tell us outside of a handful of unusual countries, it’s not a very popular choice. So take support for private news media, across the 33 markets where we asked the question in the 2021 Digital News Report, it’s just 27 percent who say that they would support the government stepping in to help commercial news organisations that can’t make enough money of their own.

And I think even more acutely, even amongst those who are most worried about the future of the news media, there is little support for government intervention as the solution. And whatever our personal opinions on the matter, I think most of us will be able to understand why much of the public is sceptical of resorting to subsidies for commercial news media. First of all, much of the public doesn’t trust the news media, secondly, many do not feel that the news media respect, represent, and reflect them.

Or they may fear that news media are intertwined with narrow commercial, and/or political interests. And even if they don’t, they may not want their hard-earned tax money handed over to news media that in some cases continue to have double-digit profit margins, even as they cut their newsrooms and pull out of covering the local communities. So, there are a few encouraging developments in the policy front, we are seeing increased scrutiny of competition in the online marketplace, we are seeing a few individual commitments, like the US Federal Government promising 30 million US Dollars in seed funding for the new International Fund for Public Interest Media led by Maria Ressa and Mark Thompson.

But there are also continued attempts to cut public service media, of course, often cheered on by many newspapers, and the fact that most governments have done little, or nothing to help independent news media, even in the depth of the Coronavirus crisis that so clearly illustrated what a crucial role they can play. I think it’s indicative of the limited political appetite for significant public support for journalism. And that’s without even going into how frequently what is presented as support on closer inspection may really turn out to be tools for media capture, long exercised by strategically offering or withholding government advertising to reward and punish, for example.

So while incumbent publishers may be able to ring a few favours out of politicians who still have reason to fear newspapers, of course, politicians who may expect favours in return, I’d be surprised if we see very much a policy change for the better. Of course, hope springs eternal, but I’d encourage most publishers to plan for the future on the assumption that their legacy of revenues will continue to decline, that they have to make their living digitally, and that politicians will do nothing substantial to help them.

On newsroom strategies to stay afloat

Eduardo: Well, speaking about revenues the percentage of people paying for news according to our data is taking off in countries such as the US, or Norway, or Sweden, but progress is either much slower, or non-existent in many other countries, and despite this we are seeing examples of news organisations being successful with reader revenue models in countries as diverse as Slovakia, or South Africa, Spain, Malaysia, Uruguay. Is there any playbook that you see emerging from these success stories, just to end on a more positive note?

Rasmus: I don’t think there is a single playbook, and I hope we won’t see everyone pursuing the same phantom silver bullet or converge on the same business model. For example, I don’t think subscription is likely to work for every publisher, and also, advertising while in decline, I think will continue to be important for many. In terms of reader revenue, I would say the starting point has to be that convincing people to pay for news has to start with actually asking them to do it. And the countries where we’ve seen the most growth in the percentage of people who say they pay for online news are often countries in which, initially a small number of brave publishers committed to the long-term, and over time more and more publishers have, for now, for many years, been building up their subscription business, so it doesn’t happen overnight.

The second thing I’d say is that I think there are at least three common features to those who are doing well in the market that’s characterised by a few winners, and many losers. I’d say good use of editorial talent, investment in tech, and commitment to use of data, good use of editorial talent, by this I mean that they are committed to producing journalism that’s valuable for the people who use it, and distinct from the abundant range of alternatives that people have access to.

Investment in tech, by this I mean that they commit resources to ensure that they deliver a good product experience that are proximate of what people accustomed to platforms come to expect. And commitment to use of data, by this I mean that they continually use hard evidence to evaluate, and refine their aoffers, rather than being guided mostly but gut instinct or changing fashions in industry. Now, I realise it’s one thing to identify features like this, and it’s another entirely to be able to pursue them in practise, and it is a very challenging market, especially for local titles, and importantly for titles that serve some of the least privileged parts of society.

But these, I think, are some of the common features across both the biggest and most visibly successful titles, which are often upmarket national titles like Dagens Nyheter in Sweden, Le Monde in France, or the New York Times in the US, all-in high-income democracies. But also, even more importantly, I think these are common themes, or common features across many of the smaller players and newer entrants, often operating in less affluent, and sometimes more challenging markets. Whether at Dennik N in Slovakia, Malaysiakini, or the Daily Maverick in South Africa.

And in that sense, I hope that publishers elsewhere will both recognise that pay may not be for everyone, but for those who want to pursue it, that it takes time, often years, and does require commitments of the long-term, and that there are some real lessons that have been learned that does involve investing in good use of editorial talent, investing in technology, and a commitment to use data in pursuing one’s business opportunities, and editorial ambitions.

Wishes for 2022 

Eduardo: Thank you Rasmus, before the end of this episode, I’d like you all to make a wish for journalism in 2021, something hopeful, I think we did this last year, let’s see what you would like to see in the new year, let’s start with you Federica.

Federica: I would like to see the newsroom really taking care of their talent, and really running inclusive newsrooms, so really thinking about how to acquire the talent they need, now to nurture it in order to retain it, and having much more empathetic, yet operationally efficient newsrooms with an eye to diversity.

Eduardo: Let’s hope for that, what would you like to see in the new year, Meera?

Meera: Well, Dmitry Muratov and Maria Ressa won the Nobel Peace Prize this year, with a clear call to arms for the protection of journalism, and the safety of journalists, so what I would really like to see is a fundamental shift in society, where we can respect the right of journalists to at least do their jobs without the threat of harm, or worse.

Eduardo: Hopefully, that will be a bit more true in the new year, thank you Meera. Richard, what’s your wish for journalism in 2022?

Richard: Well, last year you asked me this question and I said responsible coverage of the vaccine roll out, and here we are a year later, and this is still my wish, and of course, it applies both in countries that are still in the initial stages, as well as those currently rolling out booster jabs.

Eduardo: I think it’s a great wish, and a very timely one, thank you. And Rasmus, what’s your wish?

Rasmus: I hope that in the profession of journalism that we focus more on the journalism that we want in the future, and less on the journalism we had in the past.

Eduardo: That’s a big wish and hopefully will be a bit more true in 2022, thanks to our research, and thanks to our fellowship and leadership programme. Thank you all for being with us today.