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2021 media predictions: will Substack newsletters evolve to compete with magazines?

Multi-skilled editorial teams, niche as mainstream, new digital formats, audience-driven product development, and Substack newsletters morphing into magazines. These are some of the media predictions experts have slated for 2021.

The US-based Nieman Journalism Lab aims to help journalism “figure out its future in an Internet age”, and each year they ask a group of media experts what they think is ahead for journalism in the coming year. 

The 2021 predictions have been published on a creative and engaging web page layout. There are a lot of predictions – some are relevant to targeted media brands. Some aren’t. I’ve picked out the themes that are worth noting for Australia’s print and digital niche publishers. 

Business first, journalism second 

Don Day, Founder of BoiseDev (a business news website for the US’ Idaho area), says that independent publishers need to focus on the business first, and the journalism second. He argues that sustainable media businesses need to have a mix of skill sets – at the founder/owner level, but also within the editorial team. 

“We’ll need to attract more entrepreneurs into space who have a background in sales, businesses, and marketing,” he says, explaining that these multi-skilled teams will need to pursue diversified revenue streams across advertising, reader revenue, events, and other ideas. 

Niche is best 

Director of the Journalism and Media Lab at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, Tshepo Tshabalala, believes that media organisations need to “go niche, go deep, and serve a community” in 2021 and beyond. 

“The future resilience of the world’s media lies in focusing on niche audiences and verticals. Its success lies in organizations that speak to very specific interests and the need for credible content,” he says. 

To be successful, he says that publishers need an incredibly detailed understanding of their audience, and remain valuable to them – become subject matter experts: “Niche platforms become valuable as they provide more deeper insights on focus areas that larger but broader news organizations are more likely to miss.”

Co-Founder of Opinary Pia Frey agrees: “The era in which every news site covers more or less the same set of topics and stories is over. The challenge now is differentiation and segmentation — the rise of the niche, if you will. The clearer the editorial profile of a particular niche, the higher the potential to build a loyal and paying audience around it.” 

But Tshabalala warns that while deeper audience insights can lead to more revenue opportunities, achieving scale and sustainability when exploring a niche can be challenging. 

RSS feeds will return and new digital media formats will be explored 

Technology critic Sara M Watson believes that the “glory days of blogging” could make a comeback in 2021, fueled in large part by the rise of independent writers making use of the Substack platform. 

She says they just need to land on a viable monetisation strategy that doesn’t involve exploiting user data or advertising – and a way to reach people via RSS feeds that doesn’t include inbox clutter or noisy social feeds. 

Medium writer advocate Kawandeep Virdee believes 2021 will see the demise of the “doomscroll”, with readers and media makers exploring ways to break free of the negative mental health impacts of social media in favour of “media that cares for you”. 

In particular, Virdee believes high-quality zines with a “healthier UX” will be explored. 

“There’s a hunger for media formats that feel more considerate, more consentful, and designed with care. It’s absolutely crucial for our safety and our wellbeing. This next year, we’ll see new formats for news and storytelling adopting these qualities. I’m excited to see this. My burned-out, screen-fatigued eyes and brain are too.” 

Substack newsletters will morph into magazines

Garance Franke-Ruta (Executive Editor of GEN, a Medium publication) and Nicholas Jackson (Director of Content at Built In) believe that independent writers using Substack will inevitably ‘bundle’ their newsletters together, creating a product similar to magazines. 

“Newsletters will become more magazine-like as the most successful practitioners bring on interns, designers, and even staff writers or contributors, offering more than single-voice value to subscribers,” says Franke-Ruta. 

While Jackson predicts the creation of a magazine product regardless of success level: “When writers can’t make it on their own, they’ll band together…When they want to put out a weekly product but only be responsible for publishing once a month, they’ll find three friends. And it’ll be easier for potential subscribers to justify the expense of a bundle — not just more content, but a diversity of content, and voices, all for one price and under one subscription. It’ll probably look a lot like a magazine, but on the internet. Growing up, we used to call them blogs.

“The primary difference is that these blogs, these magazines, these whatevers, will be built and guided by the individual creators for their audience, not by the executives they once reported to or their shareholders and owners. And that’s interesting.” 

Frey suggests that media organisations could learn from the rise of independent journalists finding success on Substack by hiring subject-matter experts and letting them guide the marketing subscription funnel, creating “personality-centered communities” that may serve as an excellent gateway for advertisers to reach their target audiences.

Deez Links writer Delia Cai believes the Substack model offers a blueprint for media organisations looking to develop reader revenue: “What a relief it is to find that people are finally comfortable – event willing – to pay for relevant and high-quality journalism, especially if it meets a niche that can’t be filled anywhere else, especially when written in voice-y, approachable editions that show up in your inbox like a close friend.” 

Product development should be audience-driven 

Cory Haik (Chief Digital officer at Vice Media Group) and Nico Gendron (Audience Interaction Producer for The Wall Street Journal) see deeper audience engagement as critical for publishers to develop and refine their products in 2021. 

Haik says that media organisations should aim to be essential for their audience. “So I ask the practical and existential question: 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? These are the questions we need to be asking so that our content — how we serve our audiences — can steer our strategy.

“I believe 2021 will be (should be) the year we embrace audiences of all shapes and sizes and work to produce work that fits their needs — as opposed to chasing as many people as we can to pay attention.” 

Gendron agrees, outlining that her job focuses on facilitating the creation of content that solves a problem for WSJ readers – not just reporting on it. She asks: “If tech products can consistently serve their users this way, why can’t journalism?..Newsrooms should commit to having community managers who can close the feedback loop between a community’s needs and the corresponding service journalism.” 

To read all the NiemenLab 2021 journalism predictions, visit their website. 

Written by Lyndsie Clark

Targeted Media Services Network Founder and Editor Lyndsie Clark has over 12 years of niche publishing experience, working in a variety of roles spanning B2B editorial, sales, operations, events, BD, and management.

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