How pandemic uncertainty sparked innovation in the media industry

First published at What’s New in Publishing, written by me.

They say necessity is the mother of invention. It’s a truism that can be traced back as far as Plato, who said in The Republic, “Our need will be the real creator.” 

Pretty much anyone who has lived through COVID-19 would trade the last 20 months for, well … just about anything. But decades or even generations from now, historians will dispassionately examine this time not for the devastation it wrought, but for the societal-level transformations that took place in its wake.

The rally for independent local news

With media having its own “Theranos moment” in the form of Ozy Media, one area that is ripe for rejuvenation is local media, a polar opposite to the millennial branded, venture capital-backed media organizations of the 2010’s.

Two organizations that speak directly to rebirth at the local level are LION — Local Independent Online News Publishers — and News Catalyst. When talking about local news, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen said, “When there is no more profit to be won by cutting quality, firing people and raising prices for a (worse) product, the financializers will abandon the franchise and Indy publishers will take root.” 

Like many things in the fallout of the pandemic, it’s not the trajectory that is new, but the velocity of change. Both LION and News Catalyst predate COVID-19, but it was during this trial they announced the Tiny News Collective, an effort to launch 500 new local news organizations within three years. “The project will offer entrepreneurial journalists a tech stack, business training, legal assistance, and back-office services like payroll for around $100 a month.”

In the aftermath of every forest fire is new life, but it can take many seasons before that beauty becomes apparent. The Tiny News Collective is an innovative way to spread the seeds of local independent online news publishers and perhaps it’s an approach that never would have come forth had it not been for Covid. 

Moving from eyeballs to community

Content is still king, but community is queen. In chess, the king is the most important piece, without which you lose the game, but the queen is the most powerful piece and often predicts the winner. Another major transition for the industry is a shift in revenue away from an emphasis on eyeballs and monetizing through ads to direct revenue through community. As we return to our new normal this is a space where we can expect a ton of creative destruction. We see it already at the individual content creator level, with major platforms (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) recognizing that they have to offer creators the means to directly monetize their niche/small audience through Facebook Bulletin and Twitter’s Revue

That this trend is just hitting the major platforms means it’s large enough to take seriously, but still has plenty of room to grow. It’s also possible that it’s just not in the DNA of the algorithmically based platforms to get this right. If that’s true — large media organizations like The New York Times have a chance to finally get one up on their frenemies: the platforms. This also begs the question of how media organizations will navigate the changing power dynamics between their own brand and that of their staff.

Events in the 21st Century 

Events organized by news organizations, once an innovation unto itself, had to be re-thought during Covid. For more than a decade organized in-person quarterly stakeholder meetings with a dozen or so readers in every city they publish. It was an opportunity to get regular, qualitative feedback from readers. In the absence of in-person events CEO Chris Wink said the business publication spun out several virtual versions including AMAs in their public Slack community, more reporter-led virtual chats and several small learning communities. 

Publications across the country like Scalawag Magazine and Radio Ambulante used events not only to connect with readers and provide a service, these events served as sources of revenue too. And of course – the “socially distanced event” is an innovation that only Covid could have spawned. It’s a practice that is actively being refined and defined with journalists sharing tips and tricks through professional slack communities in the hopes that collectively we can create an experience worth virtually attending. It looks very promising as one Poynter article notes “While in-person events went on the shelf, many local news outlets made an impressive shift to virtual, sometimes even ramping up their level of connection to their audience.” 

I do believe the emerging art of virtual events is something that will continue to evolve through 2022 and will be another innovation we can credit to the pandemic.

In conclusion

We started with a truism, so perhaps it’s best to end with one as well. “Every generation thinks it’s the end of the world.” Covid will not be the end of journalism. Just like the biological adaptations that persist through time, the changes that serve journalism best in our “new normal” environment will be the innovations that keep us keeping on.

David Cohn
Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer, Subtext

AboutSubtext is an award-winning conversation platform that connects creators and subscribers through text messaging. By making direct connections with their fans, Subtext hosts have the ability to communicate one on one or at scale free from the toxicity of social platforms and the clutter of email. Subtext customers include INFLCR, Sony Music, Condé Nast, USA Today Network, CNET, and IRONMAN. Subtext is the fourth product spinout from The Alpha Group, a successful incubator for new technology and media properties inside Advance.

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