News orgs adapt to a post-Trump world (with Trump still in it)

“As fewer users read, watch, and listen to us out of anxious necessity, we will need to make our journalism that much more essential to their lives.”

There will be a vaccination dividend.

When treasury-sucking events or stalemates end, they unleash energy and activity that was thwarted or diverted during the crisis, creating an explosion of all that pent-up creativity, innovation, and economic activity. It happened at the end of the Cold War and was called the Peace Dividend.

In 2021, we can expect a Vaccination Dividend as the world finally gets the Covid-19 crisis under control. How much of the burst of creativity and investment — including in journalism — will come in 2021 and how much in 2022 will depend on a lot of factors: how soon the vaccines can be distributed, how effective they prove to be, how many people get vaccinated, and how much the world — with a new U.S. administration dedicated to global leadership once more — can get its act together to cooperate and coordinate.

But the expanding world economy (likely aided by a return to more normal global trade from trade wars) will be a boon to our industry, like others. It will also be a countervailing force to the Trump Slump that will likely reduce our audiences in the short term.

Trump will be gone. And that will be a seismic shift.

Trump has sown chaos and fear. He has disrupted U.S. institutions so widely and so often that he forced Americans to pay attention to politics. One of the perks of living in a democracy is freedom from politics.

In an authoritarian regime — and I know from covering a few — the political leader demands not just fealty but attention. They plague the thoughts and preoccupations of the governed far beyond the realm of politics, making themselves ubiquitous — whether through portraits in every business, in the old African dictatorships, or through endless tweets and deliberate outrages.

But with Trump no longer in the White House, we can expect U.S. audiences to return to something like the days when most people were not attuned to Twitter — or CNN news alerts. Happily.

That will be a shift for newsrooms. Our audiences can be expected to decline. This will force an expansion of the service and personal journalism that was growing as audiences shrank before Trump hijacked the news cycle. As fewer users read, watch, and listen to us out of anxious necessity, we will need to make our journalism that much more essential to their lives.

Trump will still be with us.

Most of the world never knew Trump before he became a reality TV star, but in New York, we knew him. We knew him as the brash and boastful real estate developer who indulged in hype and aggressive lawsuits. He’ll be much the same without a Resolute Desk to sit behind — only angrier and more aggrieved.

Some journalists and a part of our audience will have a hard time taking their eyes off Trump — in part because he’ll continue to have an impact on the Republican Party. Once COVID-19 is tamed, he may feel like filling stadiums to capacity again. And we will cover it. Because if we don’t, we will be leaving a huge swath of America uncovered, and then we’re not doing our jobs. All told, his post-presidential audience will be smaller than the 74 million people who voted for him, but it will still be tens of millions. That’s enough to affect the fortunes of Republican primary candidates, if not the agenda of the Biden administration — and it may be both.

Content will be king queen.

No one would have predicted a year ago that news organizations that had debated for decades whether the b in Black should be capitalized would make the decision almost overnight to do it. But that happened in 2020.

I don’t think we’ll see “she” replace “he” as the so-called generic pronoun just yet — but I expect more journalists will think deliberately about the knee-jerk assumptions that run amuck through our newsrooms and our news stories. I do expect more of an effort to break out of male- and white- and straight-dominated conventions and POVs, whether in language or personnel. The post-BLM, post-George Floyd summer has yielded people of color in real, historic positions of power: most importantly, Rashida Jones at MSNBC.

“Engage. Inform. Delight.” will be more important than ever.

For a while now, I’ve been preaching the power of engaging, informing, and delighting audiences. I stole the last two from my old boss at Twitter. But engagement has become our North Star at CNN this decade. The emphasis is not only on informing and entertaining audiences, but giving them the power to impact their world, whether that means helping others in danger of losing their homes in the coming eviction crisis or helping them envision their role in strengthening our democracy through our weekly interactive series, CITIZEN by CNN: What Next, America? Every media organization has been trying to find ways to be essential in the lives of our audiences. How else to cut through the barrage of cacophonous digital signals assaulting them from the time they wake up until they go to bed — and then some. Only if readers, listeners and viewers feel like they need us, will we be a part of their media diet.

So will HAL.

To continue to create experiences that users feel are essential to their lives, we will all continue to better tailor the experience to the user. At the end of 2020, many of us still provide the same experience to every user — not unlike what the Gutenberg press did: Everybody reads the same thing. Granted, we allow our users to listen, watch, and interact, not just read, but the experience is one size fits all at most news organizations.

More news outlets are using implicit and explicit personalization, but it’s not yet industry-wide — the way your Netflix and Amazon Prime Video or HBO Max experiences are. This year will see the expanded and improved use of AI and machine learning to serve up news experiences based on user habit and desire. What was once considered creepy and invasive will be considered not only normal, but desirable to save users’ precious time and energy.

Born to be live!

We will all endeavor to create more live experiences, whether that means live blogs, live broadcasts, live virtual events, or (once COVID is conquered) live in-person events where audiences can connect IRL to our anchors, correspondents, reporters, editors, and subjects. Part of building a habit is creating a sense of intimate connection. The two best ways to do that may be IRL events and, ironically, audio, with its mystical powers to create a sense of intimacy.

We’ll stream the news.

The biggest media story, arguably, of 2020 was the streaming wars. One of the biggest media stories of 2021 will be what place news should have on streaming platforms.

White takes a holiday.

The news industry had quite a reckoning in 2020. Things that were the subject of, literally, decades-long debates were suddenly open and shut cases — like the B in Black and how we cover race and injustice — thanks to the societal convulsing over 400 years of racial oppression. 2021 will give us some indication whether that paroxysm of social justice will become the new journalistic deontology, or just so much performative inaction. Will more news organizations place BIPOC leaders at the very top? Will more work to recruit and retain journalists of color? Will more commit to being anti-racist organizations? At stake is the feeling of belonging and empowerment of journalists of color — and, even more crucial, potentially larger audiences that don’t currently see themselves or their stories in our work.

Marcus Mabry is vice president of global programming for CNN Digital Worldwide.

There will be a vaccination dividend.

When treasury-sucking events or stalemates end, they unleash energy and activity that was thwarted or diverted during the crisis, creating an explosion of all that pent-up creativity, innovation, and economic activity. It happened at the end of the Cold War and was called the Peace Dividend.

In 2021, we can expect a Vaccination Dividend as the world finally gets the Covid-19 crisis under control. How much of the burst of creativity and investment — including in journalism — will come in 2021 and how much in 2022 will depend on a lot of factors: how soon the vaccines can be distributed, how effective they prove to be, how many people get vaccinated, and how much the world — with a new U.S. administration dedicated to global leadership once more — can get its act together to cooperate and coordinate.

But the expanding world economy (likely aided by a return to more normal global trade from trade wars) will be a boon to our industry, like others. It will also be a countervailing force to the Trump Slump that will likely reduce our audiences in the short term.

Trump will be gone. And that will be a seismic shift.

Trump has sown chaos and fear. He has disrupted U.S. institutions so widely and so often that he forced Americans to pay attention to politics. One of the perks of living in a democracy is freedom from politics.

In an authoritarian regime — and I know from covering a few — the political leader demands not just fealty but attention. They plague the thoughts and preoccupations of the governed far beyond the realm of politics, making themselves ubiquitous — whether through portraits in every business, in the old African dictatorships, or through endless tweets and deliberate outrages.

But with Trump no longer in the White House, we can expect U.S. audiences to return to something like the days when most people were not attuned to Twitter — or CNN news alerts. Happily.

That will be a shift for newsrooms. Our audiences can be expected to decline. This will force an expansion of the service and personal journalism that was growing as audiences shrank before Trump hijacked the news cycle. As fewer users read, watch, and listen to us out of anxious necessity, we will need to make our journalism that much more essential to their lives.

Trump will still be with us.

Most of the world never knew Trump before he became a reality TV star, but in New York, we knew him. We knew him as the brash and boastful real estate developer who indulged in hype and aggressive lawsuits. He’ll be much the same without a Resolute Desk to sit behind — only angrier and more aggrieved.

Some journalists and a part of our audience will have a hard time taking their eyes off Trump — in part because he’ll continue to have an impact on the Republican Party. Once COVID-19 is tamed, he may feel like filling stadiums to capacity again. And we will cover it. Because if we don’t, we will be leaving a huge swath of America uncovered, and then we’re not doing our jobs. All told, his post-presidential audience will be smaller than the 74 million people who voted for him, but it will still be tens of millions. That’s enough to affect the fortunes of Republican primary candidates, if not the agenda of the Biden administration — and it may be both.

Content will be king queen.

No one would have predicted a year ago that news organizations that had debated for decades whether the b in Black should be capitalized would make the decision almost overnight to do it. But that happened in 2020.

I don’t think we’ll see “she” replace “he” as the so-called generic pronoun just yet — but I expect more journalists will think deliberately about the knee-jerk assumptions that run amuck through our newsrooms and our news stories. I do expect more of an effort to break out of male- and white- and straight-dominated conventions and POVs, whether in language or personnel. The post-BLM, post-George Floyd summer has yielded people of color in real, historic positions of power: most importantly, Rashida Jones at MSNBC.

“Engage. Inform. Delight.” will be more important than ever.

For a while now, I’ve been preaching the power of engaging, informing, and delighting audiences. I stole the last two from my old boss at Twitter. But engagement has become our North Star at CNN this decade. The emphasis is not only on informing and entertaining audiences, but giving them the power to impact their world, whether that means helping others in danger of losing their homes in the coming eviction crisis or helping them envision their role in strengthening our democracy through our weekly interactive series, CITIZEN by CNN: What Next, America? Every media organization has been trying to find ways to be essential in the lives of our audiences. How else to cut through the barrage of cacophonous digital signals assaulting them from the time they wake up until they go to bed — and then some. Only if readers, listeners and viewers feel like they need us, will we be a part of their media diet.

So will HAL.

To continue to create experiences that users feel are essential to their lives, we will all continue to better tailor the experience to the user. At the end of 2020, many of us still provide the same experience to every user — not unlike what the Gutenberg press did: Everybody reads the same thing. Granted, we allow our users to listen, watch, and interact, not just read, but the experience is one size fits all at most news organizations.

More news outlets are using implicit and explicit personalization, but it’s not yet industry-wide — the way your Netflix and Amazon Prime Video or HBO Max experiences are. This year will see the expanded and improved use of AI and machine learning to serve up news experiences based on user habit and desire. What was once considered creepy and invasive will be considered not only normal, but desirable to save users’ precious time and energy.

Born to be live!

We will all endeavor to create more live experiences, whether that means live blogs, live broadcasts, live virtual events, or (once COVID is conquered) live in-person events where audiences can connect IRL to our anchors, correspondents, reporters, editors, and subjects. Part of building a habit is creating a sense of intimate connection. The two best ways to do that may be IRL events and, ironically, audio, with its mystical powers to create a sense of intimacy.

We’ll stream the news.

The biggest media story, arguably, of 2020 was the streaming wars. One of the biggest media stories of 2021 will be what place news should have on streaming platforms.

White takes a holiday.

The news industry had quite a reckoning in 2020. Things that were the subject of, literally, decades-long debates were suddenly open and shut cases — like the B in Black and how we cover race and injustice — thanks to the societal convulsing over 400 years of racial oppression. 2021 will give us some indication whether that paroxysm of social justice will become the new journalistic deontology, or just so much performative inaction. Will more news organizations place BIPOC leaders at the very top? Will more work to recruit and retain journalists of color? Will more commit to being anti-racist organizations? At stake is the feeling of belonging and empowerment of journalists of color — and, even more crucial, potentially larger audiences that don’t currently see themselves or their stories in our work.

Marcus Mabry is vice president of global programming for CNN Digital Worldwide.

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