2020: Newsletter driven startups seize the day

What promises to be a monumental year for news worldwide, with Middle East turmoil, U.S. elections, and climate change roiling countries from Australia to Africa, is also shaping up to be one of the most threatening yet for news companies, and journalists. But there is hope for journalism, writes Dave Callaway.

by WAN-IFRA External Contributor | January 16, 2020

Strong-arm politicians in Turkey, Hungary, the Philippines, and even the U.S. threaten media freedoms daily. While in countries such as Mexico the killing of reporters has become almost commonplace, with 10 reported killed in the line of duty last year. Cost-cutting and aggressive attacks from hedge funds on the three largest providers of local news in the U.S., Gannett, Tribune and McClatchy, portend thousands of more lost jobs. While in India the inevitable transition from print to digital is crushing what just a few years ago was a robust national newspaper rivalry.

But journalism is not dying. People read – and need – news more then ever. It is under attack, to be sure. But it’s also enduring the wrenching change many other industries are undergoing as the world becomes more mobile and digital, albeit in more public fashion. In that change, however, lies opportunity.

New media companies find new ways to deliver news

Every generation of journalists in my career of almost 40 years has lamented the loss of the good old days. Yet every one has also spawned new media companies and technologies to replace the lost ones. Think CNN and Sky with 24-hour television news. Bloomberg News in business. ESPN in sports. Politico in politics. All simply found new ways to deliver news, and audiences responded.

In just the last few years, as hundreds of traditional newspapers have cut staff or closed around the world, we’ve seen the rise of Pro Publica in investigative journalism in the US, and Bureau Local in the UK. Kaiser Health News in Healthcare in the US and Bhekisisa in South Africa. The Information on technology in Silicon Valley. Brazil’s JOTA in legal and government. Axios in several verticals, from government to sports.

Indeed, five years go, when I was editor of USA Today in Washington D.C., I would receive seven newspapers on my desk each morning. And scan a dozen websites before 8 am. Today, I read a handful of email newsletters, which together provide just about every relevant new story or podcast on politics, business, sports and my local scene that I require to get through that first cup of coffee.

What these new operations are doing is seizing on how people consume information today – on their phones, through email newsletters, and using audio (also video). They provide their own unique journalism and referrals to stories they don’t have. The reader comes first.

We’ve already cycled through the first two generations of digital news operations since the late 1990s and are well into the third, with some of the recent stars, such as Buzzfeed or Vox, cutting back after sharp growth. In just the last several months, even newer faces have emerged, led by well-known journalists.

Tortoise, the UK provider of long-form journalism, was started by James Harding, former editor of The Times in the UK. The Athletic in sports. Media analyst Ken Doctor is starting The Lookout for local news. And @dotLA in Los Angeles, run by former Wall Street correspondent Joe Bel Bruno.

One of the more promising, and important, news stories of the next 30 years – climate change – is only just starting to be covered aggressively by mainstream media. But several young news organizations have been growing in this space for years. Home Climate News in the UK. Inside Climate News and GreenBiz in the US. in Singapore.

Others will come. I know. I plan to start one myself.

The point is that everyone naturally looks back on the old days with pride and nostalgia, because we already got through them. The future is scary. Make no mistake, not all or even many of those lost newspaper jobs will come back. But journalism, our collective search for truth, and the ability to speak truth to power, is not going anywhere. In fact, it is gearing up for a new world of news consumption, and will be stronger and more important than ever.

Dave Callaway is the immediate past President of the World Editors Forum.

WAN-IFRA External Contributor

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