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From diversity to streaming, 2020 was a year of reckoning for media industry

The growth of podcasts and newsletters from prominent voices represents positive change in the news media industry over the past year.
Visiting The Drive-In As Movie Theaters Remain Closed
People watch "Jurassic Park" at the Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre in Wellfleet, Mass., on June 25.Craig F. Walker / The Boston Globe via Getty Images

In a sign of the times, "Wonder Woman 1984" hit the HBO Max streaming platform on Dec. 25, the same day it hit theaters in select markets around the country. The movie scored the highest box office opening of the pandemic era, drawing $16.7 million.

The simultaneous release is a new strategy being employed as the pandemic has forced movie theater closures in many regions of the U.S. and made customers wary about returning to confined spaces where the virus can spread more easily.

While the year was dominated by the effects of the pandemic — and an industry indelibly altered — racial and ideological reckonings at major companies, the growth of audio and an increase in newsletters from prominent voices represent more positive changes in media over the past 12 months.

Streaming hits its stride

As the pandemic forced people to shelter at home, streaming and video-on-demand platforms took advantage of the captive audience and pumped out new shows and movies directly to content-hungry viewers. Given the focus on streaming, Warner Bros. even announced a dramatic new model for its film releases in 2021, which will be available online to subscribers on the same day they hit theaters.

"This was a huge year for streaming video," said Rich Greenfield of media research firm LightShed Partners. "But it's not just Netflix and Disney+ in terms of the surge of demand that happened. It’s also the explosion of time spent watching and playing video games."

Greenfield pointed to one area that suffered during the pandemic, causing a monthslong suspension of professional sports.

"A lot of the casual sports fans are shifting to on-demand entertainment," he said. "This shift in focus is a major risk or theme that came out of 2020."

Podcasting's major moment

Audio has continued to see growth with companies like Spotify and The New York Times announcing acquisitions and major partnerships with figures such as Michelle Obama and Joe Rogan.

"Audio is having its moment. ... There's a ton of great content," Greenfield said. "Everyone is realizing people spend a lot of time with audio. It's something you can do in the background. You can do many things while you're consuming podcasts."

Podcasts have also become a great testing ground for content and the year saw an increase in announcements of hit podcasts being turned into video series.

Yet another newsletter subscription

This year also saw a major boom in subscription newsletters as several prominent journalists cut out the middle man, their prior media outlet affiliations, and flocked to Substack to deliver curated content directly to their followers. The move gives these journalists more control and independence over their newsletters and the ability to monetize their followings.

"Emailed content still really works. It’s a very easy way to consume content," Greenfield said. "Rather than subscribing to a newspaper, you can subscribe to the actual talent itself directly."

A reckoning over diversity

The media industry faced a major reckoning over racism, following broader unrest about the treatment of Black men and people of color by police. Several journalists and executives at major companies stepped down after employees raised the alarm about toxic workplace conditions related to race but also gender and identity.

Among some of the big names affected by this surge of employee activism were Troy Young, who resigned from his role as the president of Hearst’s magazine division following allegations of lewd and sexist comments, and ABC News executive Barbara Fedida, who allegedly used racist language and made insensitive comments.

Outlets like ESPN, Condé Nast, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Refinery29 all faced allegations from employees about workplace culture.

There was also a reckoning over ideological differences after roughly 150 prominent academics, journalists and celebrities signed a letter decrying the rising "intolerance of opposing views," which they said has pervaded American discourse. Two influential conservative voices also publicly announced their resignations from prominent positions over claims of increased illiberalism in America.

More news, more job cuts

With the pandemic, social unrest, raging fires and a presidential election, 2020 generated an abundance of major news stories. But even as there were more stories to cover, newsrooms at both the local and national level faced major cuts.

WarnerMedia, Disney, and NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News, were among the list of media companies that announced layoffs prompted by the financial strain of the pandemic.

While subscription numbers, especially at local papers, increased during the pandemic as people sought out relevant news, local media outlets are still in the midst of a decadeslong economic decline that has led to entire newsrooms being shuttered and those that survive suffering deep staff cuts.

The economic uncertainty also led to a slashing of advertising budgets at many companies and threatened to deal a major blow to the industry. However, digital ad revenue eventually bounced back.