2021 Tech Media Landscape: A New Administration, Virtual Events, a Hybrid Normal and Beyond

What are technology reporters and editors looking for this year?

It’s a question we as communicators ask under even normal circumstances. But as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, and the nation strives to turn the page after a long and contentious election cycle, it’s even more pertinent.

To help frame editorial planning for the coming months, Ketchum convened a panel of technology and business reporters to hear their views directly. Journalists from the New York Times, Mashable, Engadget, DevOps and Tech Republic joined the conversation, which you can view in full here: Technology Media 2021: Trends and Takeaways for Editorial Planning.

Technology Media 2021 - Trends and Takeaways for Editorial Planning

The first headline is that while the calendar may have turned a page, the pandemic has not. COVID-19 remains central to reporting and coverage of just about every topic.

“It’s the story of our age,” said Alan Shimel, founder, CEO and editor-in-chief of MediaOps, which publishes DevOps and several other titles. “Everything is seen through a COVID lens, and I don’t see that changing, maybe not until the end of the year. When you look at what stories get views and buzz and social media attention, it’s all COVID, all the time.”

Sasha Lekach, who covers technology and transportation for Mashable, agrees—to a point: “I think it is COVID all the time, but not explicitly. It’s the effect of COVID and understanding how I can better live in this world.” She noted that Mashable analytics confirm that stories about “utility”—how to set up a home router for better WiFi, what streaming service to buy, how to optimize work-from-home desks—still grab readers’ attention a year into the pandemic.

In general, our panelists remain eager to learn about tech products and services that are creating what Engadget reviews editor Cherlynn Low called the “hybrid normal,” a blending of pre- and post-COVID practices that will redefine how we live and work going forward.

“Our team is interested in products or software and… the human-interest story,” Cherlynn explained. “What is going to stay after the pandemic? Is working from home going to [remain] an OK thing? Are definitions of essential workers going to change forever? Are gig workers going to get paid more? That’s the kind of story we’re going to see in 2021.”

Of course, the Zoom-ification of media briefings has turned the art of pitching and reporting upside-down. That was especially evident at CES 2021 earlier in January, an all-virtual event that struggled to replace the excitement of Las Vegas. Only about 1,900 vendors participated, less than half of a normal CES, and the difference was palpable to our panelists.

“CES can’t really be done virtually,” said John Quain, a contributor to the Technology, Business and Automotive pages of The New York Times. At most CES events, John’s briefings begin as soon as he arrives at the airport, as a vendor will typically arrange to drive him to his hotel, demo-ing as they go. “This year, I couldn’t report on [as many products] because I can’t look at it and I can’t test it virtually.”

Teena Maddox, associate managing editor at TechRepublic, said her 10-person CES reporting team worked long hours covering the product announcements, keynotes and other news. “But everything was just a little harder this year,” she stated, adding that she typically culls through 30 to 50 cool happenings to write her CES recap column. This year? She struggled to find 15.

Turning their attention to the new administration in D.C., the panelists noted that President Biden’s focus on sustainability will be keeping them busy. “Wherever the Biden administration intersects with technology, we’re very interested,” Cherlynn said. “Electric vehicles, infrastructure, the FCC—as long as there’s a technology link, there will be relevance.”

The panelists had differing views on the growing use of Substack and other newsletter platforms as a viable media alternative. “There’s one word for it: churn,” John stated. “I’m already getting Twitter and LinkedIn feeds and 1,000 legitimate emails a day. And now somebody’s going to send me a newsletter? No. I don’t see it taking off.”

Beyond the validity of the financial and audience model, panelists raised concerns about a potential lack of editorial integrity. In many cases, a Substack may be one individual’s passion project, lacking the resources and infrastructure of a traditional news outlet. Cherlynn commented, “I don’t think the general reader is aware that the people [writing on] Substack might not go through the same standards of fact checking as the large media organizations.”

On the other hand, Teena noted that TechRepublic generates more than 20 newsletter titles, and they’re successful. “They do fantastic because they promote our content, and readers opt in,” she explained. “That type of newsletter, on dedicated topics, is a [newsletter] platform that’s still working.”

As our panelists debated these and other topics, it was obvious that one aspect of the tech media world will never change, COVID or not: Reporters are always hungry to learn what’s coming around the corner.

As Sasha noted, “It’s still all about what’s new within our beat. What does the future hold? What’s coming next?”

To gain further insights from Ketchum’s Technology Media 2021: Trends and Takeaways for Editorial Planning webinar, including 2021 editorial planning tips, I invite you to visit this web page.

And, as always, Ketchum’s Technology and Media strategists stand ready to help you navigate the new “hybrid normal” of communications—just reach out.

With a passion for bringing innovative and disruptive ideas and technologies to market, Lisa is a partner and managing director of Ketchum’s Technology Industry. Based in San Francisco, she’s on a permanent quest for the latest technology innovations, the hottest new restaurants, and the perfect glass of cabernet.