Last week, Axios shared fresh data illustrating how engagement with news content plummeted in 2021 compared to the previous year. With the ongoing decline in interest in news about COVID-19 and lack of political urgency in a non-general-election year, the outlook for this year doesn’t look that promising. What happened?

The "Great Reshuffle" Started in 2021 - Politics Was Out, Sports Was In

Without the enormity of the 2020 general election, partisan news outlets saw a sizable drop in engagement in 2021. To this, Axios pointed out that “the Trump era and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic created a one-of-a-kind media moment that will be hard for news companies to replicate.”

Axios noted that fewer singular storylines captured America's collective attention - but this wasn't the case for sports. With strong sports seasons in large markets like New York and Los Angeles, sports leagues continued to grab a larger share of media attention.  It also helped that MLB baseball returned to a full season, the Olympics finally kicked off in Tokyo and that there was an uninterrupted NBA season following the NBA bubble postseason. 

Digital Media Couldn’t Live Up to Inflated Valuations in 2021

Digital media companies that touted sky high valuations in the late 2010s saw reality kick in last year. In just the last few months, the SPAC merger IPO for BuzzFeed flopped spectacularly, Ozy Media shuttered, and Group Nine and Vox are merging to consolidate costs and reach (leaving Group Nine’s SPAC efforts behind). It appears that investors suddenly got to look at the numbers behind the valuations that outlets were touting and took action. Digital media companies weren’t bearing the fruits that investors were originally anticipating. AT&T spent 2021 selling off all of their digital media assets, including Discovery and TMZ. Even The Athletic is now selling off to The New York Times

Sticky audience engagement has been a challenge for outlets as businesses reshuffle. While this has been especially true for digital media, notably the new entrants of the 2010s where we’re seeing major M&A activity play out, stats across all forms of media, as Axios also pointed out, highlight these common challenges:

  • “Broadcast viewership was also down for broadcast networks' evening news shows, but the declines weren't as drastic, the Associated Press notes.

  • App downloads for the top 12 mainstream publishers dropped 33%, according to data from Apptopia. Downloads to news apps fell most dramatically during the second half of the year.

  • Engagement on social media with news articles nosedived, according to data from NewsWhip. Interactions (likes, comments, shares) dropped 65% between 2020 and 2021, despite more articles published.

  • Website visits for the top-performing news websites in the U.S. tracked by Similarweb in the first 11 months of 2021 dropped 8%.”

With so much evolution happening across media outlets, “The Great Reshuffle” is playing out across the media industry with so many reporters and editors switching outlets over the past few months. Amidst these shifts, it will be interesting to see how outlets work to retain and engage their audiences.