2020 was a crazy year for media – and it wasn’t just the pandemic that turned the world upside down. The past year was full of misinformation scandals, heated ethical discussions, epic failures and unexpected successes. 

It was in 2020 that Trump hit 20,000 fakes shared,  journalists’ identities were hijacked to spread misinformation and someone was actually fired for masturbating on a work Zoom call. 

All of these stories have changed the media world for good (although not always for the better). 

The Fix put together a list of some of the wildest, most painful, and most memorable moments. Hopefully we’ll be able to learn the lessons from one of the most turbulent years in history. 

Isolated: Foreign media ban in Belarus

Where? Belarus

When? August 2020 – December 2020

What happened? 

Belarusian officials cancelled press accreditations for foreign journalists and prohibited Belarusian journalists from working for foreign media. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the state cancelled the accreditation for reporters from Reuters, The Associated Press, AFP, BBC, the German and French public broadcasters ARD and RFI, as well as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

What does it mean for the media world?

The move essentially made working as a journalist illegal for many reporters, with threats of significant fines or even detention. It was one of the worst attacks on freedom of speech in 2020 and an unfortunately largely successful attempt to isolate a whole country from the world. 

Chinese censorship: Silence, then disaster

Where? China

When? January 2020 – now

What happened? 

When the coronavirus outbreak started in the Chinese city of Wuhan, authorities made an effort to silence local media to stop information about the new disease from spreading. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, later several reporters were arrested for trying to uncover the state’s attempts to cover-up the COVID-19 truth. 

Authorities removed people’s posts on social media when the information about COVID-19 leaked to the public. The government also removed local news reports covering the situation in Wuhan. 

Despite lots of twists and turns, the narrative of the Chinese government has never reached actual facts – now officials are pushing the message about the virus originating in Europe or the United States. Media keep being used to spread misinformation.

What does it mean for the media world?

Concealing information can be incredibly dangerous. Chinese censorship undoubtedly significantly contributed to the global pandemic, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths, economic losses and social unrest all over the world.

Media COVID crisis: Mass headcount cuts

Where? Everywhere

When? March-July 2020 (peak)

What happened?

After advertising revenues plummeted many media took drastic decisions on headcount. The Guardian announced the cut of 180 jobs in editorial and commercial blocks. The decision was caused by business challenges stemming from the COVID-19 crisis. 

The editor-in-chief Katharine Viner and the Guardian Media Group chief executive Annette Thomas said that the pandemic had created an “unsustainable financial outlook for the Guardian” with revenues down by more than £25 million on the year’s budget.

The surging levels of job loss hit practically all markets, with the US media market among the hardest hit.. 

Condé Nast, the publisher house that owns such magazines as Vogue, the New Yorker, GQ, Wired and Vanity Fair, fired around 100 staffers in the U.S. due to the impact of the pandemic. At the same time The New York Times cut the jobs of some 68 workers (although they claimed it was due to long-term trends, rather than COVID-linked decline). 

Poynter created a detailed list of all the pandemic-related job cuts in States in 2020 and it is truly drastic.

What does it mean for the media world?

It is just one example of how the pandemic hit the media business. One in five journalists who took part in an ICFJ survey on the impact of the pandemic on media reported that their media’s income was down over 75% since the pandemic began. Many media were closed, or will take months or even years to recover from damages sustained at the height of the pandemic.

More on The Fix: A pandemic of paradoxes: New IMS report on COVID-19’s impact on the media. 

Failed strategy: Quibi’s boom and bust

Where? USA

When? April – October 

What happened? 

Quibi, a mobile video streaming service, shut down a mere six months after its launch. 

Quibi’s founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and Chief Executive Meg Whitman decided to shut down the company to return capital to investors instead of losing more money in a doomed fight to carve out a piece of an increasingly crowded market.

Quibi’s initial strategy of creating high-end content for paid subscriptions was questioned from the beginning, especially given other free alternatives on the market. The company faced challenges from the start – low viewership and a lawsuit from a well-funded competitor. 

Meanwhile, the pandemic gave TikTok a bump (arguably boosted by US President Trump’s fight against the Chinese platform). The rise of the vertical video startup took away Quibi’s last hopes (and confirming its dual horizontal/ vertical format choice was impractical), causing it to close.

What does it mean for the media world?

There is still a future possible for paid video content providers, but not testing ideas with audiences, and carefully incorporating their feedback, is a mortal sin for a media company.

Unexpected success: Diverse revenue streams pay off

Where? USA

When? Full year 2020 

What happened?

OZY, a US-based international digital media company, made $50 million in revenue last year, becoming profitable for the first time in its 7-year history.  Half of the company’s revenue came from multiple TV shows and podcasts. The other half originated from its digital division (mostly branded content and advertising). 

What does it mean for the media world?

As the pandemic hit the world, OZY, just as many other media companies, lost important revenue streams – especially offline events and advertising.  

But apparently keeping eggs in different baskets helps. Diversifying revenue streams made OZY a winner in the media fight against COVID-19 crisis.

More on The Fix: Digital media company OZY becomes profitable amid the pandemic.

Stolen credibility: Journalists’ identities hijacked for fakes

Where? USA

When? January 2020 – January 2021

What happened?

As if there weren’t enough problems, 2020 saw some innovation in creating more credible fake news. Internet trolls started hijacking the identities of well-known trustworthy journalists using their bylines to spread misinformation and fakes.

Joe Gould, a Congress reporter for Defense News, told the press about his identity being used to feed a right-wing meme conspiracy that the incoming Defense Secretary planned to outsource U.S. defence systems to China. Gould learned about it after he received an email from a reader asking if he wrote the story and if it was true. The fake story used both his byline and his photo.

The origin of this underhanded approach is still unknown, but it’s been spreading wildly on Facebook, Instagram and Telegram. 

What does it mean for the media world?

We might be keen on always being true to the facts, but it doesn’t mean there won’t be any fake news spread on our behalf. Digital security is more important than ever. Moreover, fake news is not just the manipulation of facts but, largely, the manipulation of context.

Unforgivable misconduct: New Yorker’s reporter’s Zoom exposure 

Where? USA

When? October 2020

What happened? 

The New Yorker fired its legal expert Jeffrey Toobin after he was caught masturbating during a Zoom video chat with his camera turned on. The call was an election simulation featuring New Yorker all-stars.  At some point Toobin lowered his camera and his colleagues saw him touching his penis. 

The journalist admitted his mistake and apologized to everyone affected by the scandal. “I made an embarrassingly stupid mistake, believing I was off-camera,” Toobin said.

Toobin also works for CNN as a senior legal analyst. CNN spokesperson said Toobin asked for some time off and was granted it.

What does it mean for the media world?

Since the #MeToo movement amplified the voices of victims of sexual assault and harassment, sexual misconduct has finally become unforgivable. The case of a respected reporter paying with his career for, what he claims, was an unintentional mischief shows such behaviours will no longer be tolerated. 

A fakes machine: Trump’s 20 thousand false claims

Where? USA

When? The whole 2020

What happened? 

US’s former president Donald Trump started messing with facts way before 2020. But COVID-19 made the situation worse.

An investigation by The Washington Post found that Trump made more than 20,000 false or misleading claims in just 14 months, hitting the number on July 9, 2020. Those include his statements about the impeachment trial, the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests caused by the death of George Floyd. 

But the ex-US President hasn’t stopped at that, refusing to believe the results of presidential elections and actively using a friendly Fox News Channel, as well as other media, to spread the word.

What does it mean for the media world?

Modern technology made everyone a content producer and a content consumer at the same time, making fact checking everyone’s responsibility. The Trump era proves that media literacy is now a survival skill and has to become an essential part of educational curriculums  across the world.

More on The Fix: After Trump and record elections: what’s next for the news media?

Telegram: Democracy harbour or right-wing resistance?

Where? Belarus, Iran, Hong Kong

When? August 2020 – January 2021

What happened?

Telegram has become a main platform for freedom fighters, as well as a sweet home for world extremists. 

When protests started in Belarus, Iran and Hong Kong, Telegram, a messenger and a publishing platform in one, saved the day by becoming the platform for spreading the truth about the protests amid government crackdowns.

At the same time Telegram also became a platform for extremists and conspiracy theorists. Since Facebook, Twitter and Instagram tightened controls over content on their sites, various radicals migrated to Telegram. The “new users” used it to organise terrorist attacks, spread propaganda and find recruits. 

What does it mean for the media world?

Telegram provides privacy for all and protects freedom fighters and terrorists equally. In the world of media where freedom of speech has always been fought for and never doubted this raises a whole new ethical dilemma – how can we moderate communications without limiting freedom?

More on The Fix: How Telegram harbours far-right groups. / Infographics: How Belarus media move to Telegram.

Admitting defeat: The Correspondent shuts down

Where? The Netherlands (and globally)

When? December 31, 2020 

What happened?

The Correspondent, De Correspondent’s English-language site, shut down after disappointing subscription results, long disputes about failed promises to donors and financial struggles.

De Correspondent, a successful Dutch crowd-funded media outlet announced the launch of a US-based news organization. After a massive crowdfunding campaign bringing some $2.6 million for the new project, the results fell short of donors expectation. (In essence, it was English-language site in the Netherlands with international contributors).

De Correspondent’s founders, Ernst-Jan Pfauth and Rob Wijnberg, at first refused to admit promising to locate their office in the US. They apologized for it, but too late. The pandemic hammered the last nail into the project’s coffin, leading to a projected loss of €900,000 in 2021 on just €1 million in revenue. 

What does it mean for the media world?

As reader revenue based business models keep proving to be among the most sustainable business strategies for media across the world – they are doomed to fail unless the media live up to their promises, making community trust a single most important value. 

Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Unsplash