The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism recently published its eighth annual Digital News Report based on a survey of 75,000 news users in 38 countries across the world. The report presents data that looks at revenue models, levels of trust in media, concerns over misinformation, and, role of social media platforms in dissemination of news. With emerging industry trends and shifting news consumption habits, media houses worldwide need to take a step back and re-imagine the delivery of balanced and fair reporting in the digital age.
Little has changed for digital news subscriptions
Despite the efforts of the news industry, readers have still not warmed up to the idea of paying for online news. It has been observed that paywalls may be affecting user experience and this may put people off news entirely.
Only a handful of countries in the Nordic region (Norway 34%, Sweden 27%) have seen any substantial growth in the number of people willing to pay for news. Even then, people paying for online news rarely go beyond one subscription.
This trend explains why success stories of digital news subscriptions are limited to big national or global brands like The Washington Post. At this rate, local or regional publishers may need to look at alternative revenue models.
‘Subscription fatigue’ is another hurdle that digital publishers are facing in 2019. When given a choice, people prefer to spend their limited budget on entertainment (Netflix/Spotify) rather than news.
This is where bundling can be a beneficial strategy to retain customers. For example, The Times of London offers free access to the Wall Street Journal while the Washington Post bundles cheaper access via Amazon Prime.
Rise of mobile aggregators and move to messaging
Due to the convenience and versatility it offers, it is no surprise that the ubiquitous smartphone is the most preferred device to access news around the world. In the UK, the smartphone is now the main first gateway to news (28%) overtaking TV (27%).
This has been followed by an eventual decline in the number of people accessing news sites directly. Over half of the study’s combined sample (55%) prefer to access news through search engines, social media, or news aggregators. Mobile news aggregators like Apple News and Upday are extremely popular with Apple News in the United States now reaching more iPhone users (27%) than the Washington Post (23%).
With the growth of messaging apps, social communication around news is becoming more private. WhatsApp has become a primary network for discussing and sharing news in non-Western countries like Latin America, South East Asia, Africa, Southern Europe and India.
This trend is alarming because it shows how messaging apps can be used to easily share information at scale, potentially encouraging the spread of misinformation. Misleading Whatsapp forwards have led to several incidences of violence in India and have been used in smear campaigns by politicians in Brazil and South Africa.
At the same time, rise of groups as information distributing channels have allowed publishers to reach their readers directly.
Concerns over misinformation and dwindling trust in media
Trust in news is down 2 percentage points from last year. Polarizing events across the world like Yellow Vest protests (France) and Brexit (UK) have put media objectivity and accuracy to test. More and more readers are growing concerned about misinformation (70% in the UK and 67% in the US 67%).
These factors have led to the emergence of an increasingly vigilant audience that is more critical of the news it encounters and more aware of the information it shares. In the past year, consumers admitted to have refrained from sharing dubious stories on social media. This change in behavior was most evident in countries where concern about misinformation was highest (61% in Brazil & 40% in Taiwan).
Due to their concerns over misinformation, readers are turning to trusted brands which they perceive to be ‘reputable’ (26% worldwide and 40% in the US). This data reflects positively on higher media awareness and digital literacy campaigns but does not bode well for new entrants.
Populism and media
With the changing political landscape of many Western countries, journalists are faced with new dilemmas on satisfying a readership that does not split along traditional left-right lines anymore.
For the longest time, social media and online news have been blamed for the rise of populism. But the survey shows that populists prefer to use television news compared with non-populists and are less likely to prefer online news. However, the populists that are active online are more likely to share and distribute news on social media (especially Facebook) and take part in groups about news and politics.
Looking at rising popularity of alternative and partisan outlets, it looks like established outlets need to start representing minority voices and attitudes or risk losing a chunk of their audience.
News avoidance and an information gap
The survey brought to light the fact that consumers are not satisfied with the kind of news they come across. Almost 32% of the sample said that they actively avoid news because it has a negative effect on their mood (58%) or because they feel powerless to change events. Coverage of news is skewed towards being negative (39%).
Most people said that media does a better job at breaking news than explaining it. Across countries, almost two-thirds feel the media are good at keeping people up to date (62%), but are less good at helping them understand the news (51%). In view of these findings, news formats of explanatory journalism have emerged to solve this gap in information (Vox Media).
Resurgence of audio
Growth of the smartphone combined with omnipresence of voice-activated smart speakers has been driving the popularity of podcasts. More than a third of the sample (36%) said they have consumed at least one podcast over the last month but this rises to half (50%) for those under 35.
The Daily from the New York Times has around 5m daily listeners. The Guardian, Washington Post, Politiken, AftenPosten, The Economist, and the Financial Times are amongst dozens of publishers to have launched daily podcasts in the last year.
This exciting format has led to media houses worldwide investing their resources towards optimizing their content for voice-enabled search. But on closer look we see that numbers for news consumption is dismally low. Consumers primarily use voice-enabled technology to seek functional information about the weather, traffic, etc.
“This year’s report sees the news industry at yet another crossroads.”, the report says. A massive media overhaul is imminent.
The traditional techniques and formats of coverage, business models and news delivery aren’t cutting it anymore. Audiences are growing more aware and are demanding wholesome and inclusive content. They want less negative and more explanatory news which doesn’t just inform them but gives them a detailed insight into issues.
Majority of the younger generation still averse to paying for online news. We are still some way from finding sustainable digital business models for most publishers. It would be wise for publishers to keep experimenting with diversified revenue strategies and to invest in compelling storytelling formats like podcasts.
However, this complete overhaul should not come at the cost of journalistic objectivity as audiences are favoring trusted brands due to a growing concern over misinformation and propaganda.
Though the findings seem dire, they are a necessary wake-up call for digital news publishers. Equipped with data on the success rates of current industry practices and audience expectations, media houses can now prepare for a more sustainable and holistic media landscape that people would be willing to pay to consume.