World Digital News Report - 2020

Key takeaways from the Reuters Institute: Digital News Report 2020.
World Digital News Report - 2020

This year’s annual digital news report published by Reuters comes in the midst of a global health pandemic, unparalleled in modern times, and whose economic, political, and social consequences are still unravelling. The report this year which is based on data from six continents and 40 markets, throws light on the key issues that face the industry at a time of unprecedented uncertainty.

The uncertainty and the threat of the pandemic have reinforced the need for reliable, accurate and prompt news that is informative and educative. As the demand for news has risen considerably, so have mediums of news consumption. The mediums that have been: Television news and online sources.

Most important discoveries of 2020:

A point to note is that most of the research was collected before the onset of the virus, however, work carried out in the months since indicates that the crisis would accelerate long-term structural changes towards a more digital, more mobile, and more platform-dominated media environment. Some of the keys findings are as listed:

  • Television news and online sources have seen significant upticks, and more people identify television as their main source of news

  • Consumption of printed newspapers has fallen as lockdowns undermine physical distribution, thereby expediting the shift to an all-digital future

  • The use of online and social media seems to have substantially increased in most countries. Media trust was more than twice the level for social networks, video platforms, or messaging services when it came to information about COVID-19

  • There has also been a significant increase in payment for online news in a number of countries including the United States 20% (+4) and Norway 42% (+8)

  • Across all countries, most people are still not paying for online news, even if some publishers have since reported a ‘coronavirus bump’.

  • Those who subscribe are the distinctiveness and quality of the content. Subscribers believe they are getting better information. However, a large number of people are perfectly content with the news they can access for free and we observe a very high proportion of non-subscribers (40% in the USA and 50% in the UK) who say that nothing could persuade them to pay.

  • Across the six surveyed countries almost a quarter (24%) used WhatsApp to find, discuss, or share news about COVID-19. Around a fifth (18%) joined a support or discussion group with people they didn’t know on either Facebook or WhatsApp specifically to talk about COVID-19 and half (51%) took part in groups with colleagues, friends, or family.

Misinformation and Disinformation

Given the global pandemic, a problem that cannot be overlooked is the inundation of news. The fear and uncertainty lead people to fimble and grope around for information to feel safe and informed. However, this came with the un-ending tug of war between real news and fake news.

More than half (56%) of the sample across 40 countries remains concerned about what is real and fake on the internet when it comes to news. It is perhaps no surprise that people see social media as the biggest source of concern about misinformation (40%), well ahead of news sites (20%), messaging apps like WhatsApp (14%), and search engines such as Google (10%). Concern tends to be highest in parts of the Global South such as Brazil (84%), Kenya (76%), and South Africa (72%) where social media use is high and traditional institutions are often weaker. Lowest levels of concern are in less polarised European countries like the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark.

Changing business models and the growth of paid content

According to the research, the New York Times and the Atlantic are among US publications reporting increases in digital subscriptions while the Guardian has seen a boost to the numbers of contributors.

It’s not yet clear how the coronavirus pandemic will affect payment levels for online news.

The initial surge in news use near the beginning of the crisis led to optimism that an increase in paid subscriptions would soon follow. But at the same time, many people’s finances have been badly affected, meaning they may have to make tough decisions about what they can and cannot afford. All this comes at a time when the stakes for many publishers have never been higher, as print revenues have shrunk during lockdowns, and there’s more and more pressure to bring in money online


Q7a. Have you paid for ONLINE news content, or accessed a paid for ONLINE news service in the last year?
Base: Total sample in each market ≈ 2000.
Q7a. Have you paid for ONLINE news content, or accessed a paid for ONLINE news service in the last year? Base: Total sample in each market ≈ 2000.

Also on the rise is a growing range of publications to which people are prepared to give money. In the United States, 4% now say they donate money to a news organisation, 3% in Norway, and 1% in the UK. The Guardian has one of the most successful donation models of any major brand, with over a million people having contributed in the last year.

Podcasts and the rise of the audio

In the last few years, podcasts have become another important channel for subscribing news and other related information. According to the report, The Daily from the New York Times attracts 2 million listeners a day.

However, it’s interesting to note that during the coronavirus lockdown some podcast listening reportedly fell by up to 20% – a reminder of how integral podcasts have become to commuting habits and other activities outside the home.

According to the survey, news podcasts are most popular with 25–34s (young millennials). Those aged 18–24 are less likely to listen to news podcast but are some of the heaviest consumers of lifestyle and celebrity podcasts as well as true crime.

Dependency on smartphones

A significant piece of information the report concludes is the overarching role of smartphones as a medium of communication. To quote from the report, “Over two-thirds (69%) of people now use the smartphone for newsweekly and, these devices are encouraging the growth of shorter video content via third-party platforms as well as audio content like podcasts. Those who use smartphones as the main device for news are significantly more likely to access news via social networks. Another big change in the last few years has been the growth of Instagram which popularised visual formats like ‘stories’ and short videos via IGTV. Instagram now reaches more than a third (36%) weekly and two-thirds of under-25s (64%). As people spend more time with the network, the role of news has also increased significantly. Instagram reaches 11% across age groups, almost as many as use Twitter for news”.

The looming question

Given all the data, the evolving dynamics in the media industry, the questions that loom around is: How to attract new subscribers? How to retain existing subscribers? Two main strategies the report proposes are:

  1. Price and convenience

  2. Paying to avoid intrusive advertisements


In conclusion, the survey ascertained that the news media were considered to have done a good job in helping ordinary people understand the extent of the crisis (60%), and also in making clear what people can do personally to mitigate the impact (65%). Though some media have in the past been accused of sensationalising stories, on this occasion only a third (32%) think that the media have exaggerated the severity of the situation, though concern was higher in the United States (38%) and Argentina (41%), and amongst those that distrust the media already.