Another year, another belter of a Reuters Digital News Report. I’ll admit I had my reservations about this year’s study. Thankfully, the C-word was a minor “backdrop”, and we still have the same shrewd insights.
Recap: what is the Reuters Digital News Report?
Led by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, this yearly report gathers global insights into news consumption. It approaches our attitudes to modern-day media, the channels we use, and how the industry can overcome ongoing challenges.
The report has been running since 2012, and I’ve been covering it since 2018. Common themes include waning trust in journalists and politicians, as well as paid versus free news. Funded by online media giants like the BBC and Google, it’s one of the biggest and most respected reports of its kind.
So, how does 2020’s measure up?
The Reuters Digital News Report 2020
This year took a different format. With Zoom calls so prolific nowadays, we had live input from Lauren Williams, editor-in-chief of Vox, and Michael Friedenberg, president of Reuters News. Both contributed to the question and answer section, while Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Institute, led the webinar.
Corona sparks uptake in news
More than 80,000 respondents from 40 global markets took part this year. However, it’s likely we’ll see the long-term impacts of coronavirus in 2021: many were surveyed in January and February, before the pandemic took hold.
Despite this, Nielsen noted an uptake in news from March onward, with the number of daily visitors to BBC news doubling after government shielding measures were announced. This underscores many issues in itself – namely, the role social media has to play. (In Q1, the average reach of social media news grew by five points.)
It would be remiss to overlook the ongoing social tensions in response to George Floyd. As we rounded off the webinar, Williams used her platform to address diversity and honesty in journalism.
Can we trust anybody anymore?
Like 2019 and 2018 before it, trust continues to be a key issue for consumers, who have all but lost their faith in the media:
- Overall trust in news is down to 38 per cent (-4 points)
- In the UK, 28 per cent of us trust the news (-12 points)
- Globally, Facebook is considered the biggest source of misinformation (29 per cent)
- Political polarisation, in particular over issues like George Floyd, the US elections and Brexit, is the main reason for diminishing trust
- 60 per cent of respondents worldwide prefer to read news that has no particular point of view
We return to coronavirus once again. Friedenberg says: “We will look back on this and say this topic has galvanised the conversation on platforms.” As a keen proponent of digital transformation, he adds that the “supply chain of content” has been transformed thanks to social media.
Historically, the supply chain of content has always been about creation and distribution. Somewhere along the line it added verification. But the order should be creation – verification – distribution.
Friedenberg also warns us that opinion often weaves its way into reporting, thereby muddying the truth. We only need to look at a certain president’s tweets to see that in action. It’s no wonder that domestic politicians are seen globally as “most responsible” for misleading information online.
How does this affect the business of news?
If we are so disillusioned with the news, why would we pay for it? Or are we, in fact, so hungry for true facts that we will surrender our cash for accurate reporting?
In a heartening trend for publishers, more of us are paying for news than ever before. Paid news is up by eight percentage points in Norway (to 42), four in the US (to 20), and three in the Netherlands (to 14). Meanwhile, the New York Times has seen a spike in subscriptions, while the Guardian has had more donations during the pandemic.
Sadly, this does cast a light on “information inequality”, whereby people with lower incomes rely on less reliable sources, like social media. This is notable in the US, where 24 per cent of respondents worried about misinformation. By contrast, only nine per cent of us worry in the UK – namely thanks to our free, high-quality publishers like BBC News.
Here’s a quote from one UK respondent that will have journalists biting their nails.
Paid news is too expensive – there’s nothing I couldn’t get for free on Apple News.
How can we convince readers to pay for content?
Once again, media literacy becomes an issue. So few of us are unaware of the dire straits the industry faces. Friedenberg says it is up to publishers to “better market the great work they’re doing”, while Williams warns that “quality news is expensive”. Both agree that we need to have more of a digital focus, looking not just at the content, but the channels and user experience.
It seems we consumers share this view. When asked why they pay for content, 58 per cent of UK and US respondents cited convenience – in particular, how news is packaged, and the digital experience. Furthermore:
- 65 per cent wanted distinctive, valuable content
- 39 per cent of UK and 52 per cent of US consumers wanted to support good journalism.
Others added that a valuable, flexible and ad-free experience would convince them to pay.
As ever, channels were a controversial issue in this year’s report. While podcasts dominated the younger market last year, overall consumption has actually dropped in 2020. The reason? Working from home. Less commuting = less consumption.
The positive is that the few people who are still listening to podcasts are gaining a deeper understanding – a view shared by 50 per cent of us.
Other heartening news is the upward trend in newsletters. Senior research associate Nic Newman notes that these “once low-tech, unfashionable” communications are now imperative for building loyalty.
It’s a view shared by many journalists, including Anna Codrea-Rado, who described newsletters as “intimate” in a recent webinar. “The next step after convincing someone to give you their email address is to let them into your house.” Quite right!
An astonishing 60 per cent of us receive at least one daily general news email. It’s arguably more ethical than news aggregators, which may curate content based on algorithms and our general preferences. Could email be the least partisan form of news distribution?
An honest report
Partisanship continues to chip away at our trust in the media, and so Williams advises that we need to be more honest and diverse in the newsroom. “Impartiality is a myth. Everyone is bringing some part of themselves into the newsroom – it affects our decisions on everything, from headlines to positioning.
To have a global organisation reporting on the global news, we need to have a diverse newsroom.
Friedenberg adds that the world is “looking for semblance of answers” as we become more polarised. Traffic is up by 50 per cent in lockdown, and we need to build a foundation of trust through representative, fact-based journalism.
Naturally, regaining the public trust comes with its own challenges. In the question and answer section, the hosts addressed the obstacles and opportunities of digital transformation.
“Our audience is infinity and time has gone to zero. We need to move towards quality and focus, which is difficult because we’re scaling at levels we’ve never dreamed of, or we need a vertical play to go deeper. We need to build a diversified audience and understand who they are,” says Friedenberg.
Williams adds that Vox’s audiences are very distinct depending on the channel – so it’s up to us as publishers to adapt and create content for each.
A new approach
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. As advertising (for better or worse) funds digital journalism, we need to take a more marketing-led approach. We have ample evidence that people will pay for content, particularly if it stops irrelevant ads.
We also have more digital means than ever to measure interaction. There are analytics, social media, revenue figures and of course, the Reuters Digital News Report. To stay sustainable in 2020 and beyond, we must leverage these means – all while focusing on the core values of facts and quality.
COVID may have thrown the world off-balance, but it’s also a serendipity. With more consumers turning to digital, now is our chance to demonstrate the true value of time-consuming, expensive, but ultimately invaluable journalism.
Are you up for the challenge?