When the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism publishes its annual Digital News Report (DNR), it feels a bit like Christmas in June for the media industry.
Now in its tenth year, the DNR surveys span six continents and 46 markets. The report leaves no stone unturned when it comes to emerging digital media trends. The findings are all the more important for the industry in the fight-or-flight mode after the coronavirus pandemic.
It has been a year marked by job cuts, with significant examples including HuffPost UK (where half of its London-based team were let go before the publication was acquired by BuzzFeed).
Elsewhere, print revenue has been in "freefall", with local and national newspapers dropping by an average of 10 per cent each, and free newspapers down by 40 per cent.
The combination of the two has forced the industry to focus on sustainable revenue models. The widespread reaction has broadly been an emphasis on digital subscriptions, with The Telegraph, The Times and The Guardian thriving with subscription and donation-based models.
Unfortunately, heightened interest (and need) for news has not translated into a willingness to pay. Just 8 per cent of Britons pay for their news - a figure pretty much unchanged from last year - which the report attributes to the widespread availability of free content, notably from the BBC.
The UK government’s decision to scrap VAT on e-publications has not proven that impactful, despite it representing a £50m injection to the news industry.
Australia has engaged in a war of attrition with Facebook and Google over the News Bargaining Code where local news publishers are paid for the content that platforms link to.
One positive that came out of the crisis that characterised the past year is that trust - a chief concern throughout the pandemic - has risen by eight percentage points, helped by the audience’s search for accurate covid-19 news.
The caveat is that this still only means that 36 per cent of the British public trust the news overall and this figure is less than where the industry was before the 2016 Brexit referendum.
And speaking of trust, the public keeps on being largely concerned about the spread of misinformation, especially linked to the pandemic. While overall, most people (29 per cent) were worried about the behaviour of politicians, some (11 per cent) were also suspicious of journalists’ role in spreading misinformation.
The Sun ranks amongst the least trusted sources of news with 64 per cent of respondents saying they do not trust the tabloid newspaper. The BBC News comes out on top with 62 per cent saying they trust the public broadcaster, despite the recent Martin Bashir scandal, where the rogue journalist faked documents to secure an interview with Princess Diana in 1995.
The emergence of a new broadcaster GB News, which is a commentary-led news channel spearheaded by former BBC presenter Andrew Neil, raised some eyebrows this year. Fears of US-style partisan shows were largely felt across the industry. However, it is too soon to see what impact this may have on the industry and the public trust in the news.
The bump in interest in TV as a source of news might be in its favour though; 60 per cent of Britons get their news on this medium. That is hardly surprising given lockdown restrictions have meant people have spent much more time indoors. Online remains the first port of call at 74 per cent use; print continues its decline with only 15 per cent of people reading the papers.
Across all the countries, it was clear that "the winner takes it all" trend persists. The big national media brands maintain their dominant position in the market - the New York Times in the US; The Telegraph and The Times in the UK.
Across Europe, our data suggest that consumption of TV news is significantly higher than a year ago. Here's the % using TV for news in 6 European countries:— Reuters Institute (@risj_oxford) June 23, 2021
📚 More #DNR21 figures here https://t.co/D0M0uYlODW pic.twitter.com/SAgzDaDrxQ
This is especially true when it comes to making people pay for news. Even in countries like Germany, Switzerland and Austria where print papers were traditionally doing well, the circulation is falling and publishers are pushing digital subscription.
But, despite the pandemic, some trends did not change. People who subscribe to news are often older, richer and better educated, the report found. And more often than not, people subscribe to one brand only.
"Subscriptions are beginning to work for some publishers but it won’t work for all publishers and most importantly, it won’t work for all consumers," says co-author Rasmus Kleis Nielsen.
"Many people don’t wish to be tied to one or two news sites or apps, others don’t find the product worth the price. Given abundant access to free news, publishers will need to develop compelling options to bundle publications or more ways of paying a smaller amount for limited access for payment to become a mass phenomenon."
The huge challenge of building connections to younger audiences laid bare. 60% of access via social media and search.— Lucy Kueng (@KuengLucy) June 23, 2021
Platforms now deeply entrenched in all stages of news industry value chain@nicnewman #DNR21 pic.twitter.com/aT4rx4K2ry
Social media as a source of news holds more or less steady at 41 per cent. WhatsApp creeps its way into being the third most popular platform, overtaking YouTube. The top six otherwise remains unchanged: Facebook and Twitter making up the top two, Facebook Messenger and Instagram make up the bottom.
Mobile continues to rise in popularity, with 68 per cent of people getting their news this way, doubling in use over a nine-year period. Desktop use remains unchanged at 43 per cent and tablet devices hovering around 24 per cent.
Unsurprisingly, younger audiences use social media as a primary way to access news. TikTok is gaining momentum but the data shows that audiences do not pay much attention to mainstream media or journalists on this platform. Conversely, news accounts are popular on Twitter and Facebook, while YouTube audiences seem to pay as much attention to journalists as to the celebrities and influencers on the video platform.
All in all, the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated digital transformation, as the production, distribution and ad revenue in physical newspapers was severely disrupted. The industry now needs to keep up these efforts and continue to fulfil the digital audience’s needs. Our readers, listeners and viewers value accurate and relevant news stories but we also need to make sure we cover a range of topics and communities.
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