University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute recently launched their annual Digital News Report, which delves into the changes in news consumption across 46 markets. It’s a comprehensive report that covers everything from news consumption habits to trust in news, participation in news, household budgets for news, news avoidance, effects of social media platforms on news consumption and many more.
We talked to Nic Newman, the author of the report and Senior Research Associate at the Reuters Institute, about the implications of the report’s findings.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You just shared the Digital News Report, which you’ve published for the 12th time this year. It’s a big report, but can you maybe share some of the highlights and the consistent changes that you’ve observed in the last 12 editions?
The biggest shifts are the decline of traditional media, originally print but increasingly television and traditional flow radio, and the rise of digital. Within digital, we’ve had this inexorable drive towards people choosing aggregators and platforms rather than going directly. And, that nothing seems to slow that down. Some of it is driven by the convenience of platforms, some of it is driven by younger people and new generations coming forward who really have a very different approach to how they find and consume news, much more through platforms, personalized news. One of the things we found in the last couple of years is that the under 25s are really behaving very differently, the so-called Gen Z. And that’s obviously very challenging for traditional media companies.
The other two things from this year’s report specifically, are that within social media, we’re seeing a shift from legacy platforms like Facebook and Twitter towards these more visual, video-based platforms – TikTok, YouTube, Instagram. That’s quite interesting and also worrying for publishers because it’s not the same referral model. Basically, you have to create content for these platforms and there’s no referral back where you can monetize it. So in many cases, there’s no monetization path. And then the other thing is news avoidance. News is making at least some people depressed and anxious and some people are turning away from news for that. The combination of the platform shift, the lack of referral and the news avoidance means that many publishers are reporting declining traffic. That obviously makes the business problems even worse given the economic downturn.
The report shows low levels of trust in media, high levels of news avoidance at 36% across all markets and staggeringly increasing dependence on social media for news consumption, like you said, especially among younger generations. And what I thought was one of the saddest insights from the report; among other reasons people saying that they avoid the news because they don’t want to hear perspectives that they disagree with. What do you think all of these changes in behaviour imply for the future of news media? Is there a different format that needs to happen? Is it about the tone? Is it about the content? Is it all of it? Where do we go from here?
There’s no silver bullet. If you were to sum it up, it’s about making news relevant and engaging to people but doing that not in a way that is purely about getting clicks or driving attention but in a sustainable way. That’s easy to say, very hard to do because you’re in a world of abundant media, where people have so many choices that just getting and then keeping attention is really hard. But I think we are seeing some media companies do that and finding a path through it. A lot of the best-known, upmarket brands have got a loyal audience now. They’ve got a good business model which is based on subscription and that has allowed them to invest in journalism again, because they’re making sufficient recurring revenue to be able to focus on the values rather than the short-term clicks.
The subscription model incentivizes quality and distinctiveness because that’s why people subscribe to something — because it’s different, they can’t get it anywhere else.
We’re also seeing some other success with low-cost alternative models where, again, you can serve a particular niche really well. I’m just giving an example of say — Casey Newton, who’s a Substack [writer], who writes about Silicon Valley, I’m sure, you know. He gives a lot of value to a small but specific group. It’s a different kind of media, but it’s also very successful in terms of making money and sustainability. We do have the building blocks of some of the new ways in which media might be sustainable and independent, but obviously, there’s a lot of examples in the middle where that’s really hard and a lot of pain in the middle, particularly with a lot of redundancies, lay-offs and cutbacks.
When you talk about subscriptions as perhaps a more reliable, future-proof model — when I think of news media outlets now, we see a lot of prominent news outlets are either funded by the government or owned and funded by billionaires. They might have subscriptions and they’re doing well, but without the financial support of billionaires I’m not sure if they would be sustainable. I also read recently that the Democratic Party in the US is now urging their wealthier members to buy local and regional news outlets. I’m wondering, what do you think the impact of ownership is on news consumption and how people perceive news brands?
It’s a good question and, to some extent, it’s always been a problem. We’ve had rich people who’ve tried to influence politics and the shape of society through media for a long time, but there are many examples of where that independence is still very strong. We were talking earlier about some of the upmarket news brands that are doing quite well. Many of them are independent. They’re owned commercially but they’re still independent editorially and they’re not subsidized by a big tech titan or oligarch. That’s particularly the case in places like Nordic countries, where those publications are financially secure and independent.
I think the real issue is in semi-authoritarian countries where, because of the decline in print revenues, many of the traditional media companies have become even more dependent on those with money — powerful businessmen or politicians. In some cases, they’ve just been buying them up directly, and directly controlling them. In other cases they’re doing it through government advertising so effectively, because even though print is going down, the government is still advertising, but they’re only going to advertise with ones who they feel are sensitive to their political interests. Particularly [in] Eastern Europe, places like Turkey.
That’s definitely a big trend: those few rich countries where subscription is working, in other countries it’s really hard because the falling profitability of the media has meant that they’re more open to political and business influence than they were a few years ago.
What do you think the role of technology is in all this? Do you think new social platforms like Artifact can help counter this trend?
No. What we really need is sustainable business models and we need audiences to value news. Many of them have stopped valuing news and that’s not something that journalism on its own can do. That’s also nature of people feeling disconnected from elites and from society. So some of this is out of the hands of journalists. There are obviously practical things that we can do, but generally, a super app that’s suddenly going to solve the problems of journalism — I find that hard. Potentially some platforms could have a business model or a set of values that were more compatible with journalism. That would help.
Up until now, many of the platforms have essentially tried to use the content that’s created in journalism to help build their business and that’s been part of the story of the last 10 years, in terms of platforms.
Maybe there’ll be a platform that emerges, which is not about making millions of pounds for the founders, but actually is interested in the benefits to society. But I don’t really see it.
The structure of platforms is that it’s about venture capitalists getting money back, or it’s about an entrepreneur making a lot of money from an idea that nobody else has thought of. It’s not necessarily about being good for society. If you take Twitter, which fundamentally has provided some kind of public service… it’s never made money. Particularly because real-time news doesn’t really make money. But we have Wikipedia, which is a non-profit approach to platform, and you could have a social network that’s doing the same kind of thing where there are much more aligned objectives with a non-profit platform and publishers. Something like that would be very interesting.
What about generative AI? What do you think the impact of mainstream adoption of these generative AI tools will mean for journalism?
I think the industry is a bit schizophrenic about this. On the one hand, it feels it’s an existential threat to journalists. Obviously loss of jobs, a threat to the business model. So many leading CEOs and news executives are incredibly worried about search traffic because if generative AI is providing all the answers within search engines integration to Bing and Google, then the sort of the links that allow them to push traffic to them, and it’s a huge part of the business, if that reduces by 10%, 20%, 30%, 50%… These are not out of the question. That could really make the business model in digital even worse.
On the other hand, they’re also looking at how it can help with efficiency. It can help with costs and relevance because you can provide more tailored content through AI. So news organizations are on the one hand frightened to death of AI, but they’re also trying to embrace it and use it in their own businesses.
Going back to younger generations — they’re increasingly news avoidant and don’t want to hear from journalists, they trust influencers, celebrities or internet personalities more. I saw something along the lines of, we tend to think that these behaviours will change when they join the workforce or when they’re older, but you discredit that argument in the report. Can you talk more about that?
Yeah, it’s not necessarily an either/or because obviously people will grow into different stages of life and be interested in buying a house or having a family, and then they’re interested in information in different ways. But in terms of the habits — you tend to be socialized as you grow up into certain behaviours, and those don’t shift very much through life. We see people in our survey sample; my generation who grew up with television and radio and continue to listen to television and radio in exactly the same way as they always did, or buy print newspapers. Those habits really started quite young. We’re not going to see young people go back to watching television news at nine o’clock at night, or waiting for two people (a man and a woman) to tell them the news in those formatted ways. It’s just not going to happen. But they are interested in news.
We did a big report on young people last year which showed that it’s a complete myth that young people aren’t interested in news. They’re not necessarily interested in the same agenda. They maybe want a different tone of voice, more informal. They’re not going to go back to some of the formats that we might want them to go back to.
I think Morning Brew is a really good example of this, how they do their social media. They deliver the news in skits and I don’t like it because I’m older; I want my news to be more traditional, but maybe that’s the future. I was looking into trust in journalism and I saw this Ipsos research that came out 20 years ago. Apart from politicians, journalism was the profession least trusted by the public, even at the beginning of the 2000s. That sentiment seems to have existed for a long time, but in those 20 years a lot has changed as well. This is something that news brands have been preoccupied with for a long time. What do you think they can do to address the trust issue?
It’s definitely true that people have always been sceptical of journalists or certain types of journalists. All these things depend on how you ask the question. There’s always been a big difference in the UK, certainly between people’s trust in broadcast journalism, which is actually very high and trust in journalism generally, which is dragged down by the UK’s tabloid media which, has been strongly distrusted for many years, but highly used because people like the entertainment and the tittle tattle.
Part of journalism’s role wasn’t necessarily to be trusted — it was to be read or watched. So trust is a really complicated and slippery subject. On the other hand, we measure trust in many ways, but the headline is: “Do you trust most news most of the time?” It’s mostly meant to give us a benchmark. Are things getting better or worse in general? And we find that in a lot of big countries where you’ve seen a rise in polarized politics that this has really fallen significantly in the last seven or eight years. In the UK, 51% to 33% this year. In many big countries [trust is] down by about 20 percentage points, but it’s not the case everywhere. In some other countries trust has remained perfectly level. Those countries tend to be countries where there’s relatively little change in trust in institutions generally.
So much of this is really related to breaking down of hierarchy, changes in politics and changes in the world rather than necessarily the quality of the journalism itself.
Having said that, I think the big difference is that people see so many perspectives now in the media. They increasingly see things and they get quite confused about what the truth is. They don’t necessarily take as read something just because it’s published by the BBC, or by a journalist in a way that they did. And some of that is not bad.
Scepticism is good, but it often tips over into cynicism. We found this in last year’s report — a significant proportion of people who were really cynical about journalism. I think that’s much more worrying for society.
When I think about the really successful news media brands, the ones that come to mind are The New York Times or The Guardian, where they’re legacy brands. They’ve been around for decades. Can you think of any examples of newer media brands that have that value aspect that you mentioned before, and that you think have an interesting way of delivering the news, or something different that makes them potentially sustainable?
There are examples. Legacy brands that have adapted to digital and moved from a print-first or broadcast-first to a digital-first and made that transition. You’ve talked about two of them. The Guardian and The New York Times are in a pretty good place. There are a whole lot of other brands that have come from a digital place but also have a strong sense of value. Obviously, many of them have also failed, like Buzzfeed News. But I think Vox News would be an example; real values, set up to explain the news, almost to be a counter to clickbait. And they now do that across a range of formats from audio to video to text, but with a real sense of values and quality. It’s tough, but they’ve made money. They’ve made some really good purchases. They make some fantastic content that relates to people of all ages.
In Europe there’s a whole succession of companies that started digitally and have become significant players in their environments.
The leading one in the Netherlands is called NU.nl and is the most successful digital outlet. In South Africa, you have News24, I think is a digital-only outlet. Again, very successful, highly trusted. The Daily Maverick has also built significant audiences for investigative journalism and the membership organization.
But those are really exceptions, to find companies that have really cut through and have scale and therefore influence. A lot of the ones that we talked about in terms of slow journalism or were going to be initiatives a few years ago, either have struggled like Buzzfeed or Vice with the scale model, or they’ve just struggled to scale and keeping those members or subscribers has been really hard. You’ve seen The Republic in Switzerland, for example, running into difficulties and many others.
The scale point is interesting, because I think that’s how we tend to measure success nowadays. The examples of news media brands in trouble are large-scale ones. But when we also look at the independent publishing space, there’s an increase in publications coming out. Also, when I look at commerce in general, there’s a push towards local over global products. There are incentives from governments across the world too. I think because during Covid-19 we saw how detrimental it can be to have a global supply chain when something goes wrong. Is there room for optimism in all this?
I’m generally not that pessimistic about things. I said at the beginning — we are seeing models working both at the high-up market end of things and at the niche end. There’s a range of really interesting publications, it could be local, could be technology specialists, working from a low-cost base where the financial models are very different. I do think though that going back to our conversation about holding people to account, those small companies either are not in politics because it’s too difficult or they don’t have the scale to be able to do it.
So you do need independent mass media with real impact on a daily basis with enough people to really have an impact to do that. I think that’s the struggle — that bit in the middle where many countries don’t have a media that is sufficiently independent when talking about politics to really bring independent journalistic resources to bear on the big issues. I think to some extent that also applies to technology. Much of our technology is going to be shaped by huge companies who have a lot of resources that they can throw. A little blogger here and there (even if it is Casey Newton) is going to struggle to hold those people to account. So we do need big media companies with very deep pockets and independent attitudes and values.
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