“Print is a niche medium for older people. Like Twitch or TikTok, but for retirees”
The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has published its annual Digital News Report and the good news is that 44% of respondents believe they trust the media, six points more than last year. Based on a panel of 46 countries, the 164-page study examines the relationship between the media and consumers. We discussed the main points of the Digital News Report with two of the study's authors: Rasmus Nielsen, Director of the Reuters Institute and Nic Newman, Senior Research Associate at the Reuters Institute.
One positive thing that came out of the Covid crisis was that trust has risen by six points. How do you explain this "trust" movement?Nic Newman: The Covid crisis seems to have reinforced the value of the news media in the sense that trusted information, along with wider context and explanation of the science, has been critically important – in some cases a matter of life and death.
Much of the media has done a great job in trying to lay out facts and evidence about Covid-19 and answering questions people have. At the same time, the story has also had the effect of squeezing out partisan political news, which we know can undermine trust in some countries. This may be a temporary effect, but in almost all countries we see audiences placing a greater premium on accurate and reliable news sources.
Rasmus Nielsen: One of the things that turns people off news is politics, especially polarized, partisan conflict. It seems likely that the combination of the more urgent need for trustworthy information combined with less focus on politicians disagreeing and more focus on credible sources like doctors, scientists and nurses may help account for the increase in trust.
One of the major challenges now is how to build on the trust gained and to further engage high audiences. Do you think media outlets, which have seen their audiences grow, will be able to retain them ?N.N: I think we are already seeing some news fatigue kicking in as the relentless nature of the crisis continues and overall consumption levels have come back to more normal levels after those huge early peaks. As people go back to the workplace and meet up again, inevitably the role of the news media will change again, but as you say the key will be to build on the techniques and approaches that have worked with audiences and to play a positive role in scrutinizing government and health policy going forwards.
R.N: Our analysis suggests that the most trusted brands are best positioned to retain some of the audience growth they have seen over the last year.
When it comes to trust in the media, Finland comes out on top (65%). The number of users willing to pay for news remains low, with the most successful countries being Norway, where 45% are paying for online news with a subscription. How do you explain this good relationship that Nordic countries have with their media?N.N: Many of these differences relate to the level of coherence or dissonance in society more generally. Trust in institutions generally tends to be higher in Nordic countries and trusted public service broadcasters, that have a mission to serve all audiences, play a bigger role than in many other countries. There tends to be less political polarization too, which we know undermines trust.
R.N: The Nordic countries are particular in some ways that make them outliers – rich, egalitarian, long tradition of very high newspaper subscription rates. But part of the success in for example Norway is also about execution. Companies like Schibsted and AMedia have been very clear-eyed from early on. Audience-focused, data-informed, and patiently building up their base of paying subscribers.
«In my view, print is in inexorable decline as a mass medium for news»
Has the coronavirus caused the death of the printing press? Or, is there still hope for those who believe in the printed press?N.N: It has certainly accelerated the demise of daily print newspapers because of problems of physical distribution in the pandemic and the loss of the commute. We find significant falls in the proportion reading printed newspapers over the last year across almost all countries. On the other hand, some publishers report increased usage of weekend newspapers. Over the next few years, we're likely to see more publications cutting their weekday output to focus more on digital, but some kind of print output is likely to remain focused more on opinion and distinctive content, published less frequently.
R.N: In my view, print is in inexorable decline as a mass medium for news. In countries where people have access to the internet, it is increasingly a niche medium for older people. Like Twitch or TikTok, but for retirees.
The report shows a "significant increase in payments" in some Western countries. Are subscriptions the way forward for media?N.N: Not for all media. Some distinctive quality news media can now see a path to a sustainable future using a mix of subscription revenue, premium advertising and events, but this will be much harder for local newspapers and tabloid newspapers where we don't find the same appetite to pay for online news. In addition, younger readers in particular tend to want to access multiple brands in a frictionless way and they won't want to be confined to one or two brands even if they have the inclination to pay for news. So, in summary, subscription models will work for some publishers but not for all consumers.
R.N: A growing number of titles are seeing success with subscriptions. But we need to remember most people don't think subscriptions are worth the price, and digital news subscriptions is a winner-takes-most market, so it will work for some people and some brands, but not for everyone and not for every media organization.
In most countries, a handful of national brands dominate the market, reflecting a dynamic in which only the biggest fish get away with it. How can smaller players, in terms of resources, survive in a digital world?N.N: That is the big challenge for media. Niche media that appeal to a very specific audience can also see a future based on donations or subscription and the internet has made it easier for startups and individuals (e.g. Substack newsletters) to flourish with very minimal cost of distribution. All of this is increasing choice and plurality but the big gap is in public interest journalism and local journalism where current models increasingly don't work. We're already seeing more calls for subsidy by governments or platforms to sustain this critical part of the news ecosystem. But all of that raises questions about media independence and public support for using public money in this way.
R.N: This is a very challenging market for local titles, and there are no simple answers. Our research suggests people feel much of what local newspaper historically offered is now provided in more compelling and convenient ways by others. Niche and local titles have to have a laser-like focus on who they are aiming to serve, and what those people need to find a sustainable place in this incredibly competitive environment.
The average age of subscribers to online newspapers is high, 45-50 in France. Were young people brought up in the culture of free?N.N: Yes, industry executives admit that mistakes were made in the past and it is proving difficult to shift the perception with many consumers that news is and should be free. On the other hand, it should be possible to change expectations. Young people are prepared to pay for other things they value online like Netflix and Spotify. They could do the same for news if the product and the price were right. We will always have free news models on the internet, just as we have freesheets supported by advertising. But the future will see a mix of free, paid and hybrid models with more premium content. Publishers need to recognize that change and are increasingly looking at how they can deliver more distinctive content that people are prepared to pay for.
R.N: When controlling for other factors like interest in news, younger people are no less likely to pay than others, and of course often pay for many other digital products and services including games, music, and premium video. So the main problem seems to be that they are unconvinced that news media are offering them something that is worth their attention, let alone their money. It is up to news media to convince them otherwise.
«In my view, local media need to build a future around content and community»
Much has been said about the importance of the media being service-oriented. Wouldn't it be in the interest of local media to be more service-oriented in order to compete with Google in this area?N.N: I am not sure that local news providers can compete with Google on services. Aggregators are in a better position, with their technology and data, to put together local data for consumers. In my view, local media need to build a future around content and community. Curating data and services can be part of that but generating discussion and events around the issues that matter – with real knowledge of what matters to that community - is not something Google or other tech platforms can do.
R.N: It's clear that a clear focus on what people actually want and need, and a realistic assessment of what other sources might provide it, is key for news media to successfully differentiate themselves in a super competitive competition for attention.