Some important trends in the world of media – like newsletters, the creator economy, or subscriptions – could benefit from more insight and analysis
First, let me tell you that I have studied and reported on the Digital News Report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism for years now. It’s probably the most comprehensive overview of the state of media, journalism, press (call it what you want).
Whenever in doubt I open it online and look for answers. It has a lot of them. But you can always wish for a bit more.
For one, it would be great to see Baltic and Balkan countries included in the future. Those media markets are interesting and evolving quickly. Such data would not only help them but also outside analysts get a better picture right away.
Which brings me to how I read that data.
There is a special lens I look through when it comes to country specific data. I come from Slovakia and have worked for years for the second biggest publisher in the country.
That means I come across lots of reports and research on various topics like willingness to pay for news, brand loyalty, trust. (That data is not public – publishers order such reports annually to get a sense where the market is moving). There are also national, public studies, with hard data that shows what’s what and where the trends are moving.
So when it comes to country specific data I do not doubt the internal integrity of the Digital News Report. If an outlet has been losing trust or brand recognition for years there is surely a problem that needs to be addressed internally at that newsroom.
But when comparing it with other national reports on the same topics, at least in Slovakia, it gives a somewhat different picture. Sure, it all comes down to methodology and that is fine.
The Digital News Report surprises me every year. Like with the data on podcasting and whether people in Europe understand what podcasts are (vs. in the USA). Unsurprisingly, there is quite a gap – 17% of Europeans don’t know what a podcast is.
Knowing that, publishers can adapt and put more effort into explaining what podcasts are, how to listen to them and talk about their benefits. That’s why I like the Report and find it tremendously useful – when you read between the lines it gives you a blueprint on what to focus on to better serve your audience, and for that matter improve the business of journalism.
Still, there are a few data points I have not found in this year’s Report and would love to see some data in the 2022 edition. Let me outline them as four questions.
How do other subscriptions (Netflix, Spotify) affect willingness to subscribe to news?
As always, the Report has a detailed section on paid content. It describes the pattern of multiple subscriptions as similar to the way in which video on demand (VOD) streaming services have developed, with a minority of the most interested taking out multiple subscriptions.
One thing the Report does not address is the effect of other subscriptions, like the aforementioned VOD or music streaming services. Some limited non-public studies I have seen showed people with various digital subscriptions are more willing to pay for news. I would love to see if this holds on a larger scale.
For one, it could give publishers a sense whether it would pay off to get in a bundle with other companies. Or better tailor their offering to target the subscribers of other services.
Also, such data could provide the scale of how many people are paying for online digital services of all kinds. Those could help target potential news subscribers.
How widespread is the shared password problem?
I spoke to two publishers which I am not going to name about the issue of password sharing and they both had pretty amazing stories. They found that someone at a large governmental institution shared their password across several floors to hundreds of people.
That was before GDPR (now such subscribers could potentially ask publishers not to track their account and the publisher would probably not find out that easily).
Still, the issue of password sharing is not new and affects almost any digital industry. Citibank analyst Jason Bazinet recently estimated the company loses $6 billion a year by allowing this practice, Deadline wrote. That’s not a small amount.
Some publishers are already limiting the number of devices subscribers can use to unlock content. In theory that should not be hard to develop, but in practice there are quite a few irregularities, plus everchanging cookie policies of web browsers. But it’s not possible for everyone to easily track that.
At the moment, as far as I know, this issue is being addressed only by streaming giants like Netflix. They have the data and are trying different tactics to get sharers to create a paying account of their own.
I have yet to see any comprehensive data on digital news subscriptions.
The Report states 17% of respondents say they paid for some kind of online news during the last year (via subscription, donation, or one-off payment). That’s across 20 countries where publishers have been actively pushing digital subscriptions.
Knowing how many of the rest are sharing passwords to subscriptions would give publishers a sense of how widespread the problem is, whether there is a need to address this and look for lessons from streaming giants.
Is news consumption via newsletter rising?
The last few reports stated how many got their news via email newsletters. The recent report mentions the word newsletter ten times and Substack is mentioned twice.
In the past, the results varied a lot from country to country. I was surprised not to find the chart above continued in the 2021 Report, let me explain why.
Email newsletters have been in the news cycle quite a lot as a few high profile journalists left their newsrooms to start independent ventures on platforms such as Substack, Ghost or others. Newsletters were also mentioned in the news regarding acquisitions such as Twitter buying Revue or Facebook announcing its own inhouse built newsletter platform for chosen writers.
Probably that has not moved the needle regarding newsletters a lot but would be interesting to see what changes occurred. And for that matter, in the past few months I have seen more and more publishers talking about their newsletter strategies.
How much do people support independent news creators?
In 2021, one of the ongoing debates was the focus of social media platforms on the creator economy and the rise of tools for independent creators to make a living.
It seems that going independent (to do journalism outside a newsroom) has become much easier in recent months. The tools one would need are often available for free or with affordable subscription plans.
You could hear Facebook’s creator Mark Zuckerberg voicing his support for the creator economy during his several past public debates and introducing or promoting future tools for earning a living on social media.
The prospect of making it independently with the support of just 1,000 true fans has become so widespread that one of my colleagues in Slovakia is leaving his newsroom to start an independent paid blog of his own. And that’s considering a pretty small market by European standards (5 million) with below average willingness to pay for news (13%).
Paying for news averages at around 17%. To get that answer the Report the following question: Have you paid for online news content, or accessed a paid for online news service in the last year? (This could be a digital subscription, combined digital/print subscription or one-off payment for an article or app or e-edition).
Even though this might also encompass independent creators, it would make sense to start differentiating between traditional news media and independent creators.
For one, independent creators tend to charge more for a monthly fee (just look at the top newsletter writers and their subscription price on Substack). Second, the Report is already distinguishing between national news and local news, adding independent news creators to the mix would give us an even better understanding.
Of course, maybe the public doesn’t differentiate between traditional news outlets and independent news creators. If that was the result it would certainly spark a lot of debate, meaning it would be an important finding.
Of course I have more questions and I understand the questionnaire for the respondents is finite, as it should be.
I believe the researchers at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism go through this struggle each year and have to choose which of the news markets to include or what to ask.
Some trends are hard to put in a simple question, that might also be why I did not find answers to my questions.
There are, though, some more questions I would love to see addressed in this Report or other research such as the impact of covering the gaming industry and games in general has on the demographic of the audience or willingness to pay.
Gaming is the biggest part of the entertainment industry, gamers are predominantly younger people and games nowadays are designed with subscriptions or micropayments built in.
More and more publications have been upping their gaming coverage. How is it helping with getting more young people to follow overall news coverage and how is it affecting willingness to pay for news?
Another topic I would love to see addressed is whether books from journalists are a thing. Do people differentiate between an author and an author who is a journalist? The answer to that question would probably help publishers to decide whether to publish books by their own journalists.
I have more questions but let me finish here.
by David Tvrdon
This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission. The Fix is a solutions-oriented publication focusing on the European media scene. Subscribe to its weekly newsletter here.