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9 Takeaways from the Digital News Report 2018

Damian Radcliffe rounds up the key takeaways from the seventh Digital News Report

Today sees the publication of the seventh Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. This annual study features detailed findings from a sample of more than 74,000 digital news consumers in 37 different countries around the world.

The research conclusions are relevant to a wide range of publishers, not just those in the news business.  They touch on issues such as trust in brands, the rise of fake news, the emergence of messaging apps and audio strategies, as well as changing platform use and evolving business models.

What’s New in Publishing was given a sneak preview of the full 140 page report, enabling us to determine our key takeaways from the latest study. Here’s what we think you need to know.

1: Facebook for news is down, as overall usage plateaus.

A key headline from the 2018 study is the decline of social networks – and in particular Facebook – as a source for news.

With fieldwork for the study being undertaken at the end of January/start of February 2018, this pre-dates much of the Cambridge Analytica fallout which befell the network earlier in the year.

Instead, changes in Facebook’s algorithm, concerns over Fake News and the migration of online time to other platforms, all look to be playing a role.

Facebook’s decline as a news source can be seen across a number of markets.  Although there are exceptions, like Malaysia (+6%) and the Czech Republic (+10%) “average news usage for Facebook has fallen from 42% in 2016 to 36% today,”  the report authors note.

In the United States, where Facebook has 240 million users, “news consumption via Facebook is down 9 percentage points in the United States and 20 points with younger groups.”

2: Facebook’s news video reach remains significant.

However, publishers shouldn’t throw the Facebook baby out with the digital news bathwater just yet.

Despite this stagnation, the study notes the continued popularity of news video consumption on sites like Facebook and YouTube, with these figures dwarfing news video viewing on publisher’s own sites.

“The majority of news video is now consumed offsite (51%). Facebook alone (33%) accounts for as much video consumption as all news websites put together (33%).”

3: Online video isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

With the “pivot to video” mantra now banished to the media strategy graveyard at many organizations, it’s clear that online video hasn’t had the impact that many publishers expected.

Consumption has grown – as social video and new native formats have continued to emerge and evolve –  but that hasn’t necessarily translated into ad dollars or stickiness.

Moreover, Reuters observe how “an even larger number (35%) reject news video entirely; that figure rises to more than six in ten in the UK (62%) and over half of our German sample (56%).”

This reiterates a theme from previous reports (and one that has typically been overlooked by most analysts) which stresses the continued text based preferences for many online news consumers.

“There have been some changes over time (especially in the US and Spain),” the researchers write, “but these have been modest given the increase in exposure to video through social media.”

4: As Facebook falters, other social platforms are growing.

Conversely, usage of other platforms for news – and other purposes – is growing. Albeit from a lower user base.

As you might expect, Twitter continues to punch higher than other social networks in terms of overall usage vs. news consumption ratio, suggesting plenty of scope for growth on platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and different messaging apps.

In some markets, these audiences are already significant. “WhatsApp use for news has almost tripled since 2014,” the study states, “and has overtaken Twitter in importance in many countries.”

“But,” they caution, “this conceals wide variations from 54% in Malaysia (+3) and 48% in Brazil (+2) to 14% in Germany (+2) and just 4% in the United States (+1).”

Understanding local markets and being active in the right places is obviously key for publishers.

5: “Fake News” concerns offer an opportunity for “trusted” brands.

Discussion about the impact of “Fake News” is increasingly universal. More than half of Reuters’ sample (54%) said they are concerned about whether news is real or ‘fake’ on the internet.

Polarised political environments, appear to increase this fear, as witnessed in Brazil (85%), Spain (69%), and the USA (64%).

More widely, the report finds that just 23% of the study’s sample trusts news on social media, behind search (34%), and the wider news media (44%). Trust levels are highest, at 51%, for sources that people use themselves.

It’s this trust that publishers and brands will want to harness as 2018’s pivot to paywall continue to gather pace, doubling-down on relationships with existing users and encouraging existing consumers to embrace opportunities afforded by subscription packages and membership models.

6: Use of ad-blockers is rising in many markets.

The need for publishers, and other news brands, to migrate away from traditional online advertising-driven models is further reinforced by findings around use of ad-blockers.

“After a pause in growth last year,” the study notes, “the use of ad-blockers is on the rise again, alongside privacy browser extensions that allow specific advertisers to be blocked.”

Across the research sample, more than a quarter now block on any device (27%).

Again, it should be noted that this figure masks a broad range, bookended by 42% of digital news users in Greece, through to 13% in South Korea at the other end of the spectrum. But, the trend in several major markets is clear.

7: Some audiences are more willing to pay for content.

While the majority of digital audiences continue to consume online news content for free (from advertising-led sites such as Yahoo! or public service providers like the BBC) there are some encouraging signs that (some) audiences are willing to pay for (some) content.

Longitudinal data demonstrates a continued, gradual, willingness to pay in many Nordic countries, as well as an on-going “Trump bump” in the United States.

This is especially true among more “news literate” consumers – those who, in part, better understand the financial travails being faced by the industry – as well as American news audiences who are likely to define their political leanings as be to the left or centre.

8: Look to the Nordic countries for subscription success stories.

The report comments how nations such as Norway, Sweden and Finland “have a small number of publishers who are relentlessly pursuing a variety of paywall strategies.”

“They have the added benefit of coming from wealthy societies that value news,” they comment, and “have a strong subscription tradition.”  “Language and the small size of their market protects them from foreign competition,” they add.

Success stories highlighted in the study include: Norwegian based AftenPosten’s hybrid paywall model, which reached 100,000 digital subscribers after just two years in December 2017, as well as Sweden’s leading daily Dagens Nyheter (DN). DN enjoys more than 120,000 digital subscribers, the average age of whom is 20 years younger than their print readership.

“Norwegian publishers are even able to charge for local news,” the report exclaims, citing the efforts of the Amedia group. According to their website, “our titles have a daily audience of 1,8 million readers and users. Most of the newspapers have number one positions in their local community.”

The Digital News Report comments that, with “about 60 local newspapers and websites,” they have “ 160,000 digital subscribers, up 45% on last year.”

“Adjusting for population size, this would be the equivalent of Trinity Mirror in the UK selling 2m digital subscriptions – or 10m for Gannett in the United States,” they write.

9: Audio’s second coming.

For the first time, this year’s study touches on podcasts, a format which has considerable potential for a wide range of content creators.

Overall, a third of the Digital News Report’s entire sample (34%) listens to a podcast at least monthly, with young people leading the charge. There are wide variations in usage patterns, with factors such as commuting times, the popularity of existing radio habits and range of content, all being potential drivers for these variances.

Alongside this, highlighting a trend captured for the first time last year, voice-activated digital assistants such as Google Home and Amazon Echo and Google Home continue to see rapid growth.

“Usage has more than doubled in the United States, Germany, and the UK with around half of those who have such devices using them for news and information,” the report says.

Although these devices tend to be used to listen to music, or for functional information (such as weather, facts and info etc.) they can also be used for news alerts/briefings and podcast playback.

As a result, a number of news organisations are experimenting with products and services for these devices. Whether this upward curve will continue into 2019 remains to be seen, but for now, smart speakers – and audio in general –  are a trend to watch.

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