“It is too early to predict the full impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the news industry,” say the authors of Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020, “but it is almost certain to be a catalyst for more cost- cutting, consolidation, and even faster changes in business models.”
Their new report, which dropped today, comes at a precipitous time for publishers.
As the study notes: “While some publications report growth in digital subscriptions, some publishers say advertising revenue has fallen by up to 50% and many newspapers have cut back or stopped printing physical copies and laid off staff.”
Although much of the data in the study pre-dates the pandemic, many of the issues highlighted in the report – including “changes in how people access news, low trust, and rising concern[s] about misinformation” – have long trendlines.
Moreover, Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton suggests “the coronavirus traffic bump to news sites is pretty much over,” arguing that “sustained attention is hard to maintain over time, no matter how objectively important a topic might be.”
For publishers, this means that many of the pandemic-related shifts in media habits that we have seen could be temporary. Less temporary is the impact of COVID-19 on the economics (and workforce) of the industry.
Against this backdrop, the Digital News Report 2020 offers us valuable consumer insights highlighting long-term trends which require our attention.
Based on a survey of more than 80,000 people in 40 markets, here are five essential trends – and the charts which support them – from this new 112-page study.
1: In a number of markets, more people are paying for online news
“We have seen significant increases in payment for online news in a number of countries including the United States 20% (+4) and Norway 42% (+8), with smaller rises in a range of other markets,” writes Nic Newman, Lead Author and Co-Editor of the report.
“It is important to note that across all countries most people are still not paying for online news, even if some publishers have since reported a ‘coronavirus bump’.
- Publishers are increasingly charging for content and tightening paywalls, although some have offered coronavirus related materials for free. A number of countries have seen “significant increases in the percentage paying for online news.” This includes the USA (+4%), Norway (+8). The report observes “we’ve also seen increases in Portugal, the Netherlands, and Argentina, with the average payment level also up in nine countries that we have been tracking since 2013.”
- “Existing subscribers are relatively happy,” says Senior Researcher, Richard Fletcher. Industry efforts to reduce churn and develop loyalty, appear to have been successful, given that retention rates for online news “are comparable to those for subscriptions to video and audio streaming services like Netflix and Spotify.”
- Subscription spoils are not evenly distributed, with leading brands – such as the New York Times and The Times of London – hoovering up the majority of these payments. Smaller publishers often struggle to get a slice of the subscription pie; and will need to continue working hard to make their case. “But,” Fletcher adds, “a significant minority in the US and Norway take out subscriptions to more than one title – often a local or specialist title in addition to a national one.”
- Looking ahead, “industry expectations need to be realistic” Nic Newman advises, “as many people are likely to have less disposable income and the majority of non-payers are still broadly happy with free sources.”
2: Trust remains a big issue
“Fewer than four in ten (38%) say they trust most news most of the time – down four percentage points. Less than half (46%) say they trust the news that they themselves use,” the report states.
There are considerable variances in trust levels on a country-by-country basis. Within this, “divided societies seem to trust the media less, not necessarily because the journalism is worse but because people are generally dissatisfied with institutions in their countries and perhaps because news outlets carry more views that people disagree with.”
- Trust is highest in Finland and Portugal (both 56%) and lowest in Taiwan (24%), France (23%), and South Korea (21%). Over the past year, levels of trust have fallen substantially in the United Kingdom (-12), Mexico (-11), Denmark (-11), Bulgaria (-7), Canada (-8), and Australia (-6).
- More than half (56%) of respondents are concerned about real vs. fake news online. “Concern tends to be highest in parts of the Global South such as Brazil (84%), Kenya (76%), and South Africa (72%) where social media use is high and traditional institutions are often weaker.”
- Social media is seen as “as the biggest source of concern about misinformation.” Although there is increasing pressure on networks to monitor, and flag, online misinformation, mainstream outlets also have a role in promoting digital literacy by breaking down these stories (and balancing this with the risk of potentially giving misinformation more oxygen in the process).
- Addressing issues of trust is essential for growing reader revenues, and broadening the base of people willing to pay for content.
3: Social news habits are becoming increasingly visual
“The popularity of social networks and video platforms in Asia, Latin America, and Africa seems to be stimulating video consumption at the expense of text – even if most people consume a mix of the two,” the report observes.
There are considerable variances across the different markets covered by the study, both in terms of access levels, as well as where online video is accessed. Video consumption via third-party platforms, such as YouTube and Facebook, dominates (with 52% of respondents using these for news on a weekly basis) ahead of news websites and apps (33%).
- Across the 40 markets surveyed, more than two-thirds (67%) consumed video news in the past week. This was highest in Turkey (95%) and Kenya (93%) and lowest in Denmark (41%) and the U.K. (39%).
- Instagram as a platform for news consumption (11%), is almost the same as Twitter (12%) when averaging out media habits across 12 specific countries (including Japan, USA, USA, Germany, and Brazil).
- Publishers need to step out of the Twitter’s media echo chamber, and recognise the importance of Instagram, and Instagram Stories, to consumers. Interestingly, TikTok is also a more popular channel for news than Snapchat in some markets, suggesting that – despite Snapchat’s relationships with publishers – the new kid on the social media block, merits more attention and experimentation from news organisations.
- “Consumer preferences around video and audio are changing, opening up new possibilities for publishers, but shifting resources from text carries significant risks while the commercial returns are still far from proven,” the authors caution.
4: Podcasting continues to pop
“The underlying picture remains one of growth,” the study says. “Our data show an overall rise in podcast listening to 31% (+3) across a basket of 20 countries we have been tracking since 2018. Almost four in ten access monthly in Spain (41%), Ireland (40%), Sweden (36%), Norway (36%), and the United States (36%). By contrast usage in the Netherlands (26%), Germany (24%), and the UK (22%) is nearer to a quarter.”
Alongside growth in usage, the podcasting space is also witnessing considerable investment. The report emphasises that “Spotify has invested over $500m in podcasting and has reported a doubling of podcast listens,” while apps from broadcasters – such as BBC Sounds, ABC Listen (Australia), NPR One (USA), and SR Play (Sweden) – have moved beyond live and catch-up radio to also offer original podcasts.
- Among 18-24s, 43% listened to a podcast in the past month, compared to 19% of those aged 45-54 and 10% aged 55+.
- News podcasts are most popular with 25–34s (young millennials).Younger audiences (18–24s) are less likely to listen to news podcasts but are among the biggest consumers of other genres, including true crime, lifestyle and celebrity podcasts.
- Podcasts are an opportunity for engagement and developing a relationship with young audiences, a demographic which tends to be much more brand agnostic. Along with email and mobile alerts, podcasts are potentially a key tool for building habit and loyalty.
- Podcasting may offer new revenue opportunities for publishers. The report found “almost four in ten Australians (39%) said they would be prepared to pay for podcasts they liked.” Similar numbers could be seen in the U.S. (38%) and Canada (37%). Willingness to pay was lower in Sweden (24%) and the UK (21%), perhaps due to the strength of public media.
Read our full analysis of what the Digital News Report 2020 showed about changing podcast consumption here.
5: More uncertainty for local publishers
“The COVID-19 disruption is likely to hit local news providers hardest, given their continuing dependence on both print and digital advertising,” the report says, adding that, “new digital behaviours have also emerged in this crisis that are likely to have long-term implications.”
One example of this, is that “many have joined Facebook or WhatsApp groups for the first time and have engaged in local groups.” Whether this new level of interest and engagement will translate into financial support for local media, remains to be seen, especially if audiences feel they can access valuable local information from these free channels.
- Interest level in local news has long correlated with age. Broadly speaking, older audiences are much more interested in this news genre. In the US, this difference is highly pronounced with 22% of 18-24s says they are “very, or extremely interested in local news,” compared to 58% of those aged over 55. Norway sees similar numbers, but the curve is flattened much more in nations like Mexico ($6% vs 71%) and the Philippines (46% vs. 54%).
- In Germany, over half (54%) of those who regularly read local newspapers indicated that they would miss them ‘a lot’ if they disappeared, this number dropped to 49% in Norway, and 39% in the United States.
- The value attached to local journalism is lower in the UK (25%), Argentina (18%) and Taiwan (13%). As a result, the report concludes, “value placed on local news seems to be partly related to the importance that countries place on their regions more generally – and the extent to which local politics matters.”
- “Local news organisations will have to prove themselves creative and courageous in order to quickly react to an ever-changing technological environment,” recommends Anne Schulz, a Research Fellow at the Reuters Institute. “The good news is that our data suggest there is still demand and trust for them – in general and even more so in times of crisis.”
“The next 12 months will be critical in shaping the future of the news industry. Many news organisations go into this period clearer than ever about the value of their product even if the immediate outlook looks uncertain,” the report concludes.
“Despite this, there are some signs of hope,” the authors remind us.
“The COVID-19 crisis has clearly demonstrated the value of reliable trusted news to the public but also to policymakers, technology companies, and others who could potentially act to support independent news media. The creativity of journalists has also come to the fore in finding flexible ways to produce the news under extremely difficult circumstances.”
We don’t know what the long-term implications of this crisis will be; and whether the short and long-term trends identified in this report summary will continue. Or not.
As a result, I am looking forward to the Digital News Report 2021 already.
Read our complete launch coverage of the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020
- Digital News Report 2020: 5 must-read charts for publishers
- Email newsletters are resurging, says Reuters Institute
- What we learned about changing podcast consumption, from the Digital News Report 2020
- “Habits continue to become more distributed”: Gateways to news that matter most to publishers, from Reuters Institute
- The “silent majority” want news to be neutral: Insights from Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report 2020
- “Subscription, membership, and donations will move center stage”: Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020
- Digital News Report 2020: 5 overlooked charts publishers must see