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Digital News Report 2021: Top 5 takeaways for publishers

“These are positive findings from publishers’ point of view”: Reuters Institute

Digital News Report 2021, the most comprehensive annual report on news consumption worldwide, launched today. 

This year’s report reveals new insights about digital news consumption based on a survey of over 92,000 online news consumers in 46 markets, including France and six new ones: India, Indonesia, Thailand, Nigeria, Colombia and Peru.

The report looks at the impact of Coronavirus on news consumption and on the economic prospects for publishers. It also looks at progress on new paid online business models, trust and misinformation, local news, impartiality and fairness in news coverage.

Our findings this year show how, if anything, the Coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated many of the long-term trends we have documented over the past decade, especially the move to a more digital, mobile, and platform-dominated media environment.

Prof. Rasmus Nielsen, Director, Reuters Institute 

Here are the 5 top takeaways for publishers:

1. Trust in news is up in almost all countries

Trust in news has grown, on average, by six points in the wake of the pandemic – with 44% saying they trust most news most of the time. This partly reverses falls in average trust over the last few years. Finland remains the country with the highest levels of overall trust (65%). The United States has the lowest levels (29%). 

In a number of countries, especially those with strong and independent public service media, the report also documents greater consumption of trusted news brands

At the same time, trust in news from search and social media has remained broadly stable. This means that the trust gap between news in general and news found in aggregated environments has grown.

The focus on factual reporting during the COVID-19 crisis may have made the news seem more straightforward, while the story has also had the effect of squeezing out more partisan political news. This may be a temporary effect, but in almost all countries we see audiences placing a greater premium on accurate and reliable news sources.

Nic Newman, Lead author

2. More people are paying for online news

Across 20 countries where publishers have been actively pushing digital subscriptions, the report finds 17% saying that they have paid for some kind of online news in the last year. That’s up by two points in the last year and up five since 2016. 

Subscribers tend to be richer, older and better educated and tend to pay for just one online publication.

Most success comes in a handful of wealthy countries with a long history of high levels of print newspaper subscriptions, such as Norway 45% (+3), Sweden 30% (+3), Switzerland 17% (+4), and the Netherlands 17% (+3). Around a fifth (21%) now pay for at least one online news outlet in the United States, 20% in Finland, and 13% in Australia. By contrast, just 9% say they pay in Germany and 8% in the UK.

One striking finding from the survey this year is the difference in contribution made by local and regional publications across countries. In Norway, 57% of subscribers pay for one or more local outlets in digital form. This compares with 23% in the United States, but just 3% in the United Kingdom.

Subscriptions are beginning to work for some publishers but it won’t work for all publishers and most importantly, it won’t work for all consumers. Many people don’t wish to be tied to one or two news sites or apps, others don’t find the product worth the price. Given abundant access to free news, publishers will need to develop compelling options to bundle publications or more ways of paying a smaller amount for limited access for payment to become a mass phenomenon.

Prof. Rasmus Nielsen, Director, Reuters Institute

3. Younger audiences turn to new networks and listen to influencers

Across all markets, just a quarter (25%) prefer to start their news journeys with a website or app. Those aged 18–24 (so-called Generation Z) have an even weaker connection to traditional news sites and are almost twice as likely to prefer to access news via social media, aggregators, or mobile alerts. 

Facebook has become significantly less relevant for news in the last year, while WhatsApp, Instagram, TikTok, and Telegram have continued to attract more use, especially among the young. Coronavirus galvanised the sharing of news-related posts in TikTok over the last year. 

The report also shows how influencers play a much bigger role in TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram than in more traditional networks like Facebook and Twitter. Journalists have traditionally led the conversation in news-focussed Twitter but struggle to attract attention in these newer networks compared with celebrities and other personalities.

The lack of strong journalistic presence could make those relying on these networks particularly vulnerable to misinformation. On the other hand, news is largely incidental in these spaces and the expectations of snappy, visual, and entertaining content do not always come naturally to newsrooms staffed by senior journalists with a focus on traditional formats.

Dr. Simge Andı, Co-author

4. Use of smartphones for news has grown

The use of smartphone for news (73%) has grown at its fastest rate for many years, up from 69% in 2020. Part of this is a continuation of trends which have seen the mobile phone overtake the computer as the primary access point in almost all countries.

For example, the next chart illustrates change over time in the UK, with the gap between smartphone and computer growing to 25 points.

Use of laptop and desktop computers and tablets for news is stable or falling, while the penetration of smart speakers remains limited in most countries – especially for news.

Growth in podcasts has slowed, in part due to the impact of restrictions on movement. The data shows Spotify continuing to gain ground over Apple and Google podcasts in a number of countries and YouTube also benefiting from the popularity of video-based and hybrid podcasts.

5. A vote of confidence in impartial coverage 

The growth of online and social media has in some cases encouraged the growth of news organisations and individuals that take more overtly partisan positions than in the past. But survey evidence, backed up by qualitative interviews in four countries, shows that the public still strongly supports the ideals of impartial and objective news, while recognising that they are sometimes drawn to more opinionated and less balanced content. 

Across countries, 74% say they still prefer news that reflects a range of views and lets them decide what to think. Most also think that news outlets should try to be neutral on every issue (66%), though some younger groups think that ‘impartiality’ may not be appropriate or desirable in some cases – for example, on social justice issues.

This year’s survey finds evidence that some brands have benefited from a desire for reliable information around the pandemic – both in terms of higher reach, higher trust, and more paying subscribers. While the effects are uneven, do not apply to all brands or all countries, and may not last after the crisis is over, these are positive findings from publishers’ point of view.

Prof. Rasmus Nielsen, Director, Reuters Institute 

The full report can be downloaded from Reuters Institute:
Digital News Report 2021