Our podcast: Digital News Report 2022. Episode 7: Which journalists do people pay most attention to and why?

In this episode we look at findings from our DNR22 on the types of journalists that people across six countries pay most attention to
26th July 2022

The topic

In this episode of our podcast we look at a chapter of the Digital News Report 2022 looking at which individual journalists news audiences pay most attention to. We’ll look at whether these journalists represent traditional mainstream media or newer digital-born brands, and whether they are known for reportage or opinion. And we'll explore any differences in how people engage with individual journalists across the six countries we focus on: the US, UK, Brazil, Germany, France, and Finland


Nic Newman is the lead author of the Digital News Report and is a Senior Research Associate at the Reuters Institute. He is also a consultant on digital media, working actively with news companies on product, audience, and business strategies for digital transition. He writes an annual report for the Institute on future media and technology trends.

Our host Federica Cherubini is Head of Leadership Development at the Reuters Institute. She is an expert in newsroom operations and organisational change, with more than ten years of experience spanning major publishers, research institutes and editorial networks around the world.

The podcast

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A timely topic | Non-traditional journalistsJournalists vs news brandsThe most closely followed journalistsThe impact of star journalists on brand identity

A timely topic 

Federica: This is the first time the Digital News Report has asked people to name which individual journalist they follow most closely. So it's a complicated subject. But what it is about today's media environment that made you ask this question in the first place?

Nic: Well, obviously, digital and social media has opened up the opportunity for anybody with a phone and an internet connection to create content and distribute that content, for free, effectively, to do some of the roles that journalism and journalists did. So we've seen the rise of citizen journalism, blogging. Now, podcasting. So basically, you don't need to be attached to a traditional media company to be a journalist anymore. And then, in the last few years, we've seen the development of a series of platforms that allow people to make businesses out of this. So the most obvious one is probably Substack, which is a platform that allows any individual journalist, really easily, to charge money for a newsletter or a podcast. And this is game-changing, because it gives the structure and incentives to allow individuals to become media companies, and to make a living out of it. So there's a lot of hype about this change about the creative economy. And we wanted to see how that's working out in journalism. When people think about journalists, do they think of these creators? Or do they think about people working in the mainstream media?

Federica: What countries did you look at, and why?

Nic: So we just looked at six countries because we wanted to go deep rather than wide and our starting point was the US because that's where the sort of creator economy is really sort of growing fastest. But then we also looked at Finland, Germany, and the UK, which we know from other work has strong brands, and so there we expected to see some stronger brands and a lower role for individual journalists. And then we looked at France and Brazil, countries where we know, individual journalists have traditionally played a bigger role.

No names and non-traditional journalists

Federica: A large part of this chapter is based on a survey line asking respondents to write the names of five journalists they paid most attention to. However, a big caveat around the data should be that less than half of all respondents name a single journalist. Did you see that as an indicator that many people just don't follow the news closely, don't have many names in mind.

Nic: I mean, partly that. But I think it's also a function of surveys, people in surveys don't like to spend a lot of time on questions like this. So we probably shouldn't read too much into it. But we do know that people struggle to name journalists beyond maybe, you know, television newsroom readers who've been in their lives every evening for many years. People pay attention to stories, but not necessarily to the journalists. And, you know, it was interesting to see that confirmed, to some extent at least in that statistic.

Federica: We’ll look a bit at specific names in a moment, but I'm just curious, were there any names that you were surprised to see? Any particularly non-traditional journalists that kept coming that you were surprised about?

Nic: Generally, no, I mean, people name broadcasters and also print journalists. And they tended to name those who had either been around for a while, or had been controversial in some way. And in almost all countries, we found that the vast majority of them were traditional journalists, but in the US, we did find a much, much bigger proportion, something like 15%, many of whom I had not heard of at all, so effectively, a really long tail of people you might not think about as journalists. So we tagged them, we coded them as ‘alternative’ and ‘independent’. And they included YouTubers, they include podcasters, they include comedians, authors and academics was another sort of interesting category, social media influencers. This was, you know, more in the US than other countries. But we saw that too in Brazil, for example, there's a, you know, a name that came up regularly called Zoe Martinez, who is a younger vlogger. And he she combines political and social discussions with sort of her personal vlogging adventures if you like. In Germany, there's a young YouTuber and podcaster called Tilo Jung, who has the sort of persona of the of the naive young man and asks his guests very basic questions around the news who came up a lot. In the US, Joe Rogan, obviously, actually, in other countries, as well, who is obviously huge on Spotify, but many people wouldn't think about as a journalist. And then finally, I think there's a category of politicians as well. So we found a lot of people who we asked about journalists you pay attention to and they gave us politicians because, of course, the line is blurring, you have many politicians who now anchor radio and television programs. Nigel Farage, in the UK is a primetime anchor on a channel called TV news, or Eric Zemmour, one of the candidates in the French presidential elections this year, was a commentator with CNEWS. And so I think there's sort of a line between journalists and other types of professions that’s sort of blurring all the time.

Journalists vs news brands

Federica: I want to ask you more about names. But first, did you find that people follow individual journalists more than news brands? And what explains the findings?

Nic: So right at the beginning, we asked everyone in the survey, do they identify more with a news brand, or with an individual journalist. So this is obviously, you know, not the way people think about it, it's a rather crude way of looking at it. But it really did show some quite surprising country differences here. So for example, roughly 90%, in Finland, Denmark, some of those Nordic countries, say they mainly identified with the brand, so only a tiny percentage, said they identified with the individual journalist. That's also true in the UK. And we know from other research we do, these are traditionally very strong. They have very, very strong brands and very strong connections with individuals. Whereas in France, Brazil, and to some extent in the US, we have a much higher proportion, who say that identify with the individual journalist. It kind of helps to explain why Substack is doing better in the US than it is in the UK. But also in France, and Brazil, over 50% said they mainly identified with individual journalists. So I think this is really kind of interesting, because it suggests that maybe, you know, if you're thinking about monetization, sustainability, maybe there are different ways to go here. And maybe for some of the strong brand countries you're really pushing on the brand. But maybe if there's more identification with journalists, you want to make more of your individual journalists, and you want to maybe tie that into a brand subscription. So you want to develop some stars who can really bring that connection, if that seems to be what the data is telling us.

The most closely followed journalists

Federica: Let's get more specific, who were the most closely followed journalists that survey respondents identified? If we start from the UK, for example.

Nic: Well, the top 10 list had actually a couple of political journalists at the top. So Laura Kuenssberg is the BBC political correspondent and Robert Peston. ITV’s political correspondent. And that's, I guess, because they have been on screen constantly and on social media constantly for years talking about Brexit and talking about COVID. So, you know, every night in people's living rooms, every night on people's social media feeds. You also had a correspondent from a newspaper, Pippa Crerar from the Mirror, who has broken a lot of the exclusive stories on ‘Partygate’, for example, the scandal involving Trump Boris Johnson in the UK and I think that you know, this is quite encouraging. It shows that people recognise news journalists who break stories, not just, you know, opinion, TV journalists. I should say we also have Piers Morgan who is in the top 10 list, who is well known for his more opinionated views and television shows in the US and Australia and the UK and has just launched a new show on TalkTV. But interestingly, you know, also opinion columnists from The Guardian, which is kind of free in terms of not behind a paywall. Three of those make the top 10 list which is a sort of real testament to that left-leaning publication and the value of opinion. So you've got traditional impartial-based news on the one hand, and then opinion as well.

Federica: If you look in the US, for example, was the list broadly comparable to the type journalists in the UK?

Nic: No, completely, completely different. The top 10 list is basically all stars of cable TV, so either Fox, MSNBC, CNN. I think there's one from ABC in there. And, so, led by Tucker Carlson, you know, fairly notorious presenter or anchor on Fox. Much of this content is deliberately partisan. So very much in contrast to the UK, where the vast majority of the top 10 list have a duty to present impartial news. In the US, it's very, very different. And I think that's kind of really interesting, because it's showing the extent to which people are exposed to much more partisan opinions in the US and the power of television. Whereas the UK list was much more split between print and and broadcast. And then I think the other really interesting thing was diversity. We looked at the gender balance of different countries. And broadly, you know, across all of the countries, we looked at about 70% of those mentioned, women. Also, they tend to be white and lower representation of ethnic minorities than the national population. But what you have is broadcast media, particularly in Europe, tended to be much closer to a sort of 50:50 gender balance. So there's been a lot of work on diversity within public service media, for example, and that was reflected in our data, it was about 50%. But top name print reporters and columnist in places like the UK, and US and Germany tend to be overwhelmingly male. So, you know, the gender balance seems to be distributed very differently, depending on the media type.

Federica: Was there any other pattern that you were able to find in the other countries do you look at?

Nic: I think one of the interesting things is the mix of print and television. So television dominated, it's not necessarily that they are only paying attention to these journalists in broadcast because many of these television personalities have also developed social media presences as well. Television kind of dominates, but less so in the UK, where you've got the strong brands, less so in Finland, where you've got these strong print brands, the print journalist seems to have developed a much stronger presence and a much stronger connection. Again, I think it speaks to some of the trends that we were talking about in terms of monetisation, and the ability of some of the Northern European brands in particular, to monetise that connection with the brands.

The impact of star journalists on brand identity

Federica: You touched on it before. But do you think news organisations find it beneficial or detrimental overall to their brands having prominent journalists within their ranks, who can potentially reach millions of followers directly?

Nic: I think it's a bit of a double-edged sword. I think clearly now top journalists, star journalists play a key role in the performance and reputation of brands. And we're certainly seeing a move to star journalists and the price of some of the top talent in terms of wages is going up significantly. So for example, Joe Rogan, who we mentioned earlier, is earning huge sums to present his Spotify series, but you're also seeing stars being poached. So stars at the BBC, for example, a number of them have gone to Global Radio. And in the UK, you've seen the New York Times hiring a lot of top digital talent. And then some of that top digital talent being stolen again, because the power of journalists who can work across different platformsmand host podcasts and newsletters, and bring in different audiences, is incredibly important. So yeah, I think it's about, you know, the need to be distinctive on the one hand, and having key talent is part of that. And I think it's also something to do with the changing nature of media as well social media, podcasts, newsletters, and much more vehicles for personalities. And so it's partly that media companies know that they have to embrace those new channels, and that requires building up some more of those personalities. The double-edged sword bit is, it can be detrimental if that person becomes the brand, and it can take away from the overall, they can just leave and take their followers with them.

Federica: Indeed, a fascinating but complex topic. Nic, thank you so much for joining us today on the podcast.

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