Our podcast: Digital News Report 2023. Episode 1: What you need to know
Authors of the Digital News Report 2023, the most comprehensive study of news consumption trends worldwide, discuss the key findings from this year's report. In this episode we explore the key findings from our Digital News Report 2023, the most comprehensive study of news consumption worldwide. We discuss some of the big headlines from the report including how people are accessing news, perceptions of algorithms’ role in news, subscriptions, news avoidance and a whole lot more.
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.
Rasmus Nielsen is co-author of the Digital News Report, Director of the Reuters Institute and Professor of Political Communication at the University of Oxford. His work focuses on changes in the news media, political communication, and the role of digital technologies in both.
Our host Federica Cherubini is Director 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.
A relentless and challenging news environment | Social media and news | What people think of algorithms | Paying for news | News avoidance | Engagement in news | News podcasts | Trust in news | Looking to the future
A relentless and challenging news environment ↑
Federica: The report finds that the war in Ukraine and COVID-19 have just “accelerated some structural shifts towards more digital, mobile and platform dominated media environments”. This is the 12th edition of the report. So this is something that the Institute has been tracking for more than a decade now. Nic, what are the big trends we're seeing in this regard?
Nic: Well, as you say, it's been 12 years. And in each of those years, relentlessly, we've seen that sort of connection that audiences have with news brands weaken, with greater preference given to accessing news and consuming news via tech platforms. That could be search, it could be social media, but it's also aggregators like Apple News. And people are doing that because of the convenience of those platforms and the relevance. And one of the questions we ask is, do you prefer to start your news journey directly or do you prefer to start with one of these aggregators? And direct access has fallen by around 10 percentage points over the last five, six years, and every year it does the same thing. And that's primarily driven by the habits of younger people. And there are a few other trends we've seen over the last 10 years, which are playing into that, such as the increased reliance on mobile phones. It was pretty much computers when we started this 12 years ago. And again, that's increased the power of those platforms. It's increased the power of the apps where people are spending their time and young people in particular are spending their time and it's quite hard to get a news app on the front screen of a phone. So the direction of travel, I think, is pretty clear. And it's relentless. And you know, maybe Rasmus can tell us a bit more why this matters to publishers.
Federica: Yeah, Rasmus, the strands that Nic describes seem very ingrained, and perhaps irreversible. Why should news publisher sit up and take notice?
Rasmus: Well, it’s a super challenging environment. As with every challenging environment, you need to know what it looks like to be able to navigate it. It's a challenging environment in the sense that when publishers pursue the opportunities that platforms offer, try to reach people where they actually spend their time online: social media, search, messaging, applications, video sharing sites and the like. At the same time, they are contributing to the commercial success of companies that they compete with for attention, that they compete with for advertising that they compete with, in some cases for consumer spending as well. So that in itself is already a tricky relationship, and one where the balance between platform opportunities and platform risks is one that every publisher has to think carefully about what's right for their editorial mission, what's right for their business model and funding model. And more broadly than that, it's also clear that some of these platform environments, particularly social media, Facebook, to some extent, other environments, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, are quite cacophonous environments, where publishers’ journalism is presented alongside personal forms of expression, also advertising, rumour, misinformation, even coordinated attacks against some individual journalists, often women and journalists of colour from other minoritized groups, and coordinated attacks by political actors and others who want to undermine the independence and credibility of journalism while using these platforms to try to reach out to people that they want to cater to. So it's a very challenging environment. The challenge is the credibility of journalism that challenges the funding models of journalism. At the same time if journalism wants to be for everybody, so for the whole public, it has to recognise as Nic says that a lot of people are platform-first in terms of their media use. And for those news media who decide that they want to reach them, they have to think about how they can reach them also on these platforms.
Social media and news ↑
Federica: Nic, social media itself has also seen some important changes in the last few years as the use of Facebook for news is declining. The use of visual platforms like TikTok, for example, is growing, especially among young people. What does this report tell us about this change?
Nic: Yeah, it's quite a significant change. I think. I mean, if you look at Facebook, in 2016 42% said they access news via Facebook. That's down to 28%. And the networks that are growing are the visual networks that are sort of mobile-first networks, if you like, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube slightly different - it's that but it's definitely about video, which is, I think, really another strong theme in this year's report. And I think what's interesting about some of these networks is that they work slightly differently. And they're very personality-driven as well. So many of the people who are making an impact in these networks aren't necessarily journalists but you know, they might be social media influencers or celebrities. And that's another shift that we're seeing, and therefore the culture and the language and the tone and the way in which these networks work is different from sort of first-generation social networks. So I think that raises, you know, a number of challenges for media companies in terms of how do you engage in these different kinds of networks, and particularly about attracting and engaging young people.
Federica: And in terms of news, which kind of news are people consuming and TikTok and Instagram?
Nic: Well, the first thing to say is, people aren't really there for news, they're there to, you know, to have fun, connect with friends and consume different kinds of content. But over the last few years, we've seen a lot more news on TikTok, partly because of COVID. And people at home during COVID. Partly because of Ukraine, eyewitness news, political news. So, for example, in Kenya, TikTok has played a huge role in the recent Kenyan election, including disinformation, of course, as well. And actually, just recently, in the last couple of weeks in Thailand, you had a whole new party, winning the largest number of seats and they had a really sophisticated social media campaign really connected with young people. And TikTok was a big part of that.
Federica: Are audiences paying attention to journalists and news organisations on those platforms?
Nic: Well, we asked that specifically this year, ‘where do you pay attention in these platforms?’ And as I say, it is different. And it's much more influencer-based on platforms like Tiktok, and Snapchat. Whereas in the traditional, can I call them traditional social networks, legacy social networks like Facebook and Twitter, then it’s journalists or mainstream media, you know. The expectations are that a lot of the news that can be created and consumed will be from journalists and a mainstream media organisations. So that's another difference. And as I say, a challenge for media companies.
What people think of algorithms ↑
Federica: Rasmus with news delivery, becoming ever more platform dominated, the role that algorithms play in news has become even more important. Do online news users understand the role of algorithms and use distribution? And how do they feel about them?
Rasmus: Well, I think if we're being honest, the fundamental truth is probably none of us understand the role of algorithms in content discovery and recommendation online. Sometimes, it seems, including people who work on the underlying technologies at the technology company. Some of these things may just be too big and complicated for any one of us to really wrap our heads around. That said, in the past, when we've sort of tried to research people, so top line understanding of this, using the case of Facebook and the research we did a few years ago, there are some members of the public about 3-in-10 across the market who have a basic understanding of how automated recommendations on a social media site work on the basis of computer analysis of what you might be interested in. Interestingly, there are as many people who give wrong answers who say that it's random what you see or that it's selected by journalists who work for the social media companies or journalists who work for the outlets behind the content that you see. And then there are 40% of our respondents at the time, who just said ‘we don't know’ which is probably often the more accurate summary of where many of us are, I would say myself too, and in some situations, so that's not to knock anybody.
This year, we have tried to approach it a little bit in a different way. And just to ask people about their appreciation of these tools that they demonstrably rely on more and more on. And it turns out that people are sort of quite sceptical. So we asked people about whether different ways of getting news are good ways to get news. And despite the fact that so many people across the world clear majorities rely on various forms of automatic selection, whether through social or search or aggregators, at the very same time as people rely on it, it's just 3-in-10 who say that automatic selection based on past consumption, which is sort of one of the the underlying approaches of these technologies, is a good way to get news and as many disagree, so people are quite sceptical of these approaches to getting news and their concerns. When queried in more detail it’s that they will be missing out on important stories. So they will be missing out on alternative points of view that aren't being surfaced to them through these algorithms. I think there's a very profound public scepticism of many of these systems. Now, as many journalists know, from their own personal experience, but also from research by others, and indeed, ourselves included, that doesn't necessarily always translate into a great appreciation of journalism. So it's sort of roughly the same number of people who say that new selection by editors or journalists is a good way to get news online. So we live, in a sense, in an age of what we in some of our work is called generalised scepticism where people may have individual sources that they trust or individual journalists who they trust, but in general, they regard most news and certainly most news they see on platforms with great scepticism.
Paying for news ↑
Federica: Rasmus, another big part of the report every year is looking at the business of journalism and paying for online news, for example. And so as inflation continues to grip many countries around the world are the signs that pressures on household budgets are putting a squeeze on online subscription for news?
Rasmus: I mean, I think the good news for publishers who want to base their financial sustainability, at least in part on reader revenue, is that we are in a much better place than we were, say, five or ten years ago. In many countries, there now is a significant minority, but a large number of people, who are demonstrably willing to pay for at least some of the online news that they consume. It wasn't obvious that it would go that way. Most of us have access to an abundant plethora of sources that are free at the point of consumption. And now across the markets where we track this systematically, 17% say that they pay for online news in some form, in the last year, at least some of the online news that they consume. At the same time, we need to recognise that that top line hasn't changed. So we aren't really seeing the growth in that top line and that the dynamics are very clearly still a winner takes most market when it comes to the sort of classic subscription to a single title. It's very heavily a limited number of upmarket national brands that are winning at subscription business, even as many other titles really struggle to build a critical mass of paying subscribers.
In terms of the people who pay, it's clear that inflation and the cost of living crisis is leading a lot of people to think about their overall spend, perhaps, they see on their credit card statement or bank statement. There are lots of subscriptions by now, many of them for entertainment and other forms of online services. And perhaps in some cases, also one or two for news and people are really reconsidering ‘is this value for money?’ or ‘am I going to let this subscription continue when the trial period comes to an end, and the price suddenly jumps to a much higher price point, even more than I'm paying for, say music or video in some cases?’. And in that sense, there is a lot of churn, those who stay tend to be generally affluent, highly interested, high levels of formal education, quite sort of upper-crust quite elite audience. And this, of course, in turn, raises a whole set of other questions about who journalism is oriented toward serving, is it mostly people like me? Or is there something for everybody?
Federica: And how much do online subscription levels differ from country to country and what my explain these differences?
Rasmus: There’s a really wide variation even across otherwise reasonably sort of similar high income democracies. So in some countries, it's still, you know, well under 10%, who say that they subscribe to an online news source or pay for online news. And in a few markets, mostly in Northern Europe, we're looking at sort of 20 or 30, or in a few cases, almost 40% of online news users saying that they pay for online news. Some of the reasons why the Nordic countries are ahead are sort of things that other publishers can't really do anything about. These are countries with a long history of paid print newspaper subscriptions, you can't go back in time, if you're trying to do this in France or Italy or elsewhere, you can't go back and create that tradition and then benefit from it today. But I think other things that publishers elsewhere may may want to may want to look at and consider, which is that many of the publishers in these markets have had a long term pay strategy that they have built incrementally over time, and they've helped with that course, and not been caught between the sort of two chairs and trying to get reach and and a sort of distinct, credible, pay worthy offer at the same time. And I think we are seeing that strategy pay off for quite a lot of titles. I think it's really important to remember that subscriptions is a long game. It's not something that comes overnight and publishers who want to go down that route need to be prepared for quite a lot of short term challenges and even financial pain, if they want to pursue that long term game. And even then, of course, there are no guarantees but they can learn something from that long term commitment, that focus on editorial, distinct editorial quality and relentless use of data and analytics to optimise for reader value that we've seen with some of the Nordic publishers.
News avoidance ↑
Federica: That's can only bring me to talk about news avoidance and news participation, Nic. So news avoidance is down only very slightly this year from 2022. But people are still selectively avoiding news at near record levels. You look at some ways that people avoid the news, what did they say?
Nic: Yeah, we talked a lot about news avoidance last year, and we saw those really significant increases in 2017. And this year, we really wanted to understand a bit more about what was going to avoid the news. And what we found was the sort of two slightly overlapping groups, but I think slightly different groups. So one group of people who were trying to avoid all news. And so that might be, you know, when the news was going to come on, on the radio or the television, they would switch channels, they would actively try and get away from it or scroll past the news and social media. And, you know, those people generally are less interested in news and less interested in politics in general. And then as a second group that are really doing more specific types of avoidance. And it's really trying to reduce the amount of news. And I think in a way, this is about dealing with the overload. So they are consuming news, they are interested, but they are also trying to ration themselves by perhaps cutting out news first thing in the morning or last thing at night, or turning off notifications or avoiding particular topics and news. So a significant proportion are avoiding news that makes them feel depressed or makes them feel anxious, for example.
Federica: Does the report offer any insights into what publishers can do to address the issue of news avoidance?
Nic: Well, that's one of the things we want to go on and try and try and get out. It's very difficult because it's a complicated subject. And there are, you know, there are many different reasons and many different groups here. But I think one of the things we did was we asked about different kinds of journalistic activity and approaches which people have talked about as being potential solutions. So things like you know, more positive news, or more news that offers solutions rather than just points out the problems. And people liked this idea. They may just be saying this in a survey, but certainly amongst avoiders, these came out at the very top along with better explanation of the news. So I think this would work with some groups and obviously publishers are trying some of these approaches. What was interesting is the news that avoiders liked the least, was the constantly updating big stories of the day. And for people who never avoid the news, that's the news they liked the most. So you've really got this dilemma where, as Rasmus was indicating, quite often news sites that sort of set up to super-serve people who are really interested in news but that also seems to be turning other people away. And I think this is really where, you know, personalization, as well as taking content out through different channels is a sort of tactic that might be more effective going forwards.
Engagement in news ↑
Federica: Yeah, that's a different difficult thing to balance. Rasmus, when we look at news participation, the report shows the percentage of people commenting on news sites and social media has declined recently in many countries. Why do you think this is happening?
Rasmus: I think it's very clear that for a very significant number of people, it's because they have a very bad experience of it on social media that often takes a very laissez faire approach to content moderation. And a hands-off approach to responding to harassment of users in ways that really, disproportionately affects women, and racialized and ethnic minorities, religious minorities in many parts of the world. So an intensely-bad experience. This is one reason for some people to have a less participatory approach to news at least in these sort of relatively quasi public spaces, such as social media. At the same time, more broadly, I think we should also remember that most people in our survey, at least, would say that their experience of having a more sort of participatory approach to online news is neither positive nor negative (40%) or even positive for quite a lot of people. So I think for that part of the public, it's maybe a bit of a novelty wearing off. It's maybe also a bit of journalists and news media being a bit more cautious because a lot of people have been burned by these bad experiences and by coordinated attacks, and like closing comment sections, taking a less participatory approach to how they use social media, more sort of marketing and top of funnel tools and ways of engaging in open audience engagement, or using it for engagement, but in more closed for us where they can control a bit more who is involved and focus more on serving people who have a more constructive relationship with the brand.
Now, the broader backdrop, I think, is one that is aligned with some of the things that we have found in our work elsewhere, which is in many markets across the world, we see a decline over time and in how interested people say they aren't news. Many news organisations report declining levels of use of their products, in particular after the hyper-news cycle of Trump and the war in Ukraine and COVID have come to an end. Now we'll see with the coming elections in lots of places around the world, how that pans out. But the reason I mentioned that here is that it's not just online participation in our data is declining online participation with news. It's also offline participation, which is down seven percentage points, since 2018, to 32%. So lots of people talk about the news with friends and family and colleagues offline. But even that number is declining. So in many parts of the world, of course, it's in part because news deals with polarising and sensitive topics. And you may just not want to talk about that, neither online nor offline. Because it might be two arguments you'd rather avoid, or it might risk sort of creating bad blood with people you really respect and like in your social life. So I think we are seeing quite a lot of people being more cautious. And as a result, the ones who are engaging are less and less representative of the public at large, and they tend to be heavily partisan. And they tend to be more male and more interested in news. And in that sense, they really do not represent the public at large, let alone public opinion. That doesn't mean they're not important. Doesn't mean that some journalists and news organisations can't or shouldn't engage with them. But it's really, really important to always remember that the sort of discussions that play out around commenting on and sharing news in online environments are not representative of the public at large.
News podcasts ↑
Federica: Later in this podcast series we will focus specifically on the role of podcasts in news. But Nic, just briefly, are news podcasts managing to find a sizable audience in the wider podcast market in general? What kind of news podcasts are people listening to?
Nic: Yeah, I mean, audio and podcasting is growing. It's definitely interesting to publishers because they reach a younger audience and an audience that's quite upmarket, which also appeals to advertisers. And it's a rare growth story. albeit quite slow. So what we've done this year is really just look at news podcasts, specifically. And I won't go into detail because we've got a separate episode. We've categorised how it looks across countries. But it's just three quick things that I think are interesting about what we found. So I think again, it plays into this personality-driven approach. We're increasingly seeing so many of the most popular news podcasts are personality led, rather than, you know, brand-led. I think. Secondly, it's a disruption to broadcasters. So we see, you know, digital-born brands, we see other publishers, really able to compete with broadcasters in this space in many cases. So new competition, and then we're just seeing it’s really hard to know what a podcast is anymore. You know, it started off, it was really clear, it was about audio, and it had particular formats, but increasingly, it's mixing up with video. So, you know, YouTube's a really popular distribution platform for podcasts now. And many audio podcasts are now filmed to get attention in that social media ecosystem we talked about earlier. So it's a really, really interesting and fast moving space.
Trust in news ↑
Federica: And to all our listeners, we as we said, we will do a specific episode of the podcast on this. So come back for that. Rasmus moving on to trust, which is another big topic that the report looks at. A couple of years ago, we said trust in news increased, as many came to rely on journalists to keep them informed about COVID-19. Now, trust is down a bit again this year in many countries. How should we read these figures?
Rasmus: I think we saw during the pandemic a rallying around institutions in many parts of the world, in a moment of crisis and uncertainty, in lots of different parts of society. We saw some increases in trust in news media and journalism, also in government health authorities and scientists. Even as of course, some people really saw more and more active distrust towards these institutions. That rallying around institutions has dissipated since the news agenda has returned to being focused on divisive and contentious issues, often dominated by politicians that many people don't really like at all, and perhaps don't particularly don't like if they disagree with their political views. So that sort of COVID bump has dissipated. More broadly, I think the thing we always should keep in mind when we think about trust is that trust is not the same as trustworthiness. And while everybody has the right and the ability to form their own opinion about whether they think news is worth trusting most of the time, or whether indeed any individual news branch is worth trusting, public opinion about this, whether individual members of the public’s subjective opinion or in the aggregate in the way we studied in the Digital News Report, is not a measure of the trustworthiness of news overall, let alone the trustworthiness of any one news organisation. What it does give is a really important indication in the social contract between journalists and the public. And we find again this year that in some parts of the world that social contract is really strong; countries like Finland, some other countries in Europe and elsewhere, where a clear majority of the public say they trust most news most of the time, many brands enjoy high trust. In many other parts of the world, that social contract is much more fraught. And while most people are selectively trusting they have some news brands that they trust. They are less trusting of news overall, or even actually distrusting news overall.
Looking to the future ↑
Federica: Rasmus, the report presents a very complex set of findings and we briefly went through some, do you think there is an overall takeaway for how news media should be approaching the rapidly changing news consumption landscape depicted in a report?
Rasmus: It's very important always to stress that every context is different. Every news organisation is different in terms of its editorial ambitions, in terms of its funding models, in terms of the community that it aims to serve. And everybody needs to make the decisions they feel are right for them and for their context and for the people, the parts of the public that they want to serve. And some of these differences are very, very pronounced between very privileged parts of the world and very, very difficult parts of the world, between very privileged news organisations and people who do very difficult work under very challenging circumstances. There are some differences in terms of how people use media around the world and a lot of differences in terms of how they think about news around the world. But also, I think, a really clear overall global trend, which is this ongoing move towards a more digital, mobile and platform-dominated media environment where people who are very sceptical of the platforms they rely on nonetheless continue to rely on them. And where, as Nic said at the outset, however unwelcome this is from the point of view of journalists and news media and editors who have a very challenging job of navigating this environment, we need to recognise that this change does seem to be one way and that while it's true as younger people who are very fond of mobile media and a visual-led social platforms and video sharing sites, even though it is true that as they come of age, their content interests will change, I don't think we have many reasons to believe that their platform preferences will change all that much. I mean, the same way that someone like myself, who, you know, came of age in an age of landlines, and then got mobile phones, there is no reason to believe that I will suddenly want a landline instead of a mobile phone just because I have a kid. Or the same way that people who grew up with children with black and white television and then enjoy colour television, all of a sudden want black and white televisions just because they buy a house. I think we need to recognise that though people's constant interest, a very different people's perception of the media environment varies enormously across the world, and rightly so, that there are some very strong, broad trends in the direction of travel in terms of how people find and access information. However unwelcome, that is from any publishers, because it is a super challenging environment.
Federica: Without necessarily naming any names. But if you think about the news organisations from around the world, and are successfully negotiating these challenges, what would you say they have in common? How are they doing this?
Rasmus: I mean, everyone can succeed in many different ways. And I think it's really up to journalists and members of the public to judge the successful nests of news organisations, you know, the things that I appreciate as a member of the public won't be the same as everybody else. The things that anyone news organisations aspire to won't be the same as every one of their competitors and peers. That said, I think a common denominator of a lot of the organisations that make journalism possible is the idea that financial sustainability is a precondition for editorial independence, not a sufficient one, but a necessary one. And I do think that we are seeing a growing number, a small, but growing number both of digital born entrants, but also legacy titles, reinventing themselves, who are carving out a space in this super-challenging environment, offering very distinct high value-add journalism, being very focused on being extremely clear about who they are for, and really try to meet those people where they are and use data and analytics to continually judge whether the journalism they do is great in the eyes of the members the public that they want to serve, or primarily great in the eyes of the journalist who actually practise it. Because the last thing matters enormously but at the end of the day, journalism exists in the context of its audience, and value is creating the relationship between journalism and the people who rely on it. And I think we are seeing more and more news organisations really put that at the heart of how they practise their editorial mission, but also how they build their funding model.
Federica: Nic, in this challenging environment, Rasmus just gave us some positivity to look at. Who was doing it well, what are the things that they are focusing on? And why they might be successful? Is there anything in the report, that particularly surprised you or may even say anything that suggests that there is a light at the end of the tunnel for news media? What would you say is your takeaway?
Nic: Yeah, it's been a tough year. And the report to some extent, reflects those challenges. But, you know, as, as we've said, there are there are many parts of the world where journalism is doing an amazing job where it's very highly trusted, where there's a group of publishers who are making money, and delivering high quality journalism and adapting to this new world, which I think, you know, you could summarise as being about building lasting and long term relationships, through podcasts, newsletters, you know, new formats, not holding on to everything that has come from the past, but actually really leaning into some of the trends that we've talked about. And so that inspires me. You know, I think in any change, it's difficult, but there's also huge opportunities. And I think we see this every year, not just in the data that we collect, but actually in the country pages where, you know, what we hear there is the stories of industry really adapting and changing and finding new paths through this difficult environment.
Federica: Fantastic. I like ending with a negative positive. Thank you so much, Rasmus and Nic, for joining us today.