Valuing journalism in a world of near-infinite content

Rasmus Nielsen considers the profound challenges around audience expectations, trust and revenue generation facing the news media
Man sits looking at mobile phone (REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji)

A man uses his mobile phone amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic at a shopping mall in Seoul, South Korea, September 9, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Professor Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

This is a polished version of my opening remarks for a session at ONA20 moderated by Cindy Royal, who is Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Texas State University where she works on digital and data-driven media skills and concepts.

Journalism exists in the context of its audience, both in terms of mission and in terms of sustainability, whether as business or non-profit. 

The pandemic has powerfully demonstrated journalism’s value. 

Reporters have published important independent investigations into governments’ handling of the crisis.

More broadly, our research documents that those who follow the news simply know more about the pandemic. In most countries we surveyed in April, using news organisations as a source of information about coronavirus was associated with a statistically significant increase in coronavirus knowledge. 

And recently, as part of our UK COVID-19 news and information project, we found that a majority of 56% of Brits say that the news media have helped them understand the pandemic, and 61% say that the news media has helped explain what they can do in response to it. 

However we need to recognize that much of the public feel journalism falls short of their expectations, and even in a crisis like this have not engaged extensively with the news. In the UK, our work suggests that the initial surge in news use quickly faded, news avoidance grew throughout the crisis, and more than a third think news coverage has made the coronavirus crisis worse. (Worse!) Only 7% think journalism has made things better.

It’s important to keep in mind that news is a small percentage of the time people spend online. 

In the US, comScore data documents a big increase in online news consumption as the crisis kicked off - up by thirty percent in terms of time spent from February to March. But keep in mind the big picture. That means news consumption grew from being about four and a half percent of all internet use to about five and a half percent. It’s also important to remember that most of that time is spent with a limited number of big publishers, and most of that time in turn is spent with a small subset of their published work. That means even the biggest and most popular news publishers, in the US for example Fox News and the New York Times, account for fractions of a percent of the time people spend online. And almost every other news publisher much, much less than that.

In a world of near infinite content (and many competing products, services, and sources of information), people spend their time and their money elsewhere. 

This is in part becauses others (most visibly the big platforms) solve a lot of the problems news media used to solve in far more efficient (weather, sports scores, movie listings, etc.) or engaging ways (diversion, something to talk about, a sense of what your friends might find interesting or entertaining). 

Is it perhaps also in part because people do not trust the news, do not believe it helps them understand the world around them or do not believe journalists monitor powerful people and powerful businesses? 

In our 2020 Digital News Report, across 40 markets, less than half of respondents surveyed (46%) say they feel they can trust the news they use most of the time (the news they use!). Just 38% say they feel they can trust most news most of the time. When we in 2019 asked about whether people feel that news media help keep them up to date, understand the news, and monitor powerful people and businesses, etc., the results were also mixed (see below).

Audiences want things from journalism that most journalists would like to offer and some may even say they already offer —trustworthy information, explanation and analysis, and someone independent keeping an eye on the powers that be. 

Many people just don’t think they are getting that right now.

These are hard truths. But I’ve read in an ad for a well known newspaper that truths are necessary and more important than ever. If we confront those truths, how can we move forward? I would offer three observations.

News loving elites pay for news

It is increasingly clear that there is a sustainable business for digital news aimed at a sizable minority of news lovers who are willing to pay for news that they consider distinct and quality, and who believe in the mission behind the brand. These news lovers are, however, a minority, and overwhelmingly affluent, highly educated, relatively elite individuals with values that are not simply different from many other people, but also sometimes at odds with them or actively hostile to them. 

The challenge for one set of news organizations is to do their journalism and serve that audience, often in large part through a set of bespoke, exclusive, and constantly evolving distinct products beyond “just” an app and a website, without alienating the rest of the public or actively driving them away from a journalism they may find alien to their own lives, experiences, and values in many ways.

Pay models will be even harder for local news 

It is also increasingly clear that in the digital media environment of near infinite content and intense competition the battle both for attention and for those willing to pay for news is a winner-takes-most battle. The bulk of attention and advertising goes to a few big platforms. Among news providers, the bulk of online attention goes to a handful of big national titles. (In the US, Matthew Hindman some years ago found all local news publishers combined account for only about one-sixth of news traffic online - whereas they represented a huge majority of print circulation in the past.) And in terms of digital subscriptions, a few national titles account for more than the rest of the industry put together

In a pre-digital media environment, local metro newspapers could run as if they were smaller versions of The New York Times and the Washington Post, in part because they did not compete head to head with them. Now they do, and can’t. 

Local journalism and the business of local news was always different from the business of national news. But when local titles compete directly with national titles, in addition to specialized media, e.g. The Athletic on sports - and of course Facebook and Google for attention and advertising - local news will have to become even more different to stand out, define, and carve out a distinct niche in this ever more competitive environment.

Many people will never pay for news

As advertising increasingly goes to Silicon Valley, there will be a greater focus on pay models, membership, and other forms of reader revenue both at the national and at the local level, and among for-profit and nonprofit media alike. 

In many ways this is encouraging and arguably the right route for many news media. But it is important to recognize two things:

  • This is a winner-takes-most market, it will not work for most titles if by “work” we mean everyone generating the kinds of revenues the industry was used to. 
  • If journalism aims to serve the whole public, not just willing and able to pay, and aims to do so on the basis of sustainable business models, advertising will have to be part of the mix going forward. Around 80% of US citizens say they have not paid in any ways for online news in the last year. When asked what might make them pay in the future, 40% say nothing will.

The news loving elite is well served and it is increasingly clear that a number of titles are commercially successful serving them. That is great, and really encouraging. Much more encouraging than the situation we were in a few years ago, when people were genuinely beginning to wonder if there were any sustainable business models for online news. Now we know that there are.

However it is clear that, first, local news is in a different place and requires a different approach, and, second, that forms of journalism –and business models– oriented towards the majority who do not pay, many of whom say they never will, will have to find different ways of standing out in a world of near infinite content and intense competition.

Perhaps the disappointment with which many regard existing journalism is an opportunity for those who want to work in this space? If you are better than people think, show it. If news isn’t better than many people think, it should be.