VIENNA — Last week saw the publication of the fifth Digital News Report (DNR) from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. The research, based on a survey of more than 50,000 online news users in 26 countries around the world, is the largest on-going study of its kind.
Blending historical trend data with topical questions, the report is essential reading for journalists and news executives, 700 of whom turned out to hear lead author Nic Newman and his fellow editor Dr. David Levy present some of the key conclusions at the Global Editor’s Network’s annual conference (GEN Summit 2016).
Among digital news users, the following trends stood out:
1. We’re seeing an increase in social media for discovery and consumption
“We really hit a landmark this year,” Newman told the audience, highlighting how – for the first time – more than half of the DNR sample now uses social media for news each week. In tracking this trend, we’ve seen “enormous growth in most markets since 2013,” he added.
- 51% use social media for news each week.
- 12% say social media is their main news source.
- More 18-24s now prefer social media (28%), as a news source, to TV news (24%).
- 44% of the DNR sample uses Facebook for news each week.
Facebook’s news reach is more than double its nearest rival, You Tube (19%), although the video network plays a prominent news role in some countries. Twitter (10%) meanwhile has an impact due to its popularity with heavy news users and influencers.
2. Smartphone use for news is up sharply again
Smartphones and tablets now account for more news users than desktop. “We passed this tipping point in the past 12 months,” Newman said.
More generally though, tablet usage is leveling off or falling. “This is not where we thought we would be a few years ago,” Newman reminded us, “when the tablet was seen as the potential savior of the news industry.”
- 53% say they use a smartphone to access news each week.
- Usage is particularly high in Sweden (69%), Korea (66%), and Switzerland (61%).
- This contrasts with 48% in the US and 46% in the UK.
- Significant numbers use their smartphone to access the news (16% in the UK and 17% in the US) at the start of their day.
Almost half of Americans (48%) and a third of Britons (33%) access news first thing via social media, instead of going directly to a news app or website. “Distributed content – and the move to smartphones – are going hand in hand,” Newman said.
3. Ad blocking use is significant with few people paying for news
“If you download it [an ad-blocker], you use it,” Newman noted. This type of activity – which has garnered much attention in the past year – is mostly confined to desktop media usage. Only 8% of smartphone users admitted using ad-blockers on their phone.
But, with a third of the sample indicating they planned to install an ad-blocker on their smartphone in the next year, the challenge for publishers to making digital advertising pay is only going to increase.
A key driver for the rise in ad-blocking, the survey discovered, is the “intrusive nature” of online advertising. Audiences are “spooked by ads which follow you around,” Newman remarked, adding: “it’s pretty clear people are rejecting ad tech as it’s currently practiced.”
- Ad-blocking ranges from 10% (Japan) to 38% (Poland).
- Usage is higher among online news consumers under 35.
Digital ads aside, the study also found other revenue opportunities are also problematic. Less than half of DNR respondents in the U.S. and U.K. said they would accept sponsored content – or native advertising – on websites in exchange for free news content.
- In the U.S., those paying for online news – via subscription or one-off payments – fell from 11% to 9% during the past year.
- The number of people paying for online news in the U.K. (7%) is one of the lowest in the world.
This suggests it’s “harder to charge for news in English language,” Newman surmised, possibly as a result of the widespread availability of free news in the English language and global competition for digital audiences.
But, as Dr. Levy wrote in an article for The Conversation, (a piece I co-authored) “these figures tell only half a story.”
“In the U.K., the median payment – at £82 (about US$115) a year – is the highest in the world (with the U.S. in third place at £62 [about $90]).”
“These numbers are driven by the success of subscription packages offered by some publishers. In these two countries, there remains an audience willing to pay significant amounts for high quality news online. It’s not a solution for every organization but can work where content is unique or of distinctly high quality that’s valued by consumers.”
4. Video news is growing more slowly than might be expected
This area has witnessed “surprisingly low growth and significant variations across countries.” “People are still incredibly wedded to the speed and convenience of text,” Newman noted, citing that 78% mostly read news online, and that they only occasionally view news video.
Given the energies (and money) that many companies have invested into online video, these findings may merit further exploration.
- Weekly news video consumption is highest in the United States (33%).
- In the EU less than a quarter (22%) of digital audiences consume video.
- Barriers to use include: finding/reading news quicker and more convenient (41%) and annoyance at pre-roll ads (35%).
- Of “those who are watching video, the majority of it is not happening on the websites themselves, but offsite,” Newman said. This trend is especially prevalent in Brazil (52% vs. 33%), Greece ($8% vs. 37%) and Italy (45% vs 26%).
5. Traditional news brands remain valued, but digital brands gaining ground
The 2016 study also examined attitudes to algorithms and aggregators, alongside trust in these tools, journalists and news organizations.
- Trust in news is highest in Finland (65%) and lowest in Greece (20%).
- In the United States, news media is trusted by a third (33%) of users.
Audiences typically trust institutions more than individuals. “In most countries, it is the news brand — with its heritage and values — that people really identify with, more than journalists who are often trusted a bit less,” Newman revealed.
Against this backdrop, the research found many consumers would prefer content chosen by algorithms rather than by editors or journalists – especially if based on personal reading history.
The impact of such moves can be profound for audiences and publishers.
- Although 36% are happy for algorithms to select content based on previous activity, 57% worry this may mean they “miss key information.” 55% were concerned about missing “challenging viewpoints” and 48% expressed privacy concerns.
For publishers, other issues abound.
- When viewing content on third party platforms, news users notice originating brands less than half the time in the UK and Canada. In Japan and South Korea – where distributed news is more widespread – this number drops further still.
“This is, perhaps, a sign of things to come if we’re going to see more aggregation in Europe,” Newman warned.
The 2016 report – whilst painting a picture of digital disruption and change – nonetheless reiterates the value traditional news brands continue to enjoy with consumers.
Although digital-born companies like BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post are beginning to enjoy significant reach (the study established that The Huffington Post is the second-most-consumed online news source in the U.S. and the third most popular in the U.K.) these online-only services tend to typically be used as secondary sources or for softer news.
Meanwhile, although avenues to news are changing fast, most of the news consumed by audiences still originates from newspaper groups, broadcasters, or digital born brands that invest in original content.
The challenge for these outlets – as well as their digital brothers in arms – remains how to make quality journalism pay. That’s a question few people have an answer to just yet.
Damian Radcliffe is the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism at the University of Oregon and an Honorary Research Fellow at Cardiff University.