A few quick takeaways on the Reuters Institute Digital News report

The annual state-of-digital-news report from Oxford’s Reuters Institute, released today, confirmed several known trends: the advance of mobile and video, the decline of print and the sturdiness of television news. Underneath the (unsurprising) headlines were several items worth noting.

1.  The multinational survey finds large differences in trust levels. In Finland, 68% of respondents agree that they “can trust most news most of the time”; that figure falls to 32% in the US. Presenting these figures, the report’s main author Nic Newman said that the higher trust numbers tended to be in countries with public service broadcasters who are required by law to be impartial. This is the conventional explanation given for this finding and there must be some truth in it.

But I think there’s a deeper thing at work. The four countries at the bottom of this table are France, Italy, Spain and the US. Whatever else may separate them, all these are countries where the crisis of the elites has been very marked: a significant proportion of the electorate reject the explanations and accounts of what is happening given by the political class. Trust in the news media, or lack of it, is inextricably bound up with the credibility of the political elite.

2.  The fast growth and strength of digital-born global players. The Huffington Post, one of the big winners in the whole survey, is one of the most accessed news and opinion sites in the US and operates in 14 countries, often in the local language. In the league table of digital-born brands, it is beaten by Yahoo (used by 18%) – but this figure is skewed by large traffic in Japan, where Yahoo has a relatively small stake. Huffington Post is next at 10%, followed by Buzzfeed at 4%.

3.  The UK comes lowest in the table measuring whether people are prepared to pay for news. To some degree, this must reflect the huge reach of the BBC’s new output. I mention this because media analysts are deeply reluctant to draw attention to this connection for fear of being branded “anti-BBC”. I’m pro-BBC, but the Corporation’s licence fee is a £4bn intervention in the market for news and entertainment and it would be astonishing if spending on that scale – however popular – did not have some downsides. The scale of BBC news and the fact that’s it’s free at point of consumption has probably had some effect on discouraging private-sector companies from developing their own digital news. This survey suggests also that the massive reach of BBC news has dampened willingness to pay for news online.

4.  The speed with which online consumption can change and with which the unexpected occurs serves to remind us that the recurrent changes brought by digital are by no means finished. Once upon a time, legacy news providers such as newspapers made two quite wrong assumptions: that online journalism would come into existence, complete and full-formed, quickly and that online news publishing would closely resemble print, if quicker and cheaper. This report is stuffed with facts which disprove both beliefs.

5.  Enormous numbers of people have installed “ad-blocking” software: 47% in the US and 39% in the UK.

6.  From the discussion at the report’s launch: the growth of the news consumption of mobile devices “snuck up on a lot of people” (Aaron Pilhofer, The Guardian)…Online users are making stay-or-go decisions every few seconds and everything has to be focussed and organised to make them stay (Robert Shrimsley, ft.com).

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2 comments

  1. Vanita Kohli-Khandekar

    For someone who comes from a market that is crying for a ‘not-for-profit high quality’ news brand like the BBC, any questioning of it seems like looking a gift horse in the mouth. The presence of the BBC has forced other mass news outlets to keep to some basic levels of quality in the UK. In India there is no ‘pivot’ brand like that – one that keeps the for-profit/private news broadcasters in check simply by setting a high benchmark. Enjoy it, till it is possible. We are still arguing at pre-industrial speed on autonomy for state-owned media.

  2. “The UK comes lowest in the table measuring whether people are prepared to pay for news. To some degree, this must reflect the huge reach of the BBC’s new output. … the Corporation’s licence fee is a £4bn intervention in the market for news and entertainment.”

    That may be so, but the link isn’t proved by the study, and there are myriad factors which could also play…

    — UK consumers – like the Irish, whom, the study shows, are similarly reluctant to pay – are blessed with a plethora of free English-language sources, not just the BBC. In newspaper competition terms, the BBC may as well be a proxy for “internet” in general – the dynamic is similar in principle.

    — UK consumers already spend handsomely on subscription TV, music etc. This may mitigate against media spending of other forms. Have we asked about the priorities and motivations of consumers in the first place? Do they value news as highly as entertainment? Should we base research not on consumers generally but on consumers who are at least interested in news?

    — Have we asked what even constitutes “news”, something we take for granted but which, in recent years, for most consumers, has likely transmogrified in to something that may encompass updates from friends, local associations and retailers? Such groups are publishing for themselves nowadays, and we can follow. Why would people feel the need to pay for that? Unwillingness to pay may be a product of accelerated UK disintermediation of newspapers by groups and events which used to rely on them for amplification.

    Look at the state of the “market” that has supposedly endured this intervention…
    — Ravaged by the economy in which it operates such that a third of many newspapers’ revenue was wiped out in one year, many find themselves unable to perform the basic functions of a newspaper any longer.
    — We have national newspapers motivated by swinging national elections their preferred way, owned by proprietors seeking to cross-promote their business interests, steal rivals’ content, wilfully mislead readers and otherwise colour stories to their own political persuasion. You pick your party, you buy your title.
    — The market is in a parlous and awful state. Large sections appear to have lost interest in, or an ability to, perform independent journalism which consumers should require. Perhaps this is another reason consumers are reluctant to pay – they don’t see much worth paying *for*. If BBC News is to be the sole remaining independent news provider of any sufficient scale, I welcome that, and perhaps readers are voting with their feet.

    Much is unclear. Just putting some other possibilities out there.