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An optimistic view on digital news media.

Digital news optimism despite lack of trust and news avoidance

Interest and trust in news are down, News avoidance is up. Reuters Institute’s annual Digital News Report is a worrying read for publishers. Distribution continues to shift to platforms, interest and trust in news are down, the report shows. The institute’s director, Rasmus Nielsen, has during the holiday season tried to introduce a more optimistic way of reading the report. He says there are at least five evidence-based reasons for optimism.

“None of these findings make the wider political, economic, social, and technological challenges that journalism face go away”, he writes but argues they are reasons for optimism.

Nielsen’s five optimistic points:

  • People are increasingly relying on digital platforms, but also have multiple concerns about the implications of more personalised news.

Nielsen writes that many people are concerned about whether the news they see online is real or fake. They generally trust news in social media less than news in general, and worry that they are missing out on important information and/or challenging points of view.

“Public concerns about what they do and do not see on platforms is an opportunity for publishers.”

  • While news avoidance is spreading in many markets, there are also clear actionable opportunities to respond.

Nielsen reports that 36% of respondents in this year’s survey say they actively avoid the news sometimes or often, seven percentage points up since 2017!

“Such selective news avoidance is clearly disquieting for journalists. But our research does not only document the challenge. It also helps identify possible ways of responding to it.”

“It is up to journalists and editors to decide what they believe is the right course of action given their editorial mission, their funding imperatives, and their target audiences.”

“Public interest in news that also identifies reasons for hope is an opportunity for publishers who recognise that this can fall within the commitment to seek truth and report it.”

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  • While general trust in news continues to erode in many countries, even in low-trust contexts, some individual brands continue to be trusted by a majority.

Nielsen concludes that the results are sometimes troubling – when many people trust brands some journalists may feel are not trustworthy, or distrust brands many expert observers respect for their reporting. 

“However unwelcome, the data helps capture important aspects of a social reality that we have to contend with.”

“The brand-level results are also, however, sometimes encouraging – as we can document that, even in low-trust contexts, some individual brands continue to be trusted by a majority, including many public service media such as the BBC as well as respected independent news media operating in difficult contexts, such as El Espectador in Colombia, The Hindu and the Indian Express in India, and ABS-CBN in the Philippines.”

“Some respected brands’ ability to maintain majority public trust even in low trust and difficult contexts is an opportunity to stand out against a backdrop of concern over misinformation, unreliable news, and political propaganda”, Nielsen argues.

  • Even in the context of a cost-of-living crisis in many countries and people re-examining their media spending, the percentage paying for online news remains stable.

Nielsen notes that the percentage of respondents who say they have paid for online news in the last year has not increased further over time.

“But the fact that 17%, on average across 20 markets, say they do is also a glass-half-full story”, Nielsen writes, adding that many publishers have grown their reader revenues to a point where they have overtaken advertising.

“If, in the recent past, many feared that there either was no sustainable business model for digital news, or that the only models that would work were premised on churnalism, clickbait, and listicles, today we may have almost the opposite problem – that the most successful business models for digital news all tend to focus on serving the (sizable) minority of affluent, highly educated, often urban, privileged and highly interested news lovers.”

“The documented success of publishers delivering commercial success on the basis of a distinct editorial offer and investment in effectively serving people’s needs online is an opportunity for others to learn from them.”

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  • While globally, across all the markets covered, platforms increasingly dominate news discovery, in some markets, news publishers retain strong direct connections.

“This year, we document the continued shift towards a more digital, more mobile, and more platform-dominated media environment.

Nielsen notes that this is exceptionally challenging for news publishers, who historically have based both their societal role and their business models on controlling the means of distribution. 

“As people go elsewhere, they no longer do.”

He argues that data shows variations in how successful publishers in different countries have been in terms of carving out strong direct connections with the public in this incredibly competitive environment.

A diverse range of news media have managed to stand out from what platforms have to offer and maintain a direct connection, he writes:

“The fact that publishers in some countries with very high levels of social media use continue to have strong direct connections with much of the public document that news media can still find ways to reach people even in platform-dominated environments.”

Highlights from the institute’s Digital News Report:

  • Around the world, the proportion paying for any online news has increased only slightly, with this growth being limited to a few Nordic countries. Even in countries where people pay in higher numbers, most only do so for one title.
  • Social communication is becoming more private with people continuing to turn away from Facebook. WhatsApp is becoming the primary social communication tool for news in many countries in the Global South including Brazil (53% usage for news), Malaysia (50%) and South Africa (49%).
  • Concern around misinformation is high in many countries despite efforts by platforms and publishers to build public confidence.
  • Trust in news in general is down by 2 percentage points to 42%, and less than half (49%) trust the news that they themselves use.

Americans use digital devices

A recent study of news consumption by US-based Pew Research Center says about half of Americans say they prefer a digital device (53%), more than say they prefer TV (33%). Even fewer Americans prefer radio (7%) or print (5%). These percentages have stayed mostly consistent since 2020.

A large majority of US adults (82%) say they often or sometimes get news from a smartphone, computer or tablet, including 49% who say they do so often. This is similar to the 51% who said they often got news from digital devices in 2021, but lower than the 60% of those who said the same in 2020. 

The portion that gets news from digital devices continues to outpace those who get news from television. The portion of Americans who often get news from television has also decreased, from 40% in 2020 to 31% in 2022. Americans turn to radio and print publications for news far less frequently than to digital devices and television, the Pew study shows.

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