This year’s report comes against the backdrop of rising populism, political and economic instability, along with intensifying concerns about giant tech companies and their impact on society. News organisations have taken the lead in reporting these trends, but also find themselves challenged by them – further depressing an industry reeling from more than a decade of digital disruption.
Platform power – and the ruthless efficiency of their advertising operations – has undermined news business models contributing to a series of high-profile layoffs in traditional (Gannett) and digital media (Mic, BuzzFeed) in the early part of 2019. Political polarisation has encouraged the growth of partisan agendas online, which together with clickbait and various forms of misinformation is helping to further undermine trust in media – raising new questions about how to deliver balanced and fair reporting in the digital age.
Against this background we are seeing some real shifts of focus. News organisations are increasingly looking to subscription and membership or other forms of reader contribution to pay the bills in a so-called ‘pivot to paid’. Platforms are rethinking their responsibilities in the face of events (Christchurch attacks, Molly Russell suicide) and regulatory threats, with Facebook rebalancing its business towards messaging apps and groups – the so-called ‘pivot to private’. Meanwhile audiences continue to embrace on-demand formats with new excitement around podcasts (New York Times, Guardian) and voice technologies – the so-called ‘pivot to audio’.
And amid all this frenetic change, some are beginning to question whether the news media are still fulfilling their basic mission of holding powerful people to account and helping audiences understand the world around them. The questioning comes in the form of government inquiries in some countries into the future sustainability of quality journalism (with recommendations as to what can be done to support it). But it also comes from parts of the public who feel that the news media often fall short of what people expect from them.
Our report this year, based on data from almost 40 countries and six continents, aims to cast light on these key issues, principally through our survey data but supplemented with in-depth qualitative research on the news habits of young people in the UK and US. The overall story is captured in this Executive Summary, followed by Section 1 with chapters containing additional analysis on key themes and then individual country pages in Section 2 carrying additional context provided by local experts in each market.
Here is a summary of some of the most important findings from our 2019 research.
- Despite the efforts of the news industry, we find only a small increase in the numbers paying for any online news – whether by subscription, membership, or donation. Growth is limited to a handful of countries mainly in the Nordic region (Norway 34%, Sweden 27%) while the number paying in the US (16%) remains stable after a big jump in 2017.
- Even in countries with higher levels of payment, the vast majority only have ONE online subscription – suggesting that ‘winner takes all dynamics’ are likely to be important. One encouraging development though is that most payments are now ‘ongoing’, rather than one-offs.
- In some countries, subscription fatigue may also be setting in, with the majority preferring to spend their limited budget on entertainment (Netflix/Spotify) rather than news. With many seeing news as a ‘chore’, publishers may struggle to substantially increase the market for high-priced ‘single title’ subscriptions. As more publishers launch pay models, over two-thirds (70%) of our sample in Norway and half (50%) in the United States now come across one or more barriers each week when trying to read online news.
- In many countries, people are spending less time with Facebook and more time with WhatsApp and Instagram than this time last year. Few users are abandoning Facebook entirely, though, and it remains by far the most important social network for news.
- Social communication around news is becoming more private as messaging apps continue to grow everywhere. WhatsApp has become a primary network for discussing and sharing news in non-Western countries like Brazil (53%) Malaysia (50%), and South Africa (49%).
- People in these countries are also far more likely than in the West to be part of large WhatsApp groups with people they don’t know – a trend that reflects how messaging applications can be used to easily share information at scale, potentially encouraging the spread of misinformation. Public and private Facebook Groups discussing news and politics have become popular in Turkey (29%) and Brazil (22%) but are much less used in Western countries such as Canada (7%) or Australia (7%).
- Concern about misinformation and disinformation remains high despite efforts by platforms and publishers to build public confidence. In Brazil 85% agree with a statement that they are worried about what is real and fake on the internet. Concern is also high in the UK (70%) and US (67%), but much lower in Germany (38%) and the Netherlands (31%).
- Across all countries, the average level of trust in the news in general is down 2 percentage points to 42% and less than half (49%) agree that they trust the news media they themselves use. Trust levels in France have fallen to just 24% (-11) in the last year as the media have come under attack over their coverage of the Yellow Vests movement. Trust in the news found via search (33%) and social media remains stable but extremely low (23%).
- Worries about the quality of information may be good for trusted news brands. Across countries over a quarter (26%) say they have started relying on more ‘reputable’ sources of news – rising to 40% in the US. A further quarter (24%) said they had stopped using sources that had a dubious reputation in the last year. But the often low trust in news overall, and in many individual brands, underlines this is not a development that will help all in the industry.
- The news media are seen as doing a better job at breaking news than explaining it. Across countries, almost two-thirds feel the media are good at keeping people up to date (62%), but are less good at helping them understand the news (51%). Less than half (42%) think the media do a good job in holding rich and powerful people to account – and this figure is much lower in South Korea (21%), Hungary (20%), and Japan (17%).
- There are also significant differences within countries, as people with higher levels of formal education are more likely to evaluate the news media positively along every dimension than the rest of the population, suggesting that the news agenda is more geared towards the interests and needs of the more educated.
- To understand the rise of populism and its consequences for news and media use, we have used two questions to identify people with populist attitudes, and compared their news and media use with those of non-populists. People with populist attitudes are more likely to identify television as their main source of news, more likely to rely on Facebook for online news, and less likely to trust the news media overall.
- More people say they actively avoid the news (32%) than when we last asked this question two years ago. Avoidance is up 6 percentage points overall and 11 points in the UK, driven by boredom, anger, or sadness over Brexit. People say they avoid the news because it has a negative effect on their mood (58%) or because they feel powerless to change events.
- The smartphone continues to grow in importance for news, with two-thirds (66%) now using the device to access news weekly (+4pp). Mobile news aggregators like Apple News and Upday are becoming a more significant force. Apple News in the United States now reaches more iPhone users (27%) than the Washington Post (23%).
- The growth of the smartphone has also been driving the popularity of podcasts, especially with the young. More than a third of our combined sample (36%) say they have consumed at least one podcast over the last month but this rises to half (50%) for those under 35. The mobile phone is the most used device (55%) for podcast listening.
- Voice-activated smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home continue to grow rapidly. Usage for any purpose has risen from 9% to 12% in the United States, from 7% to 14% in the UK, from 5% to 11% in Canada, and from 4% to 8% in Australia. Despite this, we find that usage for news remains low in all markets. [Source: Nic Newman, Research Associate, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Executive Summary]
Access to Digital News Report 2019