By Nic Newman, Senior Research Associate, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
This year’s report comes in the midst of a global health pandemic that is unprecedented in modern times and whose economic, political, and social consequences are still unfolding. The seriousness of this crisis has reinforced the need for reliable, accurate journalism that can inform and educate populations, but it has also reminded us how open we have become to conspiracies and misinformation. Journalists no longer control access to information, while greater reliance on social media and other platforms give people access to a wider range of sources and ‘alternative facts’, some of which are at odds with official advice, misleading, or simply false.
Much of the data in this publication was collected before the virus hit many of the countries featured in this survey, so to a large extent this represents a snapshot of these historic trends. But to get a sense of what has changed, we repeated key parts of our survey in six countries (UK, USA, Germany, Spain, South Korea, and Argentina) in early April. These responses confirm industry data which show increased consumption of traditional sources of news, especially television, but also some online news sources.
Journalism matters and is in demand again. But one problem for publishers is that this extra interest is producing even less income – as advertisers brace for an inevitable recession and print revenue dips. Against this background it is likely we’ll see a further drive towards digital subscription and other reader payment models which have shown considerable promise in the last few years. This is what makes it so important to understand how various models are progressing in different markets, such as the United States, Norway, and the UK, where we have conducted more in-depth research on pay this year. While the coronavirus crisis is likely to dramatically affect the short-term prospects for many publishers, our findings provide long-term insights into one important part of the future of the business of news. We also ask about the implications for society if more high-quality information disappears behind paywalls, a dilemma that has become more real during this health emergency.
Looking to the future, publishers are increasingly recognising that long-term survival is likely to involve stronger and deeper connection with audiences online, which is why we have also examined the growing importance of emails and podcasts, formats that are being deployed in greater numbers to increase engagement and loyalty. The coronavirus crisis has presented an immediate and urgent existential threat, but in the section on climate change, we explore how audiences access news about this longer-term threat to human existence and how they feel about media coverage.
Our report this year, based on data from six continents and 40 markets, aims to cast light on the key issues that face the industry at a time of unprecedented uncertainty. The overall story is captured in this Executive Summary, followed by Section 2 with chapters containing additional analysis, and then individual country and market pages in Section 3 with detailed data and extra context.
A summary of some of the most important findings
- The coronavirus crisis has substantially increased news consumption for mainstream media in all of the countries where we conducted surveys before and after the pandemic had taken effect. Television news and online sources have seen significant upticks, and more people identify television as their main source of news, providing temporary respite from a picture of steady decline. Consumption of printed newspapers, has fallen as lockdowns undermine physical distribution, almost certainly accelerating the shift to an all-digital future.
- At the same time, the use of online and social media substantially increased in most countries. WhatsApp saw the biggest growth in general with increases of around ten percentage points in some countries, while more than half of those surveyed (51%) used some kind of open or closed online group to connect, share information, or take part in a local support network.
- As of April 2020, trust in the media’s coverage of COVID-19 was relatively high in all countries, at a similar level to national governments and significantly higher than for individual politicians. Media trust was more than twice the level for social networks, video platforms, or messaging services when it came to information about COVID-19.
From our wider dataset collected in January:
- Global concerns about misinformation remain high. Even before the coronavirus crisis hit, more than half of our global sample said they were concerned about what is true or false on the internet when it comes to news. Domestic politicians are the single most frequently named source of misinformation, though in some countries – including the United States – people who self-identify as right-wing are more likely to blame the media – part of a pick-your-side Facebook is seen as the main channel for spreading false information almost everywhere but WhatsApp is seen as more responsible in parts of the Global South such as Brazil and Malaysia.
- In our January poll across countries, less than four in ten (38%) said they trust most news most of the time – a fall of four percentage points from 2019. Less than half (46%) said they trust the news they use themselves. Political polarisation linked to rising uncertainty seems to have undermined trust in public broadcasters in particular, which are losing support from political partisans from both the right and the left.
- Despite this, our survey shows that the majority (60%) still prefer news that has no particular point of view and that only a minority (28%) prefer news that shares or reinforces their views. Partisan preferences have slightly increased in the United States since we last asked this question in 2013 but even here a silent majority seems to be looking for news that at least tries to be objective.
- As the news media adapt to changing styles of political communication, most people (52%) would prefer them to prominently report false statements from politicians rather than not emphasise them (29%). People are less comfortable with political adverts via search engines and social media than they are with political adverts on TV, and most people (58%) would prefer platforms to block adverts that could contain inaccurate claims – even if it means they ultimately get to decide what is true.
- We have seen significant increases in payment for online news in a number of countries including the United States 20% (+4) and Norway 42% (+8), with smaller rises in a range of other markets. It is important to note that across all countries most people are still not paying for online news, even if some publishers have since reported a ‘coronavirus bump’.
- Overall, the most important factor for those who subscribe is the distinctiveness and quality of the content. Subscribers believe they are getting better information. However, a large number of people are perfectly content with the news they can access for free and we observe a very high proportion of non-subscribers (40% in the USA and 50% in the UK) who say that nothing could persuade them to pay.
- In countries with higher levels of payment (e.g. the USA and Norway) between a third and half of all subscriptions go to just a few big national brands – suggesting that winner-takes-most dynamics are persisting. But in both these countries a significant minority are now taking out more than one subscription, often adding a local or specialist publication.
- In most countries, local newspapers and their websites remain the top source of news about a particular town or region, reaching four in ten (44%) weekly. But we find that Facebook and other social media groups are now used on average by around a third (31%) for local news and information, putting further pressure on companies and their business models.
- Access to news continues to become more distributed. Across all countries, just over a quarter (28%) prefer to start their news journeys with a website or app. Those aged 18–24 (so-called Generation Z) have an even weaker connection with websites and apps and are more than twice as likely to prefer to access news via social media. Across age groups, use of Instagram for news has doubled since 2018 and looks likely to overtake Twitter over the next year.
- To counter the move to various platforms, publishers have been looking to build direct connections with consumers via email and mobile alerts. In the United States one in five (21%) access a news email weekly, and for almost half of these it is their primary way of accessing news. Northern European countries have been much slower to adopt email news channels, with only 10% using email news in Finland.
- The proportion using podcasts has grown significantly in the last year, though coronavirus lockdowns may have temporarily reversed this trend. Across countries, half of all respondents (50%) say that podcasts provide more depth and understanding than other types of media. Meanwhile, Spotify has become the number one destination for podcasts in a number of markets, overtaking Apple’s podcast app.
- Overall, almost seven in ten (69%) think climate change is a serious problem, but in the United States, Sweden, and Australia a significant minority dispute this. This group tends to be right-wing and older. Younger groups access much of their climate change news from social media and by following activists like Greta Thunberg.
- Voice-activated smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home continue to grow rapidly. Usage for any purpose has risen from 14% to 19% in the UK, from 7% to 12% in Germany, and 9% to 13% in South Korea. Despite this, we find that usage for news remains low in all markets.