Digital News Report 2019 launch: connecting with readers and building trust in news

The annual Reuters Institute Digital News Report was published today — and a panel discussed the implications for journalism of its key findings. Here's my notes.

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

An early start is always a gamble: will the event be worth the 5am rise? I’m happy to say that the launch event of the 2019 Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute was more than worth sleep-deprivation. Here are my live-blogged notes from the event. Warning for inaccuracy, typos and grim crimes against syntax and grammar.

Journalism exists in the context of its audience, Reuters Institute Director Rasmus Kleis Nielsen reminded us, as he kicked off the launch event, and journalists need detailed research on news and audiences in order to serve them properly. The Digital News Report is now the biggest ongoing research exercise into digital news, and is conducted via an online poll.

Nic Newman: key points of the research

Nic introduced some of the key findings, kicking off by suggesting that we’ll find the limits of subscriptions models this year. People are cutting out less trusted news sources - but trust in news is still falling overall. The shift to private rather than public messaging is accelerating, and the report in bullish on podcasting.

There is some growth in reader revenue - but only in some countries. 16% in the Us, 9% in the UK, but the nordic countries lead the way with growth in the 20 to 30% range. Growth seems to be focused on the main publishers, so is “winner takes all” in play?

One scary fact for smaller publishers: the median number of subscriptions is one. All but the strongest brands are likely to struggle with making a paywall work. 70% of the Norwegian sample had hit a paywall in the last week. Could increased friction put people off entirely? The risk is losing both the under-engaged and the poorer.

Smartphone dominance

No great surprise here: smartphones are becoming ever more important. They have now overtaken TV as the first source of news in the morning. 28% of people in the UK reach for their phones to get news first - and 54% of the under 35s do.

One telling figure: 27% of iPhone users use Apple News weekly — a greater reach than any individual website. Young people in particular find these edited, curated services incredibly convenient. They also tend not to be aware of the originating source of the curated news.

Social switch

Facebook use is plateauing, but WhatsApp and Instagram are growing fast. Facebook has becoming less important for news - partially because of the algorithm changes. WhatsApp is incredibly important in most of the world - with the US being the exception. Being in WhatsApp groups with strangers is a key vector for the spread of misinformation in some countries.

However, people are changing their behaviour because of concerns over misinformation. 26% are relying more on ‘reputable’ services — but that’s self-defined reputable.

People are broadly happy with the speed of news - but les satisfied with the the degree to which news is explained. And 45% feel that news in the UK is too negative. More people are feeling worn out by the news, and others claim to be avoiding it. Brexit is a key driver of that.

The pivot to audio

Podcasts are used by 36% of people at least monthly. The demographics skew young. Consumption is still largely driven by entertainment for the young, but shift to being more about learning for older age groups. They are, of course, great for multi-tasking. The young particularly appreciate the self-scheduling aspect. And people enjoy the diversity of voices and opinions that podcasts offer.

14% of people in the UK are using a smart speaker weekly - but as they grow, proportional news use is dropping.



Katie Vanneck-Smith: The power of the brand is a really important piece of this. I’m trying to build a brand at the moment - but we’re trading on the reputation of the journalists as we build that brand. How do we respond to customer insights? How do we change things faster?

Anna Bateson: A trusted brand has a genuine relationship with the audience. If you don’t have the relationship it’s hard to ask people to pay for something. Is it a land-grab for the one subscription people will pay for - a few trusted large brands, some specific small ones… what happens to everyone else?

Jess Brammar: We are the everyone else. There aren’t enough people willing to pay for news to support everyone. We have to find a way of supporting with news and information the people who aren’t willing to pay .

Naja Nielsen: Being connected with apps through friends all the time is great - especially if your family are overseas. But there is a downside, with the spread of inaccurate information. Everything we put out there has to be brand consistent - accurate, impartial. Maybe people are craving more solid information than we thought? Maybe we can do more about Brexit…

Katie: We were set up to solve the problem that news has become noise. ¾ of the members state that as their reason for joining. We don’t do breaking news - because there are lots of companies doing that well - we go behind the news. We don’t start by trying to explain - we start by listening. We want to be an alternative to other news, not a replacement of it.

Naja: People need to be able to discover news when they are ready for it. There are connections between breaking news and explanatory journalist that perhaps haven’t been exploited yet.

Anna: One of the wonderful things digital has enabled is explanations in all sorts of forms, long, short, visual… People’s behaviours change over the day. What they want in the morning is not what they want in the evening.

Jess: It’s all part of trust and accuracy. We probably have the youngest audience of all the panel - and they do consume news, but they don’t categorise it as such. They can come for Love Island and stay for Brexit.

Anna: News isn’t broken - but forms of news can be overwhelming.

Jess: We haven’t had the experience of people turning off from Brexit the report suggests. They want us to decode it.

Jo Sheldon asked about the risk of an exclusive news market for the wealthy — is that a danger?

Katie: Yes, we are seeing that. We all need to look at mixed models. We’re working with partners to create bursary memberships.

Anna: it’s an incredibly important part of our values to make our journalism available. The BBC is a different driver in the UK, making news available to everyone, in contrast to the US, where you do feel that only the rich will get access to high quality news.

Katie: It’s worth noting that all those titles that, as quality news publications, have gone to paid models have their biggest audiences ever now.

Jess: One of our missions in the US is to reach the un-newsed.

The challenge in the rise of private social sharing.

Jess: You want to create content that people will share to their family and friends - the problem is that the easiest way to do that is to ignore journalistic values.

Anna: It’s undermining transparency - how can we hold people to account where people are sharing in hidden groups?

Katie: We’re already seeing an impact of private local groups on local elections.

Naja: What do the platforms value? Do Apple News share our editorial values? We can’t had over all our relationships to the third party platforms - but they are the best way to discover our content right now.

Anna: The power of curation is another way of bringing distinction - how you connect up your journalism. The platforms commoditise and atomise things. They take away the distinctiveness. Apple News is an entry-level product - how do you get people to move up to a more distinctive product?

Is the pivot to audio real?

Anna: Podcasts are wonderful - easy, convenient and valuable as a form. Not all journalism translates into video, but audio seems to be an easier transition. There is a question about how you make money out of them. But if you get the audience, the money will follow.

Katie: We do get asked for more audio: article readings, recordings of the ThinkIns. It’s consistent feedback.

Anna: Our long reads are one of our most successful podcasts - it solves a genuine problem.

Katie: One young person said she feels like she’s wasting her time if she isn’t listening to something.

Naja: There is a real appreciation for depth. They may be chatty, but it is people spending 25 minutes discussing something.

Jess: The single best way to attract younger audiences is to hire some of them - and listen to them. It’s not enough to hire them, you have to listen.


Attracting Young People

Naja: There is a big difference between 12 and 25. At 25 you discover banking… There’s a curiosity that grows then as you start wanting to actually bring a brown up. People have a very fixed understanding of what news is. We, as a craft, might have a reputation issue here - the world is good and bad. We might get better at solutions journalism, for example.

Katie: Our “ThinkIn” format has been a genuine success. They’re one of the main draws for our younger, under-30 members. That, and the free wine.

Jess suggested that the most useful comment she had from a young person was that watching Brexit coverage was like starting a TV show at season seven episode 3.

Other Key Quotes:

Katie: we talk ourselves down all the time. Why do we say “paywall”? You want to break down walls. Netflix talks about subscriptions…

Anna: How you connect news literacy and digital literacy, and how you weave that into the curriculum will be an increasingly important part of your education as a good citizen. Are people entering a more mature phase of their digital use?

Katie: Snap allows the brands to stand out - Apple News doesn’t - which is one of the problems with it.

The Digital News Report 2019 is available for download. I’ll be publishing some of my thoughts on it over the next couple of days.

reuters institutedigital news reportaudience engagementexplainer journalismtrustNic Newmanslow journalismSocial Mediapodcasts

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.