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INMA gets a deep look at the 2021 Digital News Report from Reuters Institute

By Shelley Seale

INMA

Austin, Texas, USA

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Reuters has just released its 10th Digital News Report for 2021, and INMA members got an insider’s look at it when Nic Newman, senior research associate at Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, joined via Webinar to discuss the report in-depth.

Conducted via some focus groups and a survey of more than 92,000 online news consumers in 46 markets across the globe, the 2021 Digital News Report represents half of the world’s population with its inclusion of India, Indonesia, Thailand, Nigeria, Colombia, and Peru for the first time.

Nic Newman of Reuters Institute joined INMA for a deep look into the 2021 Digital News Report.
Nic Newman of Reuters Institute joined INMA for a deep look into the 2021 Digital News Report.

COVID impact

Newman pointed out that it’s difficult to find COVID-19 patterns that are consistent throughout the world, due to greatly differing pandemic outbreaks and responses — but Reuters was able to identify some prominent impacts that the coronavirus has had on digital newsrooms overall:

  • TV news retains viewers as the crisis continues. This trend is strongest in Europe. With “pandemic fatigue” setting in, TV viewership is starting to return to pre-COVID consumption.

  • Accelerated decline for print worldwide. Newman said this is likely to be one of the more lasting legacies from the pandemic.

  • Smartphones are more important than ever. The gap between smartphone and computer usage widened even more during COVID.

  • Trusted brands are still doing better online one year after the pandemic. Overall trust in the news is up across all the countries polled, and the trust gap between news and social media has grown.

Overall trust in the news media has grown substantially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Overall trust in the news media has grown substantially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

How fair is the news?

One aspect the Reuters survey wanted to dig into was how things like race, gender, politics, and age play into digital news when it comes to perception of fairness.

“This first slide really shows the power of politics in perceptions of the media,” Newman said. “Particularly countries such as the U.S., you can see that people who self-identify on the right think the media coverage is unfair, Whereas people on the left are giving it a positive score. We see similar stories in many other countries.”

Politics plays a large role in how people feel about the fairness of news media coverage.
Politics plays a large role in how people feel about the fairness of news media coverage.

 When it comes to gender, both men and women largely feel news coverage is fair to them, but women report feeling slightly less fairness. There are also differences by region, with people feeling more or less fairness from the news depending on where they live. These differences are even more stark by race and ethnicity, with Black and Hispanic people reporting lower levels of fairness than white people.

“This plays into very current media discussions right now about how you represent groups, how you handle inclusion, diversity, and metropolitan bias,” Newman said.

Misinformation

This all leads into the feelings of misinformation in the news ecosystem. The highest levels of concern about misinformation is reported in Africa (74%) and Latin America (65%), while lower levels are reported in Europe (54%). The United States reports similar levels to Latin America.

“The other big change is that this year, when people talk about misinformation they’re increasingly talking about the virus,” Newman said. “That may be coming from politicians, it may be coming from anti-vaxxers, but on average half of our sample said they’ve seen some kind of misinformation about COVID.”

This is more than reported misinformation about politics, celebrities, or climate change. Respondents said that politicians were viewed as the major part of the problem — particularly in countries where COVID-19 has been highly politicised, such as Brazil.

  • 29% are most concerned about the behaviour of politicians.

  • 16% are most concerned about the behaviour of ordinary people.

  • 15% are most concerned about the behaviour of activists.

  • 11% are most concerned about the behaviour of journalists.

  • 9% are most concerned about the behaviour of foreign governments.

This false and misleading information is spread through different platforms, Newman reported. It can be harder to spot and debunk in messaging apps such as WhatsApp, and Facebook is also a prime target of suspect.

Misinformation is spread through various platforms, but Facebook and WhatsApp are the biggest concerns.
Misinformation is spread through various platforms, but Facebook and WhatsApp are the biggest concerns.

Paying for news

With trust in news higher than ever, along with the demand for information, does this mean more people are willing to pay for news? That’s a question the Reuters study aimed to answer.

In many ways, the answer is yes. One question asked respondents if they had paid for any online news in the last year, whether that was a subscription, donation, or purchase of a one-off article.

  • In the United States, 21% said they had — a figure that was only 9% in 2016.

  • In the Netherlands, that figure was 17%, representing a 3% growth since 2016.

  • The Nordic countries are up an average of 2%, with an average of 28% of people reporting they have paid for news in the last year. Within specific countries, that figure is highest in Norway, at 45%.

“This shift to reader payment is real in the U.S. It’s also real in some European countries,” Newman said. “Very significant progress, but in some of the other big European countries the numbers are much smaller. This is partly a function of size, and the amount of free news that’s available, which means it’s much harder for publishers to charge for news.”

Quality national titles are still benefiting the most when it comes to garnering subscribers. Newman called this a “winner takes most” dynamic, in which news publishers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Telegraph, Verdens Gang, and Aftenposten claim the lion’s share of paying readers.

Platforms and gateways to news

One question the survey asked was about respondents’ primary way of accessing the news. Only one-quarter reported that they prefer to start their news journey directly on the Web site or app of the news publisher. A nearly equal amount access the news via social media or search. Much smaller percentages use mobile alerts (9%), aggregators (8%), or e-mail (5%). 

These figures were very consistent across countries and age groups, though amongst the under-35 age group accessing news via social media jumps to 34%. This direct access to news publishers has decreased overall by about 5% since 2018. 

“That obviously makes it much harder for publishers to build those direct relationships,” Newman said. “That speaks to the problem of engaging young people.”

He explained that while the above figures are averages, they vary depending on country. 

  • In Scandinavia, more than 60% get their news directly from the publishers.

  • In the Philippines, Malaysia, Brazil, and Nigeria, access is mainly social, with about half using social media as the gateway.

  • In the United States, Canada, Ireland, and India, it’s more of a mixed bag, with access fairly evenly split between direct, search, and social media.

  • In South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan news is deeply aggregated. 27% of people reported getting their news from an aggregator, with search being the other large gateway (45%).

In many of these cases, the figures point to an important trend: mobile. Smartphones are more important than ever, Newman said, particularly in Asia. In Indonesia, for example, 85% of people use their device weekly for news. This reinforces the important role that mobile aggregators play in Asia.

Mobile news consumption continues to rise, and smartphones are more important than ever.
Mobile news consumption continues to rise, and smartphones are more important than ever.

Social media usage for news also varies depending on the part of the world. Facebook is prevalent in every region, taking the top spot (except for Africa, where it is tied with WhatsApp, with about 60% getting news from each of those sources). YouTube is very popular in places like Thailand where data streaming charges are low, yet hardly used at all for news in countries like the U.K.

Twitter is used much more in Africa (35%) than in any other region. TikTok represents another big change in this year’s report. While most users look to TikTok for entertainment, a growing percentage are accessing the app for news, particularly amongst the 18-24 age group. The top countries for TikTok news use include Thailand, Indonesia, South Africa, Peru, and Mexico.

“When TikTok first emerged, I said it would have no relevance when it comes to news,” Newman shared. “I was obviously wrong.”

What are people paying the most attention to when it comes to social platforms? Mainstream media and journalists often lead conversations on Facebook and Twitter, but they struggle to get attention in newer networks such as Snapchat and TikTok.

Podcasts

The overall effect of COVID on podcasts has been fairly neutral in terms of consumption, Newman reported. One aspect of podcast news he found interesting is on the platform side, where Reuters did uncover real changes.

“We see Spotify No. 1 in many countries such as Germany, Sweden, and Brazil,” he said. Spotify is No. 2 in other countries including the U.K. and Australia (it’s in the No. 3 spot in the U.S.). Some public broadcasters, such as the BBC in Britain, are really competing with Spotify and the other platforms like Apple and YouTube.

Another important aspect of podcasts centres around awareness. Audio is valuable to many people, but is still a minority in terms of news consumption. 

“When we ask people why they’re not using podcasts, some of it’s about time, and some of it’s about awareness — they don’t know where to start, or what a podcast is, even. There’s a lot of work that can be done, I think, to educate people about the value of on-demand audio.”

Emerging questions

In conclusion, Newman shared several questions that emerged for the Reuters team from this report.

  • COVID-19 has accelerated digital change and put further pressure on traditional models — but is the news publishing industry moving fast enough?

  • How can the news media build on the trust premium gained during the pandemic?

  • How much further can pay models go? What about those who aren’t prepared to pay?

  • How can publishers win over those who feel that news coverage is unfair to them?

  • How can publishers engage younger audiences in social media and beyond?

Newman encouraged INMA members to share any ideas they have for questions Reuter should include in next year’s Digital News Report. Members can e-mail him at nic.newman@gmail.com.

About Shelley Seale

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