Digital news
Public say they are relying more on ‘reputable’ news brands to counter misinformation even as economic pressures mount for many publishers.

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Public say they are relying more on ‘reputable’ news brands to counter misinformation

Public concern about misinformation is making some people more careful about the brands they choose and the content they share online, according to the eighth annual Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

The report, which is based on a YouGov online survey conducted with 75,000 people in 38 markets, says that changing behaviour is most apparent with those that are younger and better educated, rather than older or less privileged groups.

While some consumers may be turning to more credible news sources, the report has mixed news for publishers looking for sustainable business models after decades of digital disruption. Paid online models are starting to work in some countries, but mainly for a few big publishers.  Single title subscriptions, it argues, are unlikely to work for many consumers, who wish to access multiple brands in a frictionless way or do not see sufficient value in paying for news at all.

The report also highlights ….

  • How consumers in many countries are spending less time with Facebook and more time with WhatsApp, Instagram, and YouTube than this time last year
  • The growth of news avoidance. In the UK more than half of avoiders say the news brings down their mood while others say they feel powerless to affect events 
  • The continuing growth of podcasts and their popularity with younger groups

Misinformation and changing behaviour

Public concern about misinformation remains extremely high (55% average across 38 countries) and has grown significantly over the last year in some countries, despite the attempts of platforms and governments to contain it. 

One consequence of this concern seems to be a greater awareness and affinity with 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. (The interpretation of ‘reputable’, ‘less accurate’, ‘dubious’, and other subjective terms were left to respondents to determine.)

Qualitative research with younger news consumers in the US and UK confirmed that behaviour was shifting.

“It definitely changes my likelihood to click on a news story if I see it’s coming from a source that I’ve never heard before. If I’m already questioning it, I’ll likely go on a news source that I feel is more credible.” 

(Maggie, US depth interview)

Apart from the young, behaviour seems to have changed most in countries where concern about misinformation is highest. Almost two-thirds (61%) in Brazil and 40% in Taiwan said they had decided not to share a potentially inaccurate story in social media after recent elections that were marked by misinformation – compared with just 13% in the Netherlands, the country with the lowest level of concern in our survey.

The report also reveals patterns of social media use that are significantly different in the global South. Whereas social media, especially Facebook, are dominant in many western countries, the messaging application WhatsApp has become a primary network for discussing and sharing news in 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 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. Meanwhile public and private Facebook Groups discussing news and politics are also popular in Turkey (29%) and Brazil (22%) but are much less used in Western countries such as Canada (7%) or Australia (7%).  Report lead author Nic Newman said, “The move to private and group-based messaging has happened really fast. It offers more control for users but also makes it harder to spot and counter misinformation – especially in countries with lower digital literacy, a weak media or less robust institutions.”

The report also reveals how online users in many countries are spending more time with WhatsApp, Instagram and YouTube than this time last year. Few users are abandoning Facebook entirely, though, and it remains by far the most important social network for news.

The business of journalism

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 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’, the report suggests that publishers may struggle to substantially increase the market for high-priced ‘single title’ subscriptions.

Reuters Institute Director and report co-author Professor Rasmus Kleis Nielsen says,“The good news is that those publishers who produce truly distinct, valuable, and trusted journalism are increasingly being rewarded with commercial success. The bad news is that many people find that much of the journalism they come across is neither valuable, trustworthy, or worth paying for.”

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. The fear is that increased friction could put people off news entirely, especially those who are already under-engaged or can’t afford to pay.

Pivot to audio picks up pace

Podcasts appear to be reaching critical mass as a consequence of better content and easier distribution. Over a third of our combined sample (36%) now say they have listened to one or more podcasts in the last month, with almost one in six (15%) saying they have consumed one about news, politics, or international events.

In the UK, younger age groups, who spend much of their lives plugged into smartphones, are four times more likely to listen to podcasts than the over 55s – and much less likely to listen to traditional speech radio. Under 35s consume half of all podcasts despite making up around a third of the total adult population.  Lead author Nic Newman says, “Our research shows that the core appeal of podcasts is the ease of use, and the ability to listen while doing something else. But for younger users, they also provide more authentic voices and the control and choice they’ve become used to.”

Audio prospects may be further boosted by the rapid adoption of voice-activated speakers such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home. Reach for any purpose has grown from 7% to 14% in the UK over the last year, from 9% to 12% in the United States, and from 5% to 9% in high-tech Korea. However, the proportion using smart speakers for news is declining as mainstream audiences come on stream. Less than four in ten access any news via their device in an average week in the US (35%) and UK (39%) and just a quarter in Germany (27%) and South Korea (25%).