Why fake news could be good news for local news (and other glimpses into the future)

Last week, the Reuters Institute at Oxford University presented its annual Digital News Report. It’s a report which is always highly-anticipated, and much discussed, but what does it mean for local journalism? Nic Newman, who authored the report, spoke at the Behind Local News conference last month. Here is an abridged version of what he told delegates:

There are three themes when you look at how digital has disrupted the news industry.

Firstly, there’s the funding problems that — the decline in newspaper sales newspaper ad revenue but also increasingly in the last few years the problems of digital advertising revenue. Everything from fraud to ad blocking and low rates of return and the intermediaries, these giant technical companies who are taking much of the money that previously went to the publishers.

Secondly, but less talked about, is the problem of abundance. We used to have a sort of monopoly on news, certainly in local areas. Now it is ubiquitous, it is everywhere, and there is an oversupply of general news and therefore very little incentive for consumers to pay for it.

So it’s really a problem of plenty.

The big problem of Trust didn’t begin with Facebook

Then finally, and again this is partly linked to the problem of abundance, people don’t trust news in the same way. This has been a problem on the web in particular because it’s so hard to differentiate. Weakness on the funding side of the business has often led reputable businesses to to chase clicks and sensation, which has undermined trust and worsened the problem, in effect making the whole news industry subject to allegations of fake news itself.

But despite all the sort of the talk about Facebook and social media and the problems that have emerged more recently, it’s clear that when you talk to ordinary people about quality information they feel that it is journalism itself that has lost its way.

Quite often that is no longer representing readers in the way that it did. Our research shows a sense that it’s increasingly hard to find objective news that isn’t coloured in some way by opinion or media agendas.

There is also a sense that journalism .is dumbing down or that journalism or journalists themselves are placing themselves above the story, or just chasing clicks and that’s definitely affected people’s perception of news.

There’s also a sense that newspapers and journalists are unnecessarily negative. They have a negative and sensationalist view of the world and again that’s something that consumers say that they’re fed up with.

All of this is contributing to a situation trust in the media as a rock bottom. The UK is by no means the worst — 43% say they trust the news, but that is much lower than it was just just two years ago. And many people are turning away from news altogether.

Actively avoiding news or more interested than ever?

A quarter in the UK said they sometimes or often actively avoid the news. This quote from from Peggy Noonan who is an author and columnist in the U.S. sums up some of the worst fears about what’s happening in journalism:

“People believe nothing they think everything is spin and lies. And when people believe nothing as we know they will believe anything.”

I’ve argued that fake news in many ways has been the best thing that’s happened to journalism for a number of years because I think that it is making people think differently in the industry, but also audiences are in the mood for something better.

I think if we’re optimistic then there are some positive signs. And the first is that every year in our Digital News Report we find that people are super interested in news. If anything they’re more interested in news. Our data suggests they are consuming more news than ever before in more ways on more platforms — at least in the UK.

And in the UK, most of that is coming through mainstream media outlets, the outlets readers know and that have a track record. In every poll we’ve done since 2012, local news comes out on top in terms of expressed interest in types of news and different kinds of news.

A strong statistic for local news

62 percent say that they are either very interested or extremely interested in local news above political news or business news — all these types of news that people are finding they can charge for.

And it’s true also that young people are interested in issues. They are interested in in their immediate locality and the world around them. Local newspapers are more trusted than any national newspaper in the UK, so I think there’s a lot to build on in terms of interest in news, in terms of consumption, but also in terms of trust which is really really important.

The problem is how do you monetize all this.

This is really where we’re really seeing a sea change across the industry. Many of the broken advertising practices that have led us into the situation we are in are changing and new models are emerging.

At the beginning of the year, we do an annual poll 150 CEOs, editors and digital leaders to ask them about their plans and priorities.

Two thirds think that advertising is going to become much less important over time. It won’t go away completely but it will become less important. 10 percent of all the publishers we spoke to said that they are planning for a future with no digital display advertising — so that implies really significant changes in terms of the underlying business models and the incentives that drive journalism itself and across across the world.

So where does the money come from then?

We’re seeing the shift to reader payment. 44 percent of publishers we talked to at the beginning of the year said their top priority was gaining subscriptions.

16 per cent were pursuing donations or membership models and many local newspapers are starting to use these kind of model to engage with their loyal readers. TheTexas Tribune in the US pioneered a lot of the techniques that the Guardian has has picked up as a national paper to encourage people to contribute either ongoing payments.

For that loyal core, there is a sense of consumers recognising that something needs to change — that good journalism, good quality information, requires money.

So the big question now is is essentially how this applies to local news?

What kind of combination of features is going to be right for for 2020 or 2025 that’s going to work for consumers? I would argue that if you look at local news, you see that news itself has become less important.

Local newspapers and their websites no longer have the monopoly on news, often social media does a better job in delivering breaking news for example and yet people expect it from the local news brands. You can’t get out of local news but people aren’t going to pay for it in the same way as they might have done in the past on its own.

So what we see is local news organisations trying to do something something else, something more unique. That may be investigations and campaigns.

It may equally be the growth of sort of service journalism — how to guides may be using data in a different way to help people make choices as part of their daily lives in ways that are reusable but also allow people to interact

Solutions journalism is another type of journalism that asks what you could do about something rather than just pointing out the problems and maybe involving the community in some kind of solution. A key part of that unique content is to spark conversations with a community as well.

A third plank which many of the news organisations that we talk are really focusing on for the first time is making that community work. Not just as a source of stories but turning some of the most loyal community members into advocates and into members.

Membership doesn’t necessarily mean giving money. It can be about the community helping to create your content, or that you start curating your members’ experiences.

Great content is not enough

Even news, unique contact and community put together and packaged is not enough in terms of what people’s expectations are.

They also want great functional experiences they want to be able to access that news and content and information on any platform they want, the sort of seamlessness of access that Facebook and Google and others provide them every day.

It is that combination of different elements that are ultimately going to add up to something that people value and I believe people will pay for in a local context. We are seeing that in many countries around the world.

We also need to think about the formats and the technology people are using to get content. Mobile is so important — it’s doubled in in terms of importance since 2012.

Forty six percent of us now access news from smartphones in bed, two thirds of us apparently are accessing news via our smartphones in the bathroom and toilet.

The point about this is that these devices are always with us but they are also personal in a way that the computer was not personal. They open up a possibility to talk to consumers in an individual way where we understand who they are and the context within which they consume information.

That is pretty revolutionary and I think we haven’t done enough to think about how the content needs to change to take account of these devices.

Visual, and voice

I think one of the things this means is that new formats are going to emerge over the next few years. I believe that visual storytelling, such as AMP Stories or Instagram, will become standard ways of telling stories in the next few years because in that context people want to access information in the most compressed way possible.

It’s not about dumbing down. It’s about how do you tell stories in different ways and visual is going to be incredibly important part of that.

I think that the other point about the mobile phone is it allows anyone to tell stories. How do we harness that and make it work for us?

When we talk about the future we should be thinking about what comes after the smartphone.

Voice-activated speakers are hitting the mainstream. In 2017’s digital news report, 2 % of people had them in the UK, this year that has grown four times, so we’re really seeing much greater adoption of these devices.

Basically a lot more people will be talking to computers in different ways and this is a great way of distributing existing material like podcasts or news bulletins. But the key point is it’s also going to be a medium in its own right. This is about new conversational interfaces that will also happen with your mobile phone and other kinds of devices where we ask questions and we get information back in this conversational way.

A lot of this information is information that previously local news providers felt they owned. Who is going to own that information on the conversational interfaces?

Some people say this will be a flash in the pan — I think it absolutely solves a real problem.

Technology will keep on changing

It’s pretty clear that the next wave of technology innovation is going to centre around artificial intelligence — a range of technologies that allow computers to think for themselves at least to some extent, and to learn and therefore to deliver improvements in efficiency and relevance both of which are critical for the future of the local news industry.

70 percent of publishers said they were already using some kind of AI either in lab experimentation or many cases, live. Mainly that is AI used in algorithms that learn to give you better content recommendations.

It’s also being used to automate workflows, optimising your commercial journeys. There’s also computer assisted journalism. There have been an explosion of sources, how do you keep on top of things 24 hours a day? How do you manage that process? I think we will have tools that help us do that.

Finally I think what I call intelligent automation. So there’s a back end workflow stuff that helps us effectively eliminate repetitive tasks and liberate us to do more intelligent things to do more journalism.

You can watch Nic’s presentation here: