Snapshot of the Reuters Institute Digital News Report: Monetisation, news literacy, and audio

The annual Reuters Institute Digital News Report is released today. We talked to Nic Newman, research associate at the Reuters Institute, about people migrating from platforms to messaging apps, the potentially negative impact of media literacy on trust, and why donations are a growing reader trend.

The full report can be downloaded here. The interview was slightly edited.

GEN: According to the report, Facebook is down but not out. Why has the use of social media for news started to fall?

Nic Newman: It’s a mix of things. Friendship groups on Facebook have got too large over the years and many no longer feel comfortable posting, for example, their ‘real’ views on politics to such a wide circle of acquaintances. In other cases people are increasingly finding that open networks like Facebook and Twitter lead to arguments — especially where politics is polarised. Meanwhile newer networks like WhatsApp offer more privacy and more control.

There’s also a boredom factor. Young people in particular find Instagram and Snapchat more compelling and more convenient. Facebook feels a bit staid in comparison. Having said that, most young people haven’t abandoned Facebook, but they are using lots of different channels in a complementary way.

In summary, survey and focus group evidence suggests a combination of push and pull factors at play. Consumers are being put off by toxic debates and unreliable news, but they are also finding that alternative networks offer more convenience, greater privacy, and less opportunity to be misunderstood.

Can we expect to see publishers distribute their content over messaging apps more and more?

I think they’d like to, but most messaging apps are not set up to make this easy. For example, broadcast lists in WhatsApp are very difficult and time consuming to operate. We have to remember that part of the reason that people use these apps is that they are largely free from brand messages and brand interruptions so people can get on with the job of private communication.

Having said that, the definition of messaging apps is pretty fluid. Snapchat started with ephemeral messaging but has become much more than that with stories and maps where you can discover news events. Chat apps in Asia like WeChat and Kakao also reference news and have sophisticated payment and e-commerce built in. Instagram started as a social network for pictures but has added video and messaging as part of the mix. Many publishers are definitely looking at these other networks again as Facebook places less priority on news.

The report states that people consider messaging apps to be more secure and more respecting of their privacy, yet dark social can also be a contributing factor to misinformation. Is this something to be worried about?

We haven’t seen much of that in Western countries yet, but there is of course the potential to use these apps to spread misinformation. Viral videos spreading misinformation via WhatsApp were rife in the Kenyan elections and more recently in India where a video of a fake kidnapping led to a number of deaths. In countries like India, Brazil, and Malaysia, WhatsApp is seen as much more of a place to talk about and share news.

We’re seeing news use grow elsewhere too — and as it does, misuse and misinformation is likely to grow too.

According to the report, we’re only seeing a very small increase in trust levels as news literacy increases. Is this a surprise?

This seems counter-intuitive but what we see is that people who have higher news literacy by definition tend to be more interested in the news and how it works. That also means they tend to use more sources of news and that in turn can increase scepticism, because they see more perspectives that don’t always match.

Increasing news literacy may also increase scepticism (probably a good thing), but with a possible side effect of not increasing trust overall and decreasing trust in social media and search (perceived as a bad thing).

Can you tell us about some of the difficulties in measuring news literacy?

This is the first time we’ve tried to measure news literacy and there are many approaches that have been tried in the past. We asked a small set of questions about how news works (e.g. how do people think that Facebook orders the news in its feed — by computer, using journalists, randomly, whether they know who typically writes a press release, etc) and depending on the number of correct answers, we create a scale where we segment our audience into those with very low, low, high, and very high news literacy. This is hard to do across multiple countries and we may not have got the questions exactly right, but we have tested the reliability of our scale and it correlates with other measures in ways that we would expect. The results are potentially very important because we can start so see what the effects of intervention might be.

For example, in terms of different types of misinformation (see chart below) we can see that greater news literacy would actually increase concern about ‘fabricated’ news but decrease concern when it comes to identifying news masquerading as adverts or mistaking satire from fake news.

Why do people give donations to news organisations? Is this a trend that will sustain?

We see this as an emergent and important trend. Online news subscriptions are growing in some countries (especially Nordic countries) but elsewhere only a minority is prepared to pay a substantial ongoing monthly fee for news content.

However, more people might pay a smaller fee (or donation) for a publication that they particularly value — either because it provides an independent view that people believe is lacking or because a particular publication reflects their ideological perspective.

In the UK, around 600,000 give money to the Guardian (either as an on-going membership or a one off donation). Overall we find 1% donate in the UK, 2% in Spain, and 3% in the United States, but the potential may be much greater. On average, a quarter of our online sample (22%) say they might be prepared to donate to a news organisation in the future if they felt if could not cover their costs in other ways.

Could you give us three examples of publishers with successful monetisation strategies?

In the report, we have picked out three countries in the Nordic region, which is where we are seeing most progress in terms of online monetisation. Norway now has 30% paying for some kind of online news, Sweden 26%, and Finland 18% (all up substantially on this time last year).

Many Nordic newspapers use a hybrid paywall model (a combination of a monthly page view limit and some premium content) supported by data driven editorial and marketing teams looking to convert users.

Using these techniques, Aftenposten reached 100,000 digital subscribers in December 2017 after just two years. In Sweden, leading daily Dagens Nyheter (DN) has more than 120,000 digital subscribers, with an average age 20 years younger than the print readership. The company uses predictive data techniques to target likely new subscribers and reduce churn. In Finland quality news provider Helsingin Sanomat has returned to growth after 25 years of declining circulation thanks to digital. They have 230,000 readers who pay for digital access, of whom 70,000 are digital only (up 40% in the last year) — part of a total subscriber base of almost 400,000.

It is not clear if the conditions for this Nordic success are replicable elsewhere but more publishers across the world are now experimenting with these approaches.

And finally, what is the biggest surprise from the report this year?

I think probably the trends we are seeing around audio, which until now has been rather left behind by the internet revolution. We’ve seen a big jump in usage for voice-activated speakers in the three countries where they’ve been established longest. News use and podcasts are a big part of that and the report includes a deep dive into who is listening and why.

In the future, audio is likely to attract new renewed interest from publishers as mobile listening grows and on-demand technology in the car disrupts linear radio listening.

Read more about the 2018 Digital News Report and download the full report here.

Next year’s report will be presented at the GEN Summit in Lisbon on Thursday 20 June 2019.

Nic Newman is the editor and lead writer of the Reuters Digital News Report, Oxford University. Prior to this he was a senior research fellow at City University, London, and a strategist at the BBC.