Media Subscription In Depth

4 surprising media trends from the Reuters Institute Digital News Report


By John McCarthy | Opinion editor

June 19, 2019 | 8 min read

The Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2019 this year surveyed more than 75,000 people in 38 markets and clocked in at a beastly 91,000 words. They starkly set out the challenges facing the media business today.

The report contextualises the difficulties in sustainably funding digital news media “amid a backdrop of rising populism, political and economic instability” and the ever-present threat of giant tech companies keen for a slice of the pie.

This year there were thousands of layoffs across digital media and only a “small increase” in the number of people paying for online news – whether by subscription, membership or donation. It is clear that publishers must be vigilant if they again want to denote their value and attract enough paying readers.

The Drum has pulled out some of the more surprising trends from the report (that you can consume in its entirety here).

Tech platforms took a battering – but still reign supreme

Facebook took a harder line against extremism after the Christchurch attack was live-streamed on its service and shared millions of times. Many British tabloids were just as culpable in sharing the horrific footage, it should be noted.

The Molly Russell suicide scandal also raised questions of user protection on Instagram, and the tech platforms have been broadly on the defensive. Google's YouTube will never be 100% brand safe, said one exec, and its most recent scandal saw pedophiles recommended videos of minors.

Nonetheless, despite quality and safety issues plaguing the platforms, they still hold a significant share of news audiences through search and social, according to The Reuters Institute.

The report notes the continued weakening of the direct relationship between readers and publishers. Across all 38 studied markets, just 29% of respondents now say they prefer to access a website or app directly – down 3% on a year ago and down generally as a trend.

More than half of the sample (55%) access news through search engines, social media, or news aggregators, favouring the tech giants that curate and rank articles using algorithms rather than editors.

The top news aggregators were ranked as Google News, Apple News, Upday and Flipboard, and outlining the power they now have was one significant stat. Apple News in the United States now reaches more iPhone users (27%) than the Washington Post (23%).

Publishers are looking to build direct relations with readers again. The Washington Post shares an interesting stat. It operates more than 70 specialist or niche newsletters, and it has found that their recipients consume around three times as much content as those who don’t use email news.

Subscription growth stagnant - and the winner takes all

In the last year, there was only a “small increase in the numbers paying for any online news” – whether by subscription, membership, or donation.

The Nordics swelled at a greater rate than the rest of the world (up to 34% in Norway and 27% in Sweden). The US remained at 16% “after a big jump in 2017” some bluntly describe as ‘The Trump Bump’.

More bad news. Even in the Nordics where there is a higher willingness to pay for news, most people only pay for one subscription in what the report dubbed the ‘winner takes all' dynamic.

Market leaders continued growing. The New York Times hit 3.3m digital subs, Wall Street Journal (1.5m), Washington Post (1.2m). The New York Times and Washington Post together attract more than half of all of US news subscribers. Meanwhile, in the UK, the Financial Times hit the psychologically important 1m threshold one year earlier than anticipated.

The regionals, however, are struggling to adopt this system broadly, the report outlines. “Very few local or regional publishers report success with digital subscription models – outside of the Nordic countries, France (Ouest-France and Nice-Matin), and some major cities in the US.”

And then there the other media subscription services like video and audio where consumers are more open to the idea of multiple ownership. 84% of respondents say they don't want to juggle multiple subscriptions - nonetheless, 10% of the world's population use OTT video services and there are increasing entities joining the market. Disney is among those players in 2019.

The report suggests that there is subscription fatigue and that money is more favourably directed at entertainment verticals. Under 45s, when asked to choose one one type of media subscription, heavily favoured video and music (37% and 15% respectively). Only 7% would select online news.

Most damningly, the proportion paying for news (subscriptions, memberships, donations, and other one-off payments) has remained stable at 11% in nine countries (averaged) since 2013. “Most people are not prepared to pay for online news today and on current trends look unlikely to pay in the future, at least for the kind of news they currently access for free," the report warns.

Trust in the news drops again

Across all countries, the average level of trust in the news in general is down 2% to 42%. Less than half (49%) agree that they trust the news media they themselves use.

In France particularly, there was an alarming 11% drop to 24% trust in media in one year, linked to the Yellow Vest movement. Trust in the news found via search (33%) and social media remains stable but extremely low (23%). In France, however, the declining trust in media seems to have had little to no impact in usage.

In the UK, trust is higher at 40%. Largely due to Brexit concerns, supposed news avoidance grew 11%. 58% said the news had a negative impact on their mood, and 40% said they felt there was nothing they could do to influence events – explaining the growing apathy.

“In the UK, we don’t see the same picture. Trust on both the left and the right has fallen, but if anything the trust gap has narrowed – perhaps because both are equally unhappy about Brexit coverage, which crosses party lines.”

The most trusting nations were Finland (59%), Portugal (58%) and Denmark (57%).

On trust building and changing the perception of the public, the report advises: “Better transparency about journalistic processes might help, along with improved marketing of the important work journalists do.”

Does audio solve these issues?

The Guardian, Washington Post, Politiken, AftenPosten, The Economist, and the Financial Times are among the dozens of publishers to have launched daily podcasts in the last year.

Over a third of respondents (36%) said they have consumed a podcast in the last month. But only a paltry one in six of them (15%) say they consumed one about news, politics, or international news.

Podcasts disproportionately appeal to younger audiences. Half of under 35s have used a podcast monthly compared with less than a fifth of over 55s. These older listeners are twice as likely to consume traditional radio news as the young. Smartphones are driving this trend. In the UK, 55% of listening takes place via smartphone, a figure that rises to 62% for under 35s.

Smart speakers were once touted as the driving force of the audio category, although the report notes a decline in the proportion of people using smart speakers for news.

Less than four in 10 smart speaker owners 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%). This contrasts with general smart speaker use: in the UK this was up from 7% to 14% in the space of a year. This indicates a missed opportunity for publishers – or a preferred use case.

Earlier this year McKinsey previewed with The Drum its Global Media Report. We picked out some leading trends from that too, including the prediction that there will be a mass consolidation of media in 2019.

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