Study: News organizations face second wave of disruption

August 8, 2014

By The Reuters Institute

for the study of journalism

Oxford University | Oxford, UK

Many traditional news companies are struggling with a second wave of digital innovation that threatens to sweep away the relationships they have enjoyed with readers and viewers for a century or more.

In its third annual Digital News Report, covering 10 countries, the Reuters Institute shows that although some established print and broadcast titles have made strides to meet the challenges represented by the shift to mobile consumption, the speed of change in habits is outpacing others. 

In some countries such as Japan and U.S. many established news organizations are finding it hard to move success offline to the Web, but in the UK, Denmark, Finland and Germany, traditional news brands have managed to maintain market share online at the same time as driving editorial and business innovation.

The report identifies new threats to the traditional sources of news—with the smartphone and social media as the most powerful agents of change. A generational split in how people find and interpret news is emerging.

As these trends increase, profound effects on society are possible if different groups develop their own, narrow relationship with news sources rather than sharing a broader range of views, the report suggests.

Adoption of new technology is driving these trends, the report says.

Smartphones are encouraging users to consume news more frequently throughout the day, reducing the dependence on appointment to view TV and newspaper editions.

Young people, the readers and viewers of tomorrow, are turning increasingly to mobile devices as their preferred way of receiving news and consequently “snacking” more in terms of both the time spent on sites and the type of content they consume. Across all 10 countries surveyed by YouGov for the Reuters Institute, over a third (36 percent) of 18-24s say the smartphone is now their primary access point for digital news. Author Nic Newman said, “Across the world, we see a generational split in terms of platforms, formats and the type of emerging news brands that are being consumed.”

The research confirms the increasing popularity of new digital players with their commitment to mobile and social news formats. Both The Huffington Post and Buzzfeed are attracting significant audiences in a number of European markets, as well as the U.S. and Brazil—while Google News remains a leading player in Italy, France and Germany and Yahoo! is the top news site in Japan.

In the U.S. and Japan these born-digital companies—the so-called pure players and aggregators—now rival traditional media in popularity online, putting further pressure on business models, although there is less disruption in many European countries.

There is mixed news on consumers’ attitudes to paying for news.

Despite the growing number of paywalls, the report finds only a minority have paid for digital news in the last year (ranging from 7 percent in the UK to 11 percent in the U.S., 14 percent in Finland and 22 percent in Brazil)—although in some countries many more say they might pay in the future and there has been a substantial increase in the proportion taking out a subscription.

Derived from a detailed a survey of the news consumption of more than 18,000 people in 10 countries, The Reuters Institute Digital News Report has become the prime source for identifying changes that have already struck the fast-changing news environment, as well as forecasting trends for the future.

The report suggests there is still reason for optimism for established news outlets.

In most countries the majority of news consumed online still comes from established newspaper and broadcaster brands, whose work is particularly valued in covering stories of national and international importance.

The report also reveals that much of the conversation in social media is driven by the work of mainstream journalists—with 64 percent of Twitter users in the UK following a professional news account.

Indeed, the report also highlights a growing trend towards journalists as a key driver of trust, engagement, and consumer loyalty. In some countries, notably the U.S., France and Spain, large numbers of people are identifying with journalists directly—and this in turn is fuelling the growth of news start-ups built around these journalistic stars.

Some of these trends are being driven by the growth of social media, which the report says may be encouraging a more fragmented and personal approach to the news. The report reveals that young people in particular (18-35) increasingly rely on social sources like Facebook and Twitter to discover news stories. It also highlights the rise of WhatsApp as a significant new network for sharing and discussing the news.

But the generational split could have implications for society as a whole as experts try to predict how people will find out about events and policies that affect their lives and shape their view of the world.

Director of the Reuters Institute, David Levy says: “In some countries, such as the UK established news brands have retained their loyalty in the more competitive online environment, but the rapid growth of social media as a way of discovering and consuming news has a range of possible ramifications.

“While choice proliferates, consumption may narrow; reliance on recommendations from like-minded friends could mean people are less exposed to a broad news agenda.

“As news aggregation and sharing take off, consumers may be more conscious of speed and the source of the recommendation than the reliability and trustworthiness of the original news source. Finally, as the ways of reading news change, some people may operate in a news echo chamber where they are less likely to be exposed to other content through chance.”

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