Opinion


If readers pay for your news, you’re one of the lucky ones.

Every year, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism based at Oxford University in the UK, comes out with its Digital News Report, a survey of global trends and attitudes towards online news. Depending on your position in the media industry, it can be either good news or bad news. According to the latest edition, if you’re a prosperous digital giant with a well-established subscription programme, then you are probably in great shape, thanks to the growth of digital and mobile consumption of the news. If you’re a small publisher that still relies predominantly on print and your subscription plan still isn’t lucrative, however, the report is probably going to cause nightmares. As Facebook and Google continue to vacuum up the lion’s share of digital advertising around the globe, the landscape is looking increasingly barren for any publisher that isn’t already a market leader. (Google helps fund the Reuters report.)

One of the big headlines from the study is that, despite the efforts of news publishers to move away from advertising revenue [advertising revenue has, in fact, moved away from news publications – Ed.] and focus more on subscriptions and membership plans, there has only been a tiny increase in the number of people who pay for online news in any form in the past year.

What little growth did occur came primarily in Norway and Sweden. In the US, the so-called “Trump bump” led many news consumers to sign up for subscriptions to newspapers like The New York Times and Washington Post, but that seems to have slowed into a virtual flat line. The number of people who paid for news in the US currently remains relatively “stable” (i.e. it isn’t growing) at 16% of the population.

[In South Africa it’s probably closer to 4%.] Even in countries where fairly large numbers of news consumers pay for their news, the vast majority only have a single subscription. This phenomenon suggests that there is a winner-take-all aspect to online news. That might benefit the Times or the Post, or newspapers like The Guardian in the UK, but as those outlets grow stronger, their smaller competitors could find it even more difficult to sign up new subscribers, no matter how good their coverage is. Some media analysts believe this could create a polarised market, where the big get bigger and the small get smaller, and those in the middle either dramatically change their models or die out.

News publishers aren’t just competing with other news outlets for subscribers. As more and more younger subscribers, the kind the news industry is most interested in attracting, are looking to streaming services like Netflix and Spotify to serve their entertainment needs, there is a risk that even in markets where people don’t mind paying for news, a form of “subscription fatigue” may be developing. In this environment, “publishers may struggle to substantially increase the market for high-priced single-title subscriptions,” the Reuters report says. And publishers who are doing everything they can to sign up as many readers as possible could be exacerbating this problem by hitting consumers with paywalls more frequently.
If you’re desperate for a little good news, the study found that while trust in the news in general is down 2 percentage points to 42% across all countries, and less than half of those surveyed said they trust the news sources they use regularly, there are signs that these low levels of trust are helping move people to more reputable sources of news. Across all of the countries surveyed, more than 25% said they have started relying on more reputable sources.

 (The study says the interpretation of “reputable” was left to respondents to determine.) How this particular statistic is likely to affect your media depends on whether you are one of the reputable sources people are heading towards, or one of the not-so-reputable sources that readers are busy heading away from.

Here’s more on the state of digital news:

♦ Active avoiders: Almost a third of those surveyed for the report say that they “actively avoid the news.” That’s up by 3 percentage points from when Reuters asked the same question last year. How can publishers convince more readers to subscribe to their sites if a significant proportion are no longer interested in news at all?

♦ The youngs: Mark Little, a former Irish TV Correspondent who founded the social-media verification service Storyful and now has a news curation startup called Kinzen, says there are encouraging signs that younger news consumers are more interested in reputable sources, share less fake news and are more interested in paying for news than older consumers.

– By Mathew Ingram, in Columbia Journalism Review.

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