Reuters Digital News Report: Why Research Matters

Four years ago, I watched Nic Newman present his latest research at a BBC social media conference I’d helped organise. (You can watch his session on YouTube here). He emphasised to the audience that search engines were no longer the primary source of news but were starting to be replaced by social discovery. Many of the social media early adopters in the room nodded in agreement, but this shift was still big news for those in the mainstream news industry.

This research – published in 2011 – led to the creation of the annual Digital News Report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.  Yesterday marked the publication of the fourth Digital News Report. The results were based on an online survey, carried out in 12 countries.

The report is a humdinger.

With four years of data, and now with multiple years of data from five countries we can see some very key trends emerging. But what we can also see is that this stuff is complex. Once you dig down by country, age, gender and by social network, you see really interesting but very different trends taking place.

Here are three of my favourite visuals from the report. The first shows people’s main source of news by country.

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In France, Germany and Japan, TV is still the main source of news by some margin. In Australia and Finland, the internet is the main source of news. In the US, 43% of people say online news is how they keep abreast of what’s going on in the world, but a striking 40% consider TV their primary source of news. TV News certainly isn’t dead.

This data gains complexity when we cross-reference it with the second graph, which looks at age. It’s very clear that older news consumers have very different patterns compared to their younger counterparts. If you’re a news executive working for an organization that has to keep both sets of audiences happy, you have your work cut out. These groups are in completely different places – literally.

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The third nugget is the following one.  Most people are using two or three devices simultaneously to access the news. It’s not that smartphones are replacing desktop.


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This piece of data acts as a reminder that whenever some self-proclaimed guru stands up and makes bold pronouncements about the state of the news industry, remind them (or at least remind the snarky backchannel that is Twitter at a conference) that they’re missing the necessary complexity. Just the other day at the World News Media Congress I heard another person passing on the false claim that desktop was dead. “It’s all about mobile.” Wrong. Desktop is still important for people, especially at work. But you also have to provide content for them that performs on their smartphone or tablet for their commute or late night swiping in bed.

I acknowledge that as I write this from my position as Research Director, I might be biased, but this report yet again emphasises the need for quality, rigorous audience research. Conference presentations are full of powerpoint presentations, often based on hunches based on personal experience of individual habits. Only by looking at research of this quality and scale are you reminded of the need to really understand what is going on in terms of the digital news landscape.

The whole report is long, but the executive summary should be read by everyone currently working in the news industry.

The key findings are outlined very clearly in the Executive Summary but I want to reflect on some of the most interesting aspects for me, and how it relates to the some of the research we are doing, or will be doing at the Tow Center in the near future.

Our Director, Emily Bell, has spoken and written extensively about this growing interdependence between the social networks and news publishers (and she has an essay in this report). The increasing reliance on social networks as a place to find news is underlined in this research.  As Newman argues “social media are not seen as a destination for accurate and reliable journalism but more as a way of getting access to it.”

And Facebook is the dominant player here. 41% of people surveyed stated they use the network to find, read, watch, share, or comment on the news each week (an increase of 6% from last year). However, the reason it’s so dominant is because it’s part of many people’s day to day habits, irrespective of their news habits. But as a result, when they’re on Facebook, they see news. They can’t help it. As Newman describes, people seek news out on Twitter but they bump into it on Facebook.

And look at YouTube – still a dominant force in terms of news. As someone who is mildly obsessed by the videos of breaking news uploaded to YouTube by eyewitnesses, I would love to know how much of this number is people watching traditional news bulletins on Youtube, and how much is actually people seeking out raw footage from news events once they hear about it.

The different attributes of the social networks are an important reminder that we use the catch-all phrase ‘social media’ at our peril when we’re trying to understand audience habits.

This report also highlights the changing ecosystem in terms of chatapps and news. As this graph highlights, 9% of people surveyed said they had found, read, watched, shared or discussed news on Whatsapp (just lower than Twitter at 11%).

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And as Newman reminds us, Facebook’s dominance is even more significant considering its ownership of Whatsapp and Instagram, both increasingly important players in the new news ecosystem.  But he also outlines the importance of different networks, particularly chatapps in different parts of the world. The increasingly important role of chatapps in terms of newsgathering but also distribution will be a significant focus of our work at the Tow Center in the coming months, so watch this space.

In many ways, this research underlines the trends that many of us already have a sense about, either from observing habits on public transport, conversations with our teenagers or our parents. But this research is so important because it documents a moment in time, and through its rigorous methodology employed in twelve different countries, it’s an important reminder that change is happening at different speeds, in different ways in different locations. One size does certainly not fit all.