Select Committee on Communications and Digital: inquiry into the future of journalism
Nic Newman, Senior Research Associate at the Reuters Institute for the study of Journalism and lead author of RISJ’s Digital News Report which has charted changing consumption over the last ten years – the largest ongoing study of news in the world. Nic also writes an annual trends and predictions report for journalism based on a survey of top news providers around the world. He has recently published in depth reports on trust, social media, podcasts, voice and the behaviours of young people.
Before RISJ, Nic was a journalist for 20 years working across radio, tv and online. He was a founding member of BBC website in 1997 (World Editor) and head of new media product and technology for BBC News for almost a decade.
What are the most important changes in consumption and production of news?
So on the consumption side it is the move to digital. More recently the combination of mobile and social which came together as a second wave revolution. These two have – changed way consume news anytime, anyplace, sped up the production of news further, undermined trust and disrupted commercial business models.
This is because the unbundling of the newspaper package made much harder to 1) make ads work (adjacent display didn’t work) 2) major us tech platforms have taken most of the money as they have more scale and are better able to target specific audiences.
The other key consumption issue is the generational split
Older people by and large are continuing to watch TV news and papers, preferring this curated experience (the editor or the anchor) – and the traditional formats they grew up with.
Younger people, particularly those who have grown up as digital natives exhibit very different behaviours, spending most time with social media, not wanting to be told what to watch or read by editor– preferring to make own choices or be influenced by recommendations from friends. In our most recent data 39% of 18-24s say social media is their main source of news and just 8% say TV.
On the production side
Digital has gone from being an ‘unloved’ add-on to being central to everything (and certainly to the ‘future of journalism’. Both print or TV companies operate integrated newsrooms with digital often the starting point for conversations. This means ..
- 24 hour operation
- Story based approach – start with the agenda and work out best way to tell the story across print, online, social media, email newsletter, podcast etc
That means new skills. Newsrooms used to have writers and subs and editors – now you have writers, videographers, podcast producers, data-visualisation experts, audience engagement teams, Snapchat and Tik Tok producers. It is a much more complex mix.
Question 2: How have digital technologies changed the production of journalism? What are the best examples of innovation by journalists and news providers?
I am an evangelist for digital and online news which has four key advantages/attributes…
Best examples of innovations?
I think of three types of innovation 1) storytelling 2) formats and channels 3) business models and there is a lot going on …
- Short videos with text underneath – popularised by NowThis and Buzzfeed now adopted by pretty much everyone.
- Daily news podcast formats pioneered by NYT with the Daily – used narrative storytelling techniques and sound design now being used by others including the Guardian, Aftenposten. Vox (US company) has doubled the number of podcasts to 200 in the last year.
- Email newsletters – the Spoon small start-up dedicated to giving you news in 2 and half minutes – also have pop up newsletters around corona virus, Washington Post has 70 different newsletters.
- ITV doing good job with the Rundown snappy bulletin produced by young people for young people.
- Telegraph running an impressive service in Snapchat for younger users and doing audio briefings in WhatsApp.
- Live events – as a way of driving loyalty. Helsingin Sanomat do regular events which are a bit like a journalism show.
- The Times organising cruises with talks from top journalists (probably not after Coronavirus). Dagens Nyheter in Sweden doing the same thing but via trains…
- Buzzfeed has consistently innovated with native advertising first and now with ecommerce.
What are some of the downsides of digital?
Partly the paradox of choice. There is so much content we often feel overwhelmed and there is so much free content we don’t value it in the same way.
Partly that participation has spilled over into cynicism and abuse – something about the incentives in social media which reward the wrong kind of feedback.
Partly problem of sustainability – digital has undermined business models so there are fewer journalists, less money for innovation etc.
Pressures and influences on journalists – how are they changing?
I’m not an expert on this – I’ve not been a journalist for some time but in terms of what we’ve studied in general at the Reuters Institute
In terms of influences I would say
Data much more of an influence – most newsrooms have metrics, they have tools like Chartbeat or in-house tools like Ophan at the Guardian or Telescope at the BBC – giving feedback on how story performing and that does influence what gets commissioned these days.
We’ve been through three phases with data …
Question 3: What are the main challenges for freelance journalists? How could the industry and public policy better support them?
I am not an expert in freelance journalism and haven’t worked in that way for a long time but I do see another opportunity which is for an individual or two individuals to get together and run a local business. The barriers to entry are much lower and with the cost of distribution essentially zero, new models open up especially around local and hyper local journalism. This is also relevant to any niche where can super serve a community.
I think we’ll see a lot more of this in the future and this is an area where BBC or PA for example could provide free data for these services or perhaps they could tap into a public fund – a get business advice or similar.
Question 4: Why is the profession not more representative of the population and what could be done to improve this?
I am not an expert on this but from our research it is the case that journalism is often seen as part of the elites representing the status quo – rather than the interests of ordinary people. This is one of the drivers behind low trust in many countries – from example in France last year – much of the Gilets Jaune anger was directed at the media for not covering their grievances.
Not just to do with the fact that journalists are from the elites, it is also that journalists don’t get out of the office as much as they used to; there is always another update to do, a response to that thread on twitter. It is much harder to go and dig for a story that is different or is further away.
Newsrooms are trying to address this (Kath Viner’s new manifesto which includes bringing in diverse perspectives as a key part of what the paper needs to do, John Harris reporting for the Guardian). The best publications are really pushing reporters out of the office again and giving them time to find distinctive stories
In terms of recruitment and newsroom diversity
The New York Times has radically changed the shape and make up of newsroom in the last eight years. It is now much younger, more racially diverse and even a bit more politically diverse. To do that they really had to change their HR practices and to look in different places for potential recruits. They also needed new skills so picked from start-ups videographers, audio specialists, Gen-Z specialists. Lgbtq+ etc.
Others have brought in young digital disrupters. News UK has a GENZ board made up of under 25s who work for the company and advise the newsroom on what types of stories to cover but also tone. CNN (London) brought in Yusuf Omar a master of Instagram and Snapchat stories to change the way they interacted with younger people.
Not just about the staff, diversity is also about on screen/in paper representation of the voices that are chosen to interview.
BBC has a very successful 50/50 project bottom up to provide gender balance in terms of contributors to many of BBC’s most popular programmes.
Newsrooms in Scandinavia now use software that checks pictures on the front page of a website and sends email to editors if gender balance is not right.
Most of these initiatives are focussed on gender and we did a survey at the start of the year where 76% felt doing good job with gender diversity initiatives but much less well with non-metropolitan diversity – and also racial and political diversity (less than 50%).
Q5. To what extent do you agree with the following statements? My company is doing a good job with … N=227
This are the areas we need to work on including bringing people into the profession without university degrees but with the right level of commitment and curiosity.
Question 5: How can journalists appeal to the audiences least likely to engage with or trust journalism?
Firstly, our data shows there is a real problem engagement – our study during the election campaign showed that young people spent on average 8 mins week engaging with news and older people spent 22 mins a week - and older people consumed more TV and radio and print.
We also know that people with lower levels of education and lower socio-demographic background have lower interest in news, and are less likely to go to news websites and area more likely to use social media.
Engagement is real challenge – news is depressing, always something more engaging to do on your mobile phone.
Simple answer is that you have to make news more accessible, more engaging and more relevant – which means understanding more about what there are interested in but also the moments when they might be interested in news and the channels they are using.
How to address the engagement gap with the young
Agenda – not just domestic political agenda but wider range of subjects that feel relevant, housing, student debt, LGBTQ+ issues, the environment.
Tone – how tell those stories and who is telling those stories – related to representation – how many people like them do they see on TV or see interviewed in the papers. But also there is often too much assumed knowledge. News is written by elites with a high interest in news for other people who have high interest in news. We take too much for granted in term of language which makes it hard to pick up stories due to too much assumed knowledge.
Formats– Visual journalism works well, short videos but, compelling graphics, podcasts work well for 24-35s in particular, especially combined with information that helps them progress, which is one of the prime motivators for young millennials. Explainer formats and ‘how- to’ videos work really well.
Convenience – need to provide in a channel or in a way that is really going to work (so formatting the content in the right way – at the right time). You can’t expect people to go to website or download apps. News providers need to work with platforms to surface news in places where people see it and consume it more passively. [that is the value of social media and search by the way]. The Google Chrome browser has default news in it now, on an Apple iPhone you can swipe left and you will find news – this is more like how TV hammocking worked.
News used to be about providing news that you should know. Young people are interested in that to an extent but they also want news that is useful to know, interesting to know, fun to know. Media companies are not really known for delivering fun and useful news.
What about trust?
In most countries we are seeing declining trust in the news. Our data shows falls in trust in the news by 10-15pps in the last five years. In the UK only 38% say they trust most news most of the time in the UK (2019 Digital News Report). Talking to respondents we find three things going on:
So trust is complicated and not clear improving quality alone will solve the problem.
What can be done about trust?
Scepticism good but when spills over into unfair cynicism about journalists and the work they do that is a problem – especially when fuelled by politicians who may have interest in not having strong independent scrutiny of what they do.
In my view that is a problem for democracy and society – and we need to strengthen support for good journalism. We do not need a set of competing facts about corona virus.
Question 6: Which emerging trends and potential future developments should the committee focus on?
I can mention three important trends:
1. Disruption of broadcast – so far, we’ve been exercised by the impact on print business models and commercial models – now we are starting to see significant falls in numbers watching TV news as more people consume on demand via Netflix or podcast via Spotify. I think this is really big issue because TV is such an important way of communicating public information around coronavirus or climate change. It will leave a big gap in getting to some of those harder to reach audiences.
2. Sustainable business models - and the move to subscription generally. Lots of positives here in that it gets us away from clickbait and provides path to sustainability for some quality media - on the other hand it will increasingly raise issues of information inequality – where the rich have access to higher quality information. I also think this not a good solution for consumers want to access news in a frictionless way – barriers and registration will put people off news. So, I’m really interested in different models such as donation, membership, foundation funding – as well as hybrid models which provide different ways of funding public interest journalism and common facts.
I’m also interested in ways in which access to subscriptions services can be made available to students and others that can’t afford to pay.
- The Guardian – not just donations, subscription, print, events and training, podcasts, foundation funding - really hybrid model;
- Texas Tribune – foundation supported, also events;
- Vox media in the US model which has a lot of verticals – common infrastructure – built around not just websites but podcasts, email newsletters etc.;
- DPG and MediaHuis in Belgium and the Netherlands have done a good job in leveraging common technology and digital business models across multiple titles and pursuing a diversified income streams.
3. Artificial intelligence and algorithms
There are dangers here of course but also lots of opportunities to redefine these to work in the public interest and in the interest of journalism:
AI can help journalists deal with information overload, help moderate comments more effectively, make it quicker to write and package stories, more efficient subbing operations but also in terms of distribution and personalisation.
Media companies will need to embrace these technologies to be much better at getting the right content to the right person at the right time.
(b) What would you like the result of this inquiry to be? What is the most useful contribution the Committee could make?
I see lots of negativity around journalism coming from politicians, ordinary people and journalists too but it would be helpful to restate the importance of high quality, accurate journalism for democracy and for society.
Journalism doesn’t always live up to the ideals it sets for itself, but we need a press that is robust in its scrutiny and independent of powerful interests. Much of what I read and hear and is better than it has ever been …so it would be helpful that has an intervention that is forward thinking and balances the very real problems with a recognition that we are starting to see some options for the future.
Secondly it would be helpful to have another voice clearly saying that public interest journalism, local journalism, accountability journalism is going to need some short and long-term public funding – however that it is done.
We shouldn’t leave initiatives to the whims of Facebook and Google. We should have a strategic fund - as Frances Cairncross suggested - which can co-ordinate all the initiatives and funding stream in a fair, open and transparent way that is in the long-term interests of the UK. We’d love the platforms to contribute to that fund but we can’t and shouldn’t rely on them to set the incentives or criteria.
Training, news literacy, representation are important issues but in my view these are secondary and it would be helpful if your report addressed the two fundamental issues facing journalism:
Financial sustainability (especially of public interest and local journalism) which affects everything else (low pay, job insecurity). Fixing the business models and finding hybrid solutions will help with independence, quality, long-term view etc.
Platform power – As platforms become increasingly powerful not just text but for video and audio – we need to find some way that quality news gets some kind of preference over lower quality news (for example around the Corona virus) and that providers of that news can get fairly rewarded – not on the basis that they are big publisher but that they have track record of doing a good job for the public against some agreed criteria. Again, Frances Cairncross recommended a regulator with powers to explore these kinds of issues. I am not sure Ofcom has that remit now (I think not).