After years of ill health, the news industry is finally showing signs of a modest recovery. According to the Digital News Report 2018 – the most comprehensive survey of digital media consumption – subscriptions are trending up while consumer confidence has stabilized. For a much-maligned business that trades in trust, these fragile gains amount to meaningful progress.
To be sure, the world’s media remain troubled; the report, produced by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, shows that only 44 percent of news consumers believe what established media brands publish. But that represents an increase of one percentage point from last year, suggesting that the industry’s trust deficit has either stopped growing or is actually narrowing.
Other surveys are even more bullish; for example, the annual Edelman Trust Barometer found that journalists are regaining their credibility, while overall trust in traditional and online-only journalism is at its highest point in seven years. These findings prompted the firm to declare that “the return of experts” is upon us.
Although it may be too early for media executives to declare victory just yet, these are clearly good signs for an industry that has had its reputation battered in recent years. Political polarisation has made people suspicious of media outlets that don’t support their views, while cost cutting in newsrooms has degraded the quality of journalism on offer. But, as the new data suggest, journalists appear to be finding ways to address these challenges.
Perhaps the most revealing trend in this year’s Digital News Report is the growing distrust in news shared via social media. For example, our study found that only 23 percent of respondents trust news they find on social media, and just 34 percent believe what they turn up in search engines. These figures will likely trouble Google, Facebook, and other tech giants whose businesses are no less reliant on trust than traditional media organizations.
But while platforms like Facebook stumble, many traditional media outlets are finding their footing; subscription trends support this conclusion. Of the 74,000 survey respondents, 14 percent said they paid for digital news at least once during the previous 12 months, while the average in the Nordic countries was closer to 30 percent. In the United States (US), President Donald Trump’s attacks on so-called “fake news media” have had the opposite effect, pushing more people to support independent journalism than ever before. In 2016, for example, only nine percent of American consumers paid for news online; that share rose to 16 percent in 2017 and has held steady this year.
Even in countries like the United Kingdom (UK), which has no shortage of free news websites, people are investing in quality reporting. The Guardian’s model of soliciting donations or membership payments is fuelling a financial turnaround. In nearly every country surveyed, young people on the political left demonstrate the highest propensity to pay.
Some critics argue that the media’s payment model contradicts the original spirit of the Internet as a place for the free exchange of ideas, news, and information. Moving the best stories behind paywalls, opponents say, will give rise to second-rate news for second-class citizens.
But this argument misses three key points. For starters, the number of digitally connected people who cannot afford to pay for news at all can be presumed to be quite small; willingness to pay is much more a question of spending priorities. Moreover, paying for something that one perceives as valuable helps make it so, as the move to prioritize membership models over purely transactional approaches illustrates.
Finally, for those who truly cannot pay, there are viable options for bringing quality journalism to low-income households. For example, tax codes could be reformed to make the practice of journalism more affordable, while government or foundation funding could increase support for public media programming.
When people pay for content, journalists gain an incentive to deliver. They scrutinize their products for value, check facts thoroughly, innovate, investigate, and cut down on the cheap, attention-grabbing noise that plagues so many social-media platforms. Best of all, these trends are mutually reinforcing; the better the journalism is, the more consumers will value it.
It has been a long time since the media industry had good news to report about itself. Now that we do, it is imperative that we work harder than ever to sustain the trend toward quality, credibility, and financial viability.
Alexandra Borchardt is Director of Strategic Development at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.