The Digital News Report released last week by the Reuters Institute raises concerns about the future of journalism, although some media professionals also see opportunities.

The report presents five key findings:

  • Trust in journalism is under pressure (link)
  • Developments around Artificial Intelligence are becoming visible to the general public (link)
  • Working with user needs can help media serve a broader audience (link)
  • The growth in online payment for news has come to a halt (link)
  • Young audiences are turning to social media influencers at the expense of traditional news brands (link)

But as with any large-scale report or research, it’s what happens next that’s often where things get interesting. Having presented the findings and proffered explanation and context, what are news professionals’ reactions to all this?

Solutions instead of problems

Editors-in-chief have been writing about and responding to the Report on their websites, such as Wendelmoet Boersema and Karel Smouter from Trouw (a Dutch client of smartocto):

"The underlying trends are undeniably worrying for those who consider trust in a reliable and diverse news supply important. Particularly, the fact that a new generation of potential readers and listeners primarily obtains journalism from free social media is something that editorial teams are grappling with. This naturally applies to us as well.

However, the report also provides reasons to look optimistically at Trouw's position. Our newspaper offers precisely what dropouts and news avoiders in surveys say they miss the most: constructive stories told from an optimistic tone. With attention to possible solutions instead of just problems and with the intention to combat rather than increase polarisation."

Khalil A. Cassimaly from The Conversation (also a client) also found positive points in the report, in the chapter on the User Needs Model.

“See how high the ‘Inspire me’ user need ranks! More confirmation that people need to see more positive news about the world. People aren't just after knowledge and better understanding when it comes to news media.”

He referred to the graph below, where scores represent expectations versus experiences. The higher the score, the more news consumers expect to be provided for that particular need.

Giving people true value

Another significant point from the report is the news that that the growth in the number of people willing to pay for news is stagnating, even though the sector had actually anticipated further growth. The Fix writes the following:

“In reviewing last year’s DNR we highlighted that the proportion of people who pay for online news hadn’t grown in the past year, hovering at 17% across 20 Global North countries. This year it’s still at exactly 17%.

One interesting addition in DNR 2024, though, is the finding that this number might not show the full picture because of “heavy discounting” in many countries. Some consumers shelling out for online news pay a heavily discounted price and might not be ready to start paying a full rate.”

Ellen Heinrichs from the German Bonn Institute points out on LinkedIn that journalistic organisations need to find a response to this:

“The willingness to pay for digital content is not increasing as quickly as hoped. The industry is reacting to all of this with a sometimes hectic search for technological solutions that will make journalism faster and more cost-effective. The Digital News Report does not say that we are producing too slowly, or that we are producing too little. We are producing beyond what is needed.

Therefore, according to lead author Nic Newman, it is time for change: “Re-engaging audiences will require publishers to rethink some of the ways that journalism has been practised in the past”. In plain language: this time, innovation must take place at the content level. This is uncomfortable for many, because now we are getting down to the nitty-gritty, namely the question of what the added value that editorial teams actually create for people in a world of overwhelming information and countless sources of information is.

Or to put it the other way around: what should journalistic products be like in the future that people experience as trustworthy, relevant and helpful in times of crisis? For which they would even be willing to spend money (even if it is broadcasting fees)? To answer these questions, we need to develop new metrics for successful journalism, research user needs and, above all, go out and listen.”

The social media generation

Finally, much attention in the reactions is given to the shift from traditional to social media. Since social media companies no longer send as much traffic to news sites as they used to, it seems that two worlds are drifting apart.

Martin Kay, entrepreneur and digital news leader, talks about a series of ironies and is therefore also critical of what the respondents say:

“Respondents say they want more perspective, yet practically they doomscroll updates on social media, which is curated to give you LESS perspective

Respondents say they want more transparency, yet increasingly prefer 'news influencers' on TikTok that have no stated editorial standards

Respondents know that social content cannot be trusted, yet they increasingly consume it, for social currency

...exacerbated by big tech and GenAI ability to personalise the news we want to see, the news that confirms what we ‘knew’ already.

Built in entirely NON-transparent proprietary code and protected by a one-sided user agreement

In short, 1-3 in the screengrab below could have been written as:

1. The video is what I wanted to see, so I trust it
2. The video told me what I wanted to be told, which is convenient
3. The videos were a variety of people telling me what I wanted to be told, none of whom have editorial standards”

Strangely enough, the platforms also seem suitable for journalism, albeit in a different form. In the Digital News Report itself, Nic Newman writes about initiatives that reach large groups of people with journalism. He seems to hint that journalists should not consider social media to be a lost space:

“A second important trend is the popularity of news creators and influencers that speak to younger audiences, mostly using video formats. In France, Hugo Décrypte is blazing a trail in trying to make news more accessible and entertaining, along with V Spehar in the United States and Dylan Page in the UK. Brands such as Brut, Politics Joe, and TLDR News are engaging a large number of under 35s using younger hosts, as well as a different agenda, including more content about climate, social justice, and mental health.”

So there’s a lot to unpick, unpack and ruminate on in the days post DNR24. These are great conversations to be having - however uncomfortable.

That said, there’s a sense of purpose evident too: it feels like there’s more clarity coming from this year’s analysis, and a sense - certainly reading through responses to it on LinkedIn and elsewhere online - that solutions like user needs can and will make substantive change to output and performance, but also to the way we relate to our audiences.