Over a year after we launched the User Needs Model 2.0 in collaboration with Dmitry Shishkin, this model now forms the basis for significant research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Read on for our commentary on their annual news report.

Reflections on user needs are one of the key findings from the Digital News Report 2024. The media world looks forward to this report each year as it surveys news consumers in 47 countries about the state of journalism.

A lot of the conclusions are painful to read. Trust in news media remains low, and the willingness to pay for online news has not increased for three years. The phenomenon of news influencers and the impact of TikTok are discussed, and naturally, comments on AI in journalism.

Some interesting figures that might give you pause for thought:

  • Social media are driving less traffic to news platforms. Facebook news consumption has declined by 4 percentage points across all countries over the past year.
  • Traditional media are losing their news consumers to social media. YouTube is used for news by almost a third (31%) each week, WhatsApp by around a fifth (21%), while TikTok (13%) has, for the first time, surpassed Twitter (10%), now rebranded as X.
  • People find it difficult to discern which sources they can trust. Concern about what is real and what is fake on the internet regarding online news has increased by 3 percentage points in the past year, with around six in ten (59%) expressing concern.
  • The appeal of news consumption is waning. Around four in ten (39%) now say they sometimes or often avoid the news – an increase of 3 percentage points on last year’s average.
  • Business models are under pressure. Only 17% say they paid for any online news in the last year across a basket of 20 wealthier countries. Norway (40%) and Sweden (31%) have the highest proportion of those paying, with Japan (9%) and the United Kingdom (8%) among the lowest.

User needs offer perspective

The publication of these findings is relevant, but the Digital News Report also excels at looking forward, and highlighting positive areas for development. The chapter on user needs is an example, showing the opportunities media have if they cover more than 'just the facts'. This conclusion comes from the Key Findings:

In exploring user needs around news, our data suggest that publishers may be focusing too much on updating people on top news stories and not spending enough time providing different perspectives on issues or reporting stories that can provide a basis for occasional optimism.

Dr Richard Fletcher Director of research @ The Reuters Institute

Here at smartocto, we're not surprised that they've reached this conclusion, but we are surprised by how they reached it. Simply put: it's long been established that what people say they want, and what they actually want (or need!) are not always the same thing - and this becomes apparent in this analysis.

What researcher Dr. Richard Fletcher has done is ask people what they want from news organisations. Naturally, people were quick to say that they value facts over emotion – both of which, in our view, should be led by fact-based enquiry anyway. We also demonstrate in the user needs whitepaper that you can create your own brand-specific need, as long as you use it strategically to engage with the audience that resonates with and values your mission.

Think like a nutritionist

The important thing to consider is this: the User Needs Model 2.0 is not a case of selecting from a menu. Rather, it’s an approach that encourages newsrooms to take a holistic view of their audience and those audiences’ needs and to ensure that news coverage is well balanced, comprehensive and accessible to readers at all points of the day and in all situations. It pays to think like a nutritionist: over the course of a week, have you got a good balance? Also remember that people don’t want to have dinner in the morning.

What the Reuters Institute did well is examine whether the growing group of news avoiders might have different desires than those who regularly consume news, and that turns out to be the case.

There’s a clear takeaway here, which may not be entirely surprising, but is something worth pausing over. News avoiders are much less interested in fact-driven content (‘Update me’ and ‘Keep me engaged’) than news enthusiasts. What they do appreciate are ‘Feel’ and ‘Action-driven’ content.

The report also identifies clear differences between younger and older audiences, with younger people placing more importance on a mix of user needs. They consider 'Divert me' and 'Help me' more important than the older demographic, while 'Update me' and 'Educate me' are seen as slightly less important.

Difference in research method

The research method differs on an important element from what we do at smartocto: looking at visitor behaviour on news websites more comprehensively. This is more than just ‘clicks’; it also includes monitoring levels of loyalty and engagement. For example, you see that people actually pay more attention to emotion-driven articles. The attention time on those pages is longer, and the read-through percentage is higher.

There is a difference between what people say they want and what they actually need

In our research with clients, we see that there's a much bigger gap between what people 'want' (or need!) from the news. At this brand 'Update me' is clearly overproduced.

So the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism arrives at approximately the same conclusions as we do at smartocto, albeit through a different approach. People were also asked whether they are satisfied with how the media meets their various news needs. This reveals a gap between expectation and experience, and this gap reveals areas where the media could focus more.

The Institute indicates this through the User Needs Priority Index, where it shows that the score on the ‘understand’ axis of the User Needs Model is the highest, followed by ‘Inspire me’. This is not the same everywhere: in countries with a high level of press freedom people seek more diverse perspectives (Give me perspective), whereas in countries with lower levels of press freedom, the public seems to recognise that their more basic knowledge needs are not being met by the media – and this is their priority.

User needs are here to stay

Essentially though, the key takeaway from this report is that 'user needs' have become firmly established in the news sector and are here to stay. The nuanced analysis by Richard Fletcher underlines the importance of having a good mix of user needs, which helps journalists strengthen the bond with the public. He states:

“While it is clear that people want the news media to provide facts that keep them knowledgeable about current events (‘update me’), there is also a strong need for the news to ‘educate me’ and ‘give me perspective’. And even though these needs are on average considered more important than news that helps people do or feel things, a substantial minority of at least 40% of the public consider these important too. In other words, while providing news that keeps people up to date with what is going on is a defining part of what the public wants and expects, many people want the news media to satisfy a range of needs, and few want ‘just the facts’.”