If readers pay for your news, you’re one of the lucky ones

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

Every year, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, which is based at Oxford University in the UK, comes out with its Digital News Report, a survey of global trends and attitudes towards online news. Depending on your position in the media industry, it can be either good news or bad news. According to the latest edition, which came out Wednesday morning, if you’re a prosperous digital giant with a well-established subscription program, then you are probably in great shape, thanks to the growth of digital and mobile consumption of the news. If you’re a small publisher that still relies predominantly on print and your subscription plan still isn’t lucrative, however, the report is probably going to cause nightmares. As Facebook and Google continue to vacuum up the lion’s share of digital advertising around the globe, the landscape is looking increasingly barren for any publisher that isn’t already a market leader. (Google helps fund the Reuters report.)

One of the big headlines from the study is that, despite the efforts of news publishers to pivot away from advertising revenue and focus more on subscriptions and membership plans, there has only been a tiny increase in the number of people who pay for online news in any form in the past year, and the bulk of what little growth did occur came primarily in Nordic countries like Norway and Sweden. In the US, the so-called “Trump bump,” which led many news consumers to sign up for subscriptions to newspapers like The New York Times and Washington Post, seems to have slowed into a virtual flat line. The number of people who paid for news in the US jumped sharply in 2017, the Reuters report says, but it currently remains relatively “stable” (i.e. it isn’t growing) at 16 percent of the population.

On a related note, the study found that even in countries where fairly large numbers of news consumers pay for their news, the vast majority of those consumers only have a single subscription. As the report points out, this phenomenon—which turns subscription revenue into a scarce resource that virtually every other news outlet is also fighting for—suggests that there is a “winner take all” aspect to online news. That might benefit the Times or the Post, or newspapers like The Guardian in the UK, but as those outlets grow stronger, their smaller competitors could find it even more difficult to sign up new subscribers, no matter how good their coverage is. Some media analysts believe there is a distinct possibility that this could create a polarized market, where the big get bigger and the small get smaller, and those in the middle either dramatically change their models or die out.

The Reuters study also suggests that news publishers aren’t just competing with other news outlets for subscribers. As more and more consumers—particularly younger ones, the kind the news industry is most interested in attracting—are looking to streaming services like Netflix and Spotify to serve their entertainment needs, there is a risk that even in markets where people don’t mind paying for news, a form of “subscription fatigue” may be developing. In this environment, “publishers may struggle to substantially increase the market for high-priced single-title subscriptions,” the Reuters report says. And publishers who are doing everything they can to sign up as many readers as possible could be exacerbating this problem by hitting consumers with paywalls more frequently. Reuters says that, in the US, about half of those surveyed said they now hit a pay barrier at least once a week.

If you’re desperate for a little good news, the study found that while trust in the news in general is down 2 percentage points to 42 percent across all countries, and less than half of those surveyed said they trust the news sources they use regularly, there are signs that these low levels of trust are helping move people towards more reputable sources of news. Across all of the countries surveyed, more than 25 percent said that they have started relying on more reputable sources, and in the US about 40 percent of those surveyed said they were doing the same (The study says the interpretation of “reputable” was left to respondents to determine.) How this particular statistic is likely to affect your media business depends on whether you are one of the reputable sources people are heading towards, or one of the not-so-reputable sources that readers are busy heading away from.

Here’s more on the state of digital news:

Print’s long decline: The Reuters report isn’t the only significant survey of digital media trends to come out this week. Mary Meeker is a veteran technology analyst who recently left the VC fund Kleiner Perkins to start her own fund, and she releases a 300-plus page overview of the internet market every year that companies and investors routinely scan for details. Nieman Lab founder Josh Benton scans the Meeker report every year for data on the state of print advertising, and every year the data gets worse.

Active avoiders: Damian Radcliffe of the site What’s New In Publishing has picked out what he believes are the five essential charts from the Reuters media report that publishers need to pay attention to, including the fact that almost a third of those surveyed for the report say that they “actively avoid the news.” That’s up by 3 percentage points from when Reuters asked the same question last year. How can publishers convince more readers to subscribe to their sites if a significant proportion are no longer interested in news at all?

Congress cares: The backdrop to the Reuters study is, of course, the dominance of digital giants like Google and Facebook, which Congress is currently holding hearings into, with a view towards possible antitrust action against either one or both. During Tuesday’s hearings, the media got a shout out from several congressmen, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman David Cicilline, who asked: “If online news publishers can’t survive, then who can?”

The youngs: Not everyone was depressed by the Reuters study. Mark Little, a former Irish TV Correspondent who founded the social-media verification service Storyful and now has a news curation startup called Kinzen, says there are encouraging signs that younger news consumers are more interested in reputable sources, share less fake news and are more interested in paying for news than older consumers.

Other notable stories:

Jared Holt writes for CJR about how a number of media outlets ran stories about a study that allegedly showed sinister connections between antifascist activists and some reporters who cover the far-right. But while he identified himself as an online extremism researcher, the author of the study is an established right-wing troll who has been banned from Twitter for running multiple fake accounts.

The publisher of the Loudoun Tribune admitted Monday that he lied to investors about the newspaper’s financial health. Brian Reynolds launched the Tribune in 2016 as a free newspaper and eventually raised more than $500,000, in part by claiming he had invested nearly $1 million of his own money and had almost the same amount in ad contracts. In reality, he only invested a few thousand dollars and the contracts were forged. Reynolds pleaded guilty to fraud and also to illegally possessing guns.

Jennifer Brandel, cofounder and CEO of Hearken, writes about a project she is working on with New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, aimed at developing a “citizens agenda” model for campaign coverage. Instead of a traditional approach focusing on horse-race coverage and salacious details, Brandel says the project will turn to voters themselves and ask them what kind of coverage they need in order to cast an informed vote. “No longer can we presume to understand what our public needs from us,” Brandel writes.

Ryan Mac of BuzzFeed writes about a seemingly innocuous photo of a get-together of tech luminaries used by GQ magazine to illustrate a feature story about a group of wealthy travellers making a pilgrimage to the Italian HQ of luxury designer Brunello Cucinelli. Mac noticed that the photo appeared to have been Photoshopped. The original was all men, but later two women (who were also on the trip but not in the photo) were added. GQ has since removed the photo and added a note to the story saying a picture was removed because it didn’t meet the publication’s standards.

Cinnamon Janzer writes for CJR about meteorologists on local TV stations who have gotten into trouble—either with viewers or their station owners, and in some cases both—for breaking into TV programs with alerts about tornados and other serious weather events. A video clip of Jamie Simpson, a meteorologist at an Ohio station, went viral after he talked back to viewers who complained about his alerts interrupting The Bachelorette.

The news that US consumers actually read doesn’t always match up with what they say they want covered more, according to data from traffic analytics company Parse.ly and a poll conducted by Axios. Data from more than 2,000 sites that use Parse.ly showed that in May, demand was highest for news about politics and government, followed by sports and immigration. But most consumers said they actually wanted more news about health care, followed by climate and education—topics that ranked 7th, 5th, and 11th in terms of demand.

On Tuesday, the Arizona Daily Star published an opinion piece written by a local public defender, about how prosecutors in Arizona keep killing criminal-justice reform bills. The piece was quickly deleted from the newspaper’s website following a phone call from county prosecutor Sheila Polk, who said the article was not accurate about her voting record. According to a report from the Phoenix New Times, however, emails show that Polk did vote against a justice reform bill. The Daily Star has republished the op-ed piece with a note saying a passage was removed that “didn’t meet our standards for attribution.”

Leveraged buyout firm KKR wants to take German newspaper publisher Axel Springer private, according to Bloomberg. The firm has made an offer that values the media company at $7.7 billion. Springer is controlled by Friede Springer, whose late husband started the publishing company, and CEO Mathias Doepfner. Springer, which bought Business Insider in 2015 for $343 million, has seen its stock price weaken over the past year as shareholders have grown nervous about the impact that Google and Facebook are having on newspapers and digital advertising.

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