Digital Publishing Reader Revenue
9 mins read

10 key takeaways for news subscription managers from the 2022 Digital News Report

The most comprehensive media study of the year from Reuters Institute shines light on current trends

Every year in June for the past decade, the Reuters Institute has published its most-known Digital News Report. This year marks the eleventh year and the report as always reveals new insights about digital news consumption.

It was based on a YouGov survey of over 93,000 online news consumers in 46 markets covering half of the world’s population.

You can read and download the whole report, but here we’ve picked the top ten takeaways managers and specialists working on digital subscriptions for news organisations should pay attention to.

1) News avoidance needs to be addressed

Source: Reuters Institute 2022 Digital News Report

For the past two years we have experienced two very high attention-seeking events – the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Even though the Digital News Report (DNR) found most audiences are still engaged in day-to-day news coverage of the war, in selected markets such as the USA, UK, Spain, Brazil and Argentina the proportion of people who are very or extremely interested in the news has noticeably fallen over the past five-seven years

In other countries, like Germany, Switzerland or the Netherlands, there has been a small decline. Most of Scandinavia remained unchanged.

The Reuters Institute found that many audiences increasingly choose to ration or limit their exposure to news – or at least to certain types of news, in what they call selective news avoidance.

These audiences give a variety of reasons for why they want less exposure to news. The top reason: too much politics and COVID-19-related news (43%). 36% (particularly people under 35) said the news brings them down and 29% feel worn out by the amount of news or say the news is biased or untrustworthy.

All of those are serious topics that need to be addressed. First, you should find out how your audience and subscribers feel. DNR is a general survey of multiple populations, the results for your audience might differ drastically, but these are all trends you need to be aware of.

In my notes, after reading this chapter in the report, I put down “look to Scandinavia” as an answer to many of these issues.

The Scandinavian news outlets have the highest trust scores and the highest proportion of people paying for news. 

Media analyst Thomas Baekdal explained how Norwegian newspapers can convince 42% of the public to pay. He thinks that the culture around news is extremely community-based with the news sites also offering other content that is more than just negativity and drama.

In short, it’s about the news diet you are serving your audiences. More often than not I see news websites full of hard news, political drama and political commentary. Such a ratio might sit well with your highly-engaged news readers (junkies), but that’s rarely the majority of your audience.

I have heard some newsrooms argue that if they mixed things around, their numbers would plummet and they would attribute it to audiences not wanting other content than news. The truth is they would rarely look whether the non-news content they offered matched the needs of their audiences.

If these numbers are showing us anything, it’s a high alert to get to understand our audiences better and how their needs change in times.

2) Netflix, Spotify and paid sports are all more valuable than news subscriptions

Source: Reuters Institute 2022 Digital News Report

This chart shows where the majority of spending on digital subscriptions goes, and it is not surprising. Yet, we finally understand better how much more people value entertainment, music and sports over the news.

This chart only represents the UK, although we can assume the situation is very similar in most markets with small differences, and the report confirms this.

Let’s start with the positive news. If someone is already paying for other online services, the report says they are more likely to subscribe to news and pay for a news digital subscription.

Younger audiences in the UK also pay increasingly more for digital audio (a similar trend was recorded in the US by Edison Research), music-first but also for audiobooks and podcasts.

OK, now the less nice takeaway – of that 7% who said they pay for news (and the UK has one of the lowest numbers in the industry, so this should be higher for most of the markets), the audiences tend to skew older (55+).

I can see a silver lining here. Non-TV news outlets should lean more into sports, perhaps also build up a small streaming offering and connect it to the overall subscriptions. This is maybe an undertaking for bigger, national outlets.

Another takeaway is a possible bigger attention and experimentation with paid audio. What’s New in Publishing recently featured the story of how Tortoise Media is using podcast subscriptions to attract new audiences. Tortoise’s average membership age is much lower than many other publishers; 39 compared to 55+; their listeners average at 29.

And John Crowley for documented how audio is perceived as the least stressful medium for news.

Source: Reuters Institute 2022 Digital News Report

3) Not all users want to register

A somewhat surprising revelation for me was the result of how many people (⅔) are against registering at a news website even if it’s free and means full access to content. 28% was the average acceptance across 22 markets.

On one hand, that number is possibly much higher than it was years ago when registrations were less needed and very few outlets required them.

With the coming sunset of cookies, publishers are looking for other ways to identify readers and registration is one of the safest ways but turns out also quite unpopular.

Here, my understanding is that many audiences lack the reason why news outlets are suddenly very eager to collect their e-mails and register them. As an industry, we are not doing a great job explaining why we are doing what we are doing, especially in cases like these.

4) News discovery starts more often than not off-platform

Source: Reuters Institute 2022 Digital News Report

By now, it is not a big revelation that social media is for most the main access point to online news.

Even though the Digital News Report data shows 2022 was the first year social media actually jumped direct access to news websites or apps as the no.1 step for looking for news, I don’t think anyone is going to be surprised.

For years now the trend has been favouring social media news discovery over news portals. Some of the reasons are obvious, and if you look at the first point in this listicle, you will understand. News portals are primarily for news, and an increasing number of audiences find news offputting. 

Social media is not perfect, and the report found users understand and confirm they are seeing fake news on the platforms. Despite that, social media has become the main gateway to the news.

Another reason might be the quality of news apps or the bloated online ad experience on many news websites. Most ads on social media look the same as content and as users might see more ads on Facebook or Instagram per visit, they are not leaving with the feeling of getting served too many ads.

5) Text is still king

Source: Reuters Institute 2022 Digital News Report

Despite the rise of TikTok and online video in general, all age groups, on average, say they still prefer to read news online rather than watch it. And the report says there has been little change in the underlying preferences since 2019 when the question was last asked.

There are two explanations as I see it. First, audiences have a fixed habit of reading news and there is a notion that it is the quickest way to consume news and move on.

Second (and there are many more potential reasons, these two just seem most likely to me) is that there is less in other forms that provide the same depth of experience as reading a text.

The good news is, that text remains the cheapest form to create news in. Still, younger audiences are significantly more likely to say they watch the news.

6) Understanding younger audiences: social media as gateway, growing news avoidance and the usefulness factor

Source: Reuters Institute 2022 Digital News Report

In the latest Digital News Report, there is a whole chapter on the changing news habits and attitudes of younger audiences, and it points to a further divide between younger and older audiences and how they feel about news.

Young adults are sceptical of news organisations’ agendas and increasingly likely to avoid the news.

Also, coming back to the very first point in this listicle, the report says younger audiences’ definitions of what news is are wider. It’s not just about getting the latest information, it is also about having a good time (entertainment), learning new things and being overall useful.

It’s a challenge for any news organisation. On one hand, you have to cater to your older audiences as they are the ones usually paying for news subscriptions. On the other hand, the younger audiences represent the future and you don’t want to lose them. 

7) Email news is valued mainly by older, richer, and more educated news consumers

Source: Reuters Institute 2022 Digital News Report

It is important to note that email news is valued mainly by older, richer, and more educated news consumers, most of whom are already deeply invested in news, the report explains right at the beginning of the chapter about newsletters (email news).

Digital News Report data show that email newsletters remain an important channel across countries, with an average of 17% using them weekly. 

In the US, 15% of over 55s say email is their main way of accessing news, but only 3% of 18–24s rely on email access as the main source compared with 41% of the same group who say social media. More than 80% of all of those in the United States who use email for news are 35 or older.

If you talk to newsletter editors and digital subscription managers at news organisations, they will all tell you email is one of the most important if not the most important communication channel and also the main funnel for getting new subscribers.

If you ask about what kind of audiences those are, you will most likely get an answer that older ones. Email is not the preferred channel for younger audiences.

Still, newsletters and email, in general, are very important tools for subscription managers. What they shouldn’t forget is that email is not for everyone.

8) Why do readers/subscribers choose newsletters? Convenience, personality and special interest topics

Newsletters used to be these emotionless pieces of content with lists of links and a faceless editor behind them. That has changed over the past few years.

If you look at the most successful newsletters from news outlets such as The Morning from The New York Times, it now has its own anchor (Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist David Leonhardt) who gives it a distinct voice, personality and also a different kind of news selection you might come across on the homepage.

In the report, respondents shared their views of the newsletter medium; some of the characteristics of the most successful email newsletters were convenience, unique perspectives, and a personal touch.

Others find email a more efficient way of keeping in touch with a specialist subject area than, for example, browsing through a website.

Creating a wide offering of topic-related newsletters has been a sound strategy for big news outlets for the past few years.

9) Individual journalist paid newsletters are much less popular in Europe than in the U.S.

Source: Reuters Institute 2022 Digital News Report

The DNR 2022 data shows that emails from individual journalists in the United States (18%) are almost five times as popular as in the UK (4%) and more than twice as popular as in Germany (8%).

This shows how journalist-led media businesses have developed in the large and entrepreneurial US market.

I wouldn’t say Europe is behind, but this data only confirms what I have suspected for the past 2-3 years as the Substack/Revue-paid-newsletter revolution went on – European journalists either don’t feel the need to go independent or there is simply no market for such endeavour.

Newsroom managers in Europe can relax for another year and don’t have to stress that high-profile journalists will be leaving to set up Substacks. At least that’s what the trend shows.

Sure, this might turn around, but honestly, I don’t see many challenging the status quo.

10) Interest in climate change news is higher than you think and that’s an opportunity

Source: Reuters Institute 2022 Digital News Report

I’m glad the team behind the Digital News Report decided to dedicate a whole chapter to climate change.

First of all, it shows, I think quite surprisingly, how many feel this is an important topic. And it’s not just in developed markets.

More people say they pay attention to documentaries (39%) than to major news organisations (33%) when it comes to climate change. That’s understandable, but at the same time it provides an opportunity for newsrooms to deliver climate change news in a form most audiences express is the most convenient for them.

Small chunks of climate change news seem less convincing than a documentary which is a large body of work. In other words, audiences want a guided tour and have the topic explained in detail and with visual elements.

I don’t think every news organisation is able to produce a documentary, but those who can and I would put it behind a paywall or create some kind of donation campaign around it.

High-interest topics always provide an opportunity for digital subscriptions and with climate change you can have something that is genuinely important for many.

David Tvrdon

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission.