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Burning questions the 2022 Digital News Report answered, and a few it created

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What are we going to do about news avoidance and young audiences that find news off-putting?

When the 2021 Digital News Report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism came out, I wrote a piece titled “4 questions I wish the 2022 Digital News Report would answer”. A bit selfishly, I was looking for answers to the questions I was struggling with in my daily work at the news outlet I work for.

The four main questions I wanted to get answers for:

  • How do other subscriptions (Netflix, Spotify) affect willingness to subscribe to the news?
  • How widespread is the shared password problem?
  • Is news consumption via newsletters rising?
  • How much do people support independent news creators?

I’m glad to see most of these got at least a partial answer and some got answered in full. I will get to that in a minute.

Another two things I was curious about were gaming and books. Both are big topics to unpack.

With gaming, you can find out how the rise in gaming among younger audiences is influencing their use of social media or news consumption. Also, whether they tend to follow gaming news coverage also from traditional news outlets that have been upping their gaming coverage.

With books, it’s a bit more complicated. As someone working more on the business side of news, I am most curious whether consumers would trust and buy non-fiction books more coming from journalists and published by a news outlet (an effort Denník N in Slovakia has been quite successful with). Also, do readers differentiate between an author and an author who is a journalist?

And of course, from books to audiobooks there is just “one more step”. And if you didn’t know, the global audiobook market is roughly 3x bigger than podcasting. So, if many news publishers are going all-in on podcasting, and building in-house audio studios, hiring audio talent, it would make sense to also be producing audiobooks.

Anyway, both of these will have to wait to be answered by some other report.

One last thing I wish the 2022 Digital News Report (DNR) would shine a light on was the two regions in Europe that we know a little bit about compared with others – the Baltic and Balkan countries.

The questions that got answered: Other subscriptions, newsletters and independent creators

When it comes to different subscriptions and the number of news subscriptions people pay for, there are no surprises, still it’s nice to see data behind those assumptions.

Already the last few DNR editions gave us the answer that the news subscription game is a winner take all as in most markets (apart from USA and Australia) the median number of subscriptions is 1 per a news subscriber.

When it comes to subscribers aged under 30, in the Netherlands, Spain, France, Belgium and Germany their proportion is above 20% of all subscribers. In other words, we should look more closely at those markets to find out what they are doing to successfully convert younger audiences into paying supporters.

This year’s report gave us a closer look at the subscription priorities of audiences. Entertainment is top with 65% paying for a Netflix, Disney+ or other streaming service (data for UK), followed by 37% paying for a music streaming service, 22% paying for live sports and news being last.

Again, not surprising also considering how much time audiences spend watching TV and listening to music compared to the time they spend reading news.

In Slovakia (not sure whether this is happening in other countries), some telecommunication companies started bundling news subscriptions to their offering a few years ago. The results are not negligible, although none of the big news outlets with digital subscription ever released exact data that could be studied.

Still, this is just one example but it does show how news organisations can leverage bundling with bigger players.

On average, 17% said they accessed news via email within a week, the report found. When it was last reported by DNR in 2020, the average was 16% across markets.

Despite the increase in the supply of newsletters in the last few years, the proportion accessing them has actually fallen in many countries, in part because of increased competition from newer channels such as social media, online aggregators, and news alerts via mobile phones, wrote Nic Newman in this year’s report.

Yes, newsletters are by far not the top news channel, but unlike social media they offer a very straightforward relationship with readers and subscribers. It’s not a coincidence many successful news publishers have bolstered their email strategy over the past few years. Email is a very important funnel for both subscriber acquisition and retention.

But keep in mind what the DNR notes: mail news is valued mainly by older, richer, and more educated news consumers, most of whom are already deeply invested in news. Only 3% of 18–24s rely on email access as a main source compared with 41% for the same group who say social media.

The independent newsletter writers/creators has been on the rise for the past few years and at one point there were so many ‘Substack revolution’ takes (yes, also from me), one might have gotten the sense many journalists are leaving newsrooms to go independent and millions of people pay them.

Substack counts more than one million paid subscriptions to its newsletters. So not millions. Also, only 16% of those who said they accessed news via an email subscribe to an individual journalist operating on their own (so, 16% out of the 17% average).

And if you look at the comparison between that number in the USA and elsewhere, there is a stark difference: 7% of those paying for online news in the US subscribe to an email-led news product from an individual journalist, while that figure is only 1% in Germany.

That doesn’t mean the trend doesn’t have its fans outside the US, but if you look at Europe for instance, you won’t find a unified market you can reach with just one language. Well, you can use English, but not all Europeans speak English and in my experience readers will always go for the newsletter/content in their native language.

New burning questions: What to do about younger audiences, news discovery and platforms?

After the 2022 Digital News Report was published, many highlighted the growing news avoidance as a problem news organisations will have to address. The proportion of audiences who are very or extremely interested in news keeps falling and in some countries around half of all say they are sometimes or often actively avoiding news.

And this is especially the case for people under 35. They think news has a negative effect on their mood, there is too much politics and COVID-19; they lack entertainment, culture and education news. 

The main motivation in consuming news for under 35s is to learn about new things and, based on qualitative research, it seems they are interested in topics they find personally important – for some it’s science, for others fun news.

Another finding to keep in mind – on average social media has taken over as the main source of information among 18-24s. And we all know you don’t get a very healthy news diet if you mainly turn to social media.

One of my colleagues made a good point looking at the graph showing how 18-24-year-olds access news. The use of each major social network showed a year over year decline. He asked what they were doing then? Watching Netflix? Messaging? Gaming? Reading books? We know it’s not reading the news.

Some of the results of news discovery in the report point to setting up a better strategy on social media platforms. The problem is that the platforms are not great partners with often a distaste for news as it caused them problems in the past.

But then again, interest in using social networks for news is also on decline over the board. Only TikTok and Instagram had slight year over year uptick.

Facebook remains in Europe the most popular social platform for news consumption (40%), partly because it’s still so big, followed by YouTube (23%) and, interestingly, WhatsApp (16%) before Instagram (14%).

Looking at 18-24s, 40% use TikTok for any purpose and 15% also for news. That’s significant and if your newsroom has an Instagram team, you should really consider splitting it in half and creating a TikTok team as well. Neither of them will generate clicks to your website, but it’s important to go where your future customers are (well, if you want them to be one day your future paying subscribers).

But TikTok is not the universal answer to all of the problems mentioned above when it comes to younger audiences.

For anyone looking further into the future, this year’s report must sound the alarm concerning younger audiences (under 35). To reach them we will have to go where they are and meet their needs which are definitely not more politics and none of the traditional news their parents are used to consuming out of duty.

David Tvrdon

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