Three-year research project shows digital news is growing up

6 Dec 2018

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A new report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism shows that the digital media landscape is evolving in fascinating ways.

Digital news outlets have become a vital part of the fabric of media and journalism at large. Now, a new report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism shows outlets are facing many of the same obstacles encountered by legacy media. 

The study, Coming of Age: Developments in Digital-Born News Media in Europe, tracked how digital-born news sites have evolved from 2016 to 2018. Researchers examined all 13 European digital-born outlets originally studied in a 2016 paper to monitor the evolving challenges. 

Outlets examined included Brut, Correctiv, El Confidencial, HuffPost, Krautreporter, Mediapart and The Canary, among others. Of the original 13, all outlets continue to operate, with some expansions noted. 

Digital news taking paywalls seriously

Six organisations are implementing subscription or membership models, and interviewees said that the public is beginning to come round to paying for news. Rachel Oldroyd, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, said: “The public is starting to get the sense that they have to pay for news and information. I’m really positive and hopeful.”

In 2018, subscriptions and ad-based models are no longer perceived as poles apart, with many publications pursuing both models in tandem. This does vary from country to country, with many Spanish interviewees stating the lack of maturity in the country’s market when it comes to paying for news.

Survey data from the 2016 and 2018 Reuters Institute’s Digital News Reports suggests that, while a substantial minority of readers may be prepared to pay or donate, only around 10pc are currently paying for news and that this has changed little over the last two years. This may change in future.

When it comes to distribution, algorithm changes by Facebook had a varied impact on the organisations researched. While some lost heavily, others were not affected and some even gained new readers. Most outlets say they are still using social media for traffic, but they now consider it a “calculated risk” and are developing strategies to grow direct traffic and diversify the platforms they use. 

A search for quality

As well as placing a higher premium on direct traffic, the publications also exhibited evidence of a “flight to quality” in response to the tough funding landscape in media. Given the omnipresence of misinformation and social division in online media, publications are looking at new ways to connect with their audiences.

Jack Riley of HuffPost said: “I [would] say the last 12 months has been when most progress has happened – a shift away from those kinds of algorithmic, black-box optimisation channels of distribution, and towards human relationships.”

Lead author of the report, Dr Tom Nicholls, said: “The last two years have been difficult for online news media, with significant challenges around both ad-supported funding models and distribution via social media. 

“We have found digital-born news organisations continuing to develop, aiming to build audiences and the funding models to support themselves sustainably over the long term. Far from looking radically different to their legacy counterparts, digital-born media remain deeply rooted in the professional culture of journalism.” 

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects