Up until very recently, print newspapers dominated the journalism industry. This was before the rise of digital and televised media changed the game. Thanks to the widespread accessibility of the internet, the whole world is now plugged into an infinite database that allows people to consume media and engage with a transnational network. The goal for this piece is to explore how this changing landscape has affected trends in news consumption, by answering a few questions, which are listed below.
Most American news consumers are not paying subscribers, however, statistics show that percentages are much higher than they were in previous years. Currently, 16% of U.S residents have paid subscriptions (Reuters). This number remains stable after a sudden increase reported in 2017, which the Reuters’ Digital News Report labelled a “Trump bump.”
66% of people with college degrees pay for news.
43% of people with high school diplomas or less pay for news.
58% of payers say that the price of their news subscription is a small cost for them.
People earning < $35,000 a year say the price of their news subscription is not a negligible cost.
People with an interest in the news are 5x more likely to pay for subscriptions.
62% of self-described news seekers pay for news.
One of the main issues is that there is a perception that news is a free commodity. Also, there is a variety of digital news sources that seem to be both free and credible, at least, according to public opinion. For example, Vox Media, Vice, BuzzFeed, and NPR are all popular sources that seem to provide satisfactory coverage, and also explain news stories to their audiences. However, U.S. readers tend to mistrust news sources they don’t pay for.
A huge majority of people pay for only one news subscription, meaning that they are essentially looking for a “one-stop-shop” for their news sources—if they are paying. The bright side is that these paid users tend to be loyal subscribers. However, very few people are willing to pay for multiple news subscriptions.
To support their brands, news publications like the New York Times and The Washington Post have put up paywalls on their site, limiting access for non-subscribers. The Reuters Institute reports that 50% of their U.S. participants now come across at least one barrier each week when trying to read news online. There is a fear that normalizing subscription paywalls will lead to an inequality between classes, encouraging the spread of misinformation within poorer communities. Some news outlets, like The Guardian, operate using a donation model, but it doesn’t seem to be very profitable. Only 3% of people in the U.S. have donated to a news organization in the past year (Reuters).
Subscription fatigue is also a big concern. News outlets worry that individuals will become frustrated with the overwhelming number of subscription services they have to pay for. Even among the users who pay for news, there is an agreement that it is not a highly desirable commodity. No matter what, entertainment-based services like Netflix or Spotify will take priority.
To combat this, news outlets are starting to offer bundle packages; for example, The Washington Post is now included as part of a subscription to Amazon Prime.
Younger adults gravitate towards digital news subscriptions, but print newspapers are not yet obsolete. Print subscriptions tend to appeal to older consumers, who make up a majority of the paid news market, so it is very important to maintain relationships with those loyal customers.
Adults age 65+ who pay for news are 5x more likely to buy print subscriptions than digital ones (72% vs 14%).
Adults age 18-34 are equally likely to pay for digital or print subscriptions (42% for both categories).
53% of print subscribers have had their subscriptions for 5 years or more.
Younger consumers are more likely to use social media and aggregators. Older groups are more likely to access news sites directly. There are four models of access:
Other digital tactics include:
42% of U.S. digital subscribers have used one or more email newsletters in the last week (Reuters).
The Washington Post operates roughly 70 different newsletters, and notes that those subscribers consume 3x as much content as those who don’t receive their emails. By the way, have you checked out our newsletter?
Heavy news users are 2.5x more likely to use mobile alerts than casual news consumers (Reuters).
This is also favorable among younger adults, growing in popularity in recent years. Publishers are learning how to use alerts strategically, targeting readers individually with relevant content, often with the help of AI.
While Instagram is not regarded as a reputable news source, it is the most popular app on young people’s phones (Reuters). In regards to its role as a journalism-based platform, Instagram is playing a central role in popularizing news videos.
Twitter seems to be the "Facebook of journalism." Even though news reporters claim they are less active on the platform, they still keep their accounts active and habitually check their news feed for updates. Twitter is also twice as popular among Gen Z users than Gen Y users (Reuters).
The prevalence of social media threatens to spread false information to its user base. It’s concerning to know that information can spread rapidly across the globe, without being verified as fact. Mark Zuckerberg has said that the future of Facebook lies in its messaging app, which means that news sharing will become a more private activity, limited to friendship circles and private Facebook groups.
This could encourage the spread of false information, since this form of news sharing would theoretically exist within groups of people who share similar opinions. This private consumption of news can already be seen in WhatsApp groups, which are more popular in other countries.
It’s difficult to determine if social media has had an overall positive or negative effect on the journalism landscape, but we can’t deny that there is an effect, so the industry will have to adapt.
The political climate in the U.S. has become incredibly tense ever since the 2016 election, which, among other things, was characterized by the coining of the term “fake news.” This mistrusting climate has placed more pressure on journalists to repair relationships with their audiences.
Trust levels are much lower than they have been in previous years, but it seems that the relationship between journalists and the general public is steadily improving. In Edelman’s 2019 Trust Barometer, 47% say they trust the media.
News readers, in turn, have taken on a more active role as consumers. Worldwide, Reuters observes a trend that shows that people are taking care to check the credibility of news stories before sharing them. This has also encouraged journalists to "show their work."
"The constant attacks on the media have had an interesting impact; many people are paying more attention to what journalists do and the value they provide."
SOURCE: Cision's State of the Media Report
You'll notice a bit of overlap between the priorities of the journalists and their audiences. Journalism, as an institution, cannot exist if the general public does not value its work. It's no coincidence that the two parties share similar values. Reporters are expected to keep the public informed, but they also need to produce content that attracts new viewers to their platform.
U.S. news consumers are constantly looking for reliable sources, and are willing to pay for subscriptions from outlets that they have deemed trustworthy.
Comprehension & Tone
People are looking for news platforms that help them understand what is going on in the news.
51% of people believe that reporters are doing a good job of helping audiences understand the news (Reuters).
39% believe that the tone of most news coverage is too negative (Reuters), which could possibly discourage them from being active consumers.
Immediacy of Coverage
Consumers expect journalists to keep them updated on current events. A majority of individuals (62%) say they are satisfied with the timeliness of their news coverage (Reuters).
This has always been the standard, but it's taken on greater importance. Journalists are focused on delivering airtight coverage so that people will be willing to pay for it.
Publishers are focused on attracting as many visitors as possible, encouraging the use of "clickbait" titles. These clicks affect ad revenue, which is critical to survival, but there are certain "non-click-worthy" stories that are important to write and share, which is what we specialize in at Below the Fold!
65% of journalists say that metrics such as clicks, views, and keywords have changed the way they look at stories (Cision).
Revenue & Resources
Only 5% of journalists say being "first to publish" is a high priority for their organization (Cision). Most newsrooms are operating with limited resources, which hinders their ability to be "first."
The point of this piece was to pinpoint the most significant trends that are shaping the state of news consumption in 2019. We looked at the role of social media in news distribution, the wide-spread availability of free online publications, and the strained relationship between journalists and their readers.
The trends in American news consumption seem to be in a fluid, ever-changing state. News publications are still adapting to this new, digital-focused landscape, which has affected financial business models, audience engagement, and the types of stories that get published.
On the flip side, news consumers are adapting to the overwhelming abundance of resources available to them. They are also seeking out reputable publications, and approach news stories with more critical eyes. In the coming years, it will be interesting to see how the journalism industry develops to cater to these more cautious, pro-active consumers.
III. How prevalent is the role of social media in the consumption and spread of news?
Social media is an integral part of today’s digital landscape. Even though platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are not considered to be reputable news sources, social media does contribute to the widespread distribution of news stories. This section will explore: