Most Americans Choose News Based on Their Personal Beliefs

Reuters' 2020 Digital News Report reveals sobering facts

a stack of newspapers
This year's Digital News Report also cited news org's online monetization problems. Getty Images

Key insights:

Publishers still haven’t learned how to best monetize online, journalists are getting more political, consumers think “fake news is rampant,” and social media is encroaching on the news, according to this year’s Digital News Report.

The report, from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the University of Oxford, surveyed over 80,000 online news consumers in 40 markets. Those behaviors were, in part, examined during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Here are some of the takeaways:

Publishers still struggle to monetize online news

Many readers do not want to pay for online news, a trend that puts a strain on publishers as advertisers struggle to find the best sites on which to place their messaging, given brand safety concerns.

The study also recognized publishers’ struggle to monetize on aggregators like Apple News+, which could increase traffic—but on a platform that doesn’t create a unique relationship between reader and publisher.

That dynamic is at the heart of growing a paid subscription business. Apple News+, for example, splits revenue with publishers based on user engagement.

“There was nothing I couldn’t get for free on Apple News,” said an unnamed 19-year-old quoted in the study, highlighting a major issue for publishers: Consumers are reluctant to spend on news when they can access abundant, free online content.

While the study did find a 4% increase compared to last year in the amount of Americans willing to pay for news, 40% of Americans surveyed said nothing could make them pay for online news.

Just 20% of Americans said they paid for any online news in the past year. “I am worried about having sufficient quality journalism available for free,” said Lauren Williams, svp and editor-in-chief at Vox, in a virtual discussion about the study on Tuesday.

She noted the unpredictability of the ad market as a reason Vox moved to a donation-based membership model.

But the study casts doubt on how many publishers can successfully depend on voluntary donations. The report found a significant “winner-take-most” dynamic, with larger publishers drawing most consumer dollars.

In the U.S., for example, about half of all online news subscribers read The New York Times or The Washington Post. Smaller publications suffer, too, as readers encounter subscription fatigue.

That dynamic should give smaller publishers pause before implementing a paywall, said Rasmus Klies Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute.

Some readers don’t want journalists’ impartiality

In the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, journalists have questioned long-standing newsroom policies about socio-political impartiality.

“I’m a Black woman running a large newsroom. I am personally affected by what’s happened in our country over the last few weeks. And I don’t think it’s in my role as a journalist to pretend like I am not,” Williams said.

Some consumers agree. According to the study, about a third of American respondents said they preferred to consume news media that shares their point of view. And the majority of Americans cited their personal beliefs as a reason they pay for news.

In addition, 52% of Americans surveyed said they subscribe to news sites because they want to support the mission of a publication. That percentage is more than double the rate in Norway, and 15% higher than in the U.K.

Michael Friedenberg, president of Reuters, questioned whether impartiality is even possible: “Even those who advance an ideal of impartiality are still bringing some of themselves and their own experience to their work.”

Trust in the media is low, and readers want ‘fake news’ labeled

Just 29% of Americans said that they can trust the news most of the time, a figure that echoes last year’s findings. Right-leaning Americans were more likely to distrust the media, according to the study.

Social media platforms were also noted as sources of misinformation, with over a third of American respondents concerned about Facebook’s role as a source for false or misleading information.

In April alone, Facebook claimed to have removed 50 million pieces of misinformation about Covid-19, though outside firms questioned that figure.

The majority of participants in the Reuters study want both news media and social platforms to block inaccurate political information. Over half of those interviewed would like the news media to prominently report when politicians make false statements. And 58% of respondents want social media platforms to block misleading or incorrect political advertisements.

Facebook added a feature last week that allows users to opt-out of political advertisements. Twitter banned political ads last fall, and has taken more aggressive steps  to censor politicians’ misleading posts.

Social media drives traffic

Most consumers get their news from social media, news aggregators, search engines and other third parties that direct readers to publishers, the study found.

Among respondents, 72% reached news sites through third parties, including 84% of Gen Z, and social media was the most popular referral source to news sites. While publishers rely on social media platforms for visibility, the platforms also are a major competitor and siphon advertisers away from news sites.

Audiences can also be attracted through newsletters, embedded links and summaries. Nielsen said consumers are looking for hand-picked, editorially curated content that is only available through newsletters and podcasts.

“The world right now would like to see fact-based journalism with context,” Friedenberg said.

Read the full Digital News Report here.

Rachel Winicov is an intern with Adweek for the summer of 2020 focusing on digital media, ad tech and social media. She is a rising senior at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studies classics. Rachel is from Philadelphia, Pa.