On 14 June, the Retresco marketing team and Daniel Schultheis (Project manager at Retresco) attended the Berlin launch of this year’s Digital News Report. As a company with a strong background and client base in digital publishing, we care deeply about the future of journalism and reporting.
Four main issues cropped up during the night:
- Facebook losing its overall prominence in the news game
- A fear of fake news (but less so in Germany)
- Shifting revenue streams
- The rise of podcasts
So, in order:
Facebook declining in importance in favour of closed social networks such as WhatsApp
Overall, Facebook has lost ground as a source of news, although this is not uniform everywhere. Within the US, according to the survey, news consumption via the social media giant is down 9 percentage points overall and up to 20 percentage points in younger demographics. Urban Brazil has seen the use of Facebook for news fall by 17 points since 2016. While usage is up in Malaysia and the Czech Republic, ‘in most countries the picture is one of decline’, say the authors.
Later, they add, “It is worth noting that average Facebook use for any purpose has remained broadly static since 2015, while its use for news has declined. This suggests either a fall in general engagement or a reduction in exposure to news by the Facebook algorithm […]”
While Facebook usage has declined across most countries, it stayed nearly static in Germany, declining just 1 percentage point since 2017. However, this figure was broadly in line with the rest of the world, as the average fall across the 27 countries surveyed was 1.3 per cent.
By contrast, the US, UK, and Denmark saw respective falls of nine, two, and five percentage points. Indeed, the changes in the algorithms Facebook uses were viewed negatively by the panel of experts that spoke at the launch.
Another reason given was that many users, now having extensive networks following a decade or so of Facebook use, “[…] are being put off by toxic debates and unreliable news, but they are also finding that alternative networks offer more convenience, greater privacy, and less opportunity to be misunderstood.” Those alternative networks were largely focused around WhatsApp.
A fear of fake news, but less so in Germany
‘Fake news’ is largely down to the fact that the mainstream media and its members are seen as untrustworthy by much of the general public: 44 per cent said they trusted the news overall, while 51 per cent said they trusted the news they consumed. Those are not good statistics. No industry, sector, person, or body can be given 100 percent approval, but when only around half of the population trusts any type of news, there’s a lot there to be worried about.
A large part of the debate over ‘fake news’ is the political polarisation taking places in most Western democracies at present. Even more scarily, debunked news websites like Breitbart have high trust scores (6.96 out of 10), which the report’s authors say, ‘[reflects] its highly-partisan user base’. The scariest, most-Orwellian, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451 statistic to emerge was that 61 per cent believed that government had a role to play in combating fake news.
However, a fear of fake news is lower within Germany, possibly reflected by the relatively-high trust in the news overall (50 per cent) and in the news each individual used (61 per cent).
One reason for this could be the German news organisations’ culture of stringent fact-checking, illustrated by Der Spiegel’s 70-person team called dokumentation, devoted to this task. The system backend used for that is powered by Retresco’s Natural Language Understanding (NLU) technology, which Dr Hauke Janssen, head of dokumentation, called ‘better than Google’.
Publisher pivot towards a subscription and/or donation model
It seems that there is some market for paid-for news, although the proportion of people choosing to do so remains small. The proportion of those paying for online news in the past year saw slight upticks across most countries. It was posited that this was due to ‘The Trump Bump’, which has seen a surge, from those identifying on the left, in subscriptions for well-respected newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. Donations were another source of income, topping 600,000 for The Guardian, but uptake was relatively low at less than 1 per cent of readership. This echoes a recent announcement from Jesper Doub, Spiegel Online’s CEO, who said that that digital publication would point more towards a subscription model. However, digital subscriptions are not suitable for all publications, such as The Guardian, which has come out strongly about making its content free for all.
The rise of podcasts
Podcasts, the epitome of focused, high-quality work in journalism, saw a boost, with expectations that this is likely to continue, along with an ongoing shift in focus from many organisations towards audio. A third of those interviewed listened to a podcast at least monthly, although there were differences between countries such as Ireland, whose population was twice as likely as that of the UK to listen to a podcast. Singled out in the Digital News Report was The Daily, a podcast from The New York Times that has been downloaded more than 100m times.
The most-interesting part of the night came from the panel discussion that followed the presentation of the report’s findings. Taking to the stage were Barbara Hans, editor-in-chief, Spiegel Online; Jochen Wegner, editor-in-chief, Zeit Online; Elmar Thevessen, deputy editor-in-chief, ZDF; and Benedicte Autret, head of strategic relations news and publishers UK and Benelux, Google. The panel was moderated by Alexandra Borchardt of the Reuters Institute.
All acknowledged that the industry was still facing challenges, had misunderstood the threat of ‘fake news’, and that they had not taken full advantage of the audio revolution. As Thevessen said, “More and more people are worried about the quality of news. We need to be more transparent, even when we make mistakes.”
Hans spoke on a similar line, saying, “Our readers and users don’t want to be patronised but they want to be taken seriously. Journalism got this wrong for a long time. Journalism is about listening as much as it is about talking, writing and publishing.“
The panel were also nonplussed that users were often finding their news in places like WhatsApp, pointing out that any channel is a good channel and that, as long as it was driving people to the original source of the story, it did not matter where the reader had originated from. Story length, too, did not deter people, depending on their devices. As Thevessen said, “There’s a really high possibility that if readers survive the first page, they will read 20,000 words of long-form, regardless of device.”
Overall, the panel were asked what it was that they would do differently after discovering the report’s findings. Google’s Autret said that the company would change nothing, confident as they were in their ongoing approach, Thevessen of ZDF said they would emphasise the relationship with viewers, Hans said that Der Spiegel would not focus on or get hung up on the issue of ‘fake news’, and Die Zeit’s Wegner said that he would look to accelerate the use of audio within the organisation, saying that they had underestimated podcast penetration within Germany.
So there was a lot to think about and some that inspired hope. At Retresco, we are determined to do our part in helping media organisations not just survive, but thrive. We believe that our content classification and content curation solutions are, and will continue to be, a vital part of this. For more information, please contact us.
Founded in Berlin in 2008, Retresco has become one of the leading companies in the field of natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning. Retresco develops semantic applications in the areas of content classification, recommendation, as well as highly innovative technology for natural language generation (NLG). Through nearly a decade of deep industry experience, Retresco helps its clients accelerate digital transformation, increase operational efficiencies, and enhance customer engagement.
Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report, 2017, URL: http://www.digitalnewsreport.org/interactive/
Picture: ©Lena Mucha