Who will pay for trusted news?

Rory Cellan-Jones
Technology correspondent
@BBCRoryCJon Twitter

Image source, Getty Images

Here is the good news about journalism - more people are worried about misinformation and so are turning to more reputable sources of information. But here's the bad news - they seem no more inclined to pay for good journalism.

Those are just two of the headlines from this year's Digital News Report, a major research project from the Reuters Institute at Oxford University, based on an online survey of 75,000 people in 38 countries.

Across all those countries 55% of people said they were concerned about misinformation, and in many places the trend is upwards despite the efforts of both governments and social media firms to counter it. In the UK, 70% of respondents agreed with the statement "I am concerned about what is real and what is fake on the internet", up 12% on a year ago.

The report says around a quarter are responding by turning to more "reputable" sources of news, with that figure rising to 40% in the US. What constitutes a reputable news source is left to respondents to determine.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Has coverage of the gilets jaunes protests damaged trust in French news?

One UK respondent in an in-depth interview made clear her views: "I think the ones that you trust are the traditional ones that have been around for a long time, like the BBC, like the Guardian, like the Independent."

But trust in the news is falling globally, with a sharp fall in France, perhaps driven by divisions over coverage of the gilets jaunes protests. In the UK the percentage trusting news has fallen from 51% in 2015 to 40% this year. The BBC still tops the table as most trusted news source, just ahead of ITV News, the Financial Times and Channel 4 News.

But the report warns that polarising issues such as Brexit and climate change are leading some to question whether the Corporation is pushing or suppressing agendas.

"Most of the fall in trust came right after the EU referendum," says one of the report's authors, Nic Newman. "People feel that the media, particularly organisations which claim to be impartial, are not reflecting their views."

Mind you, for real evidence of polarised views head to the US. There the report finds that people who identify themselves as being on the left politically now have quite a lot more trust in the news, turning to liberal news outlets to see their views on Donald Trump reflected.

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Image caption,
There was a "Trump bump" for news organisations following the US presidential election

Meanwhile, trust on the American right in news has collapsed to just 9%, driven perhaps by the President's description of a number of media outlets as "the enemy of the people."

But amidst this reported yearning for news you can trust, there is little evidence that people are getting more willing to pay for quality journalism. The report finds only a small increase in the numbers paying for subscriptions or membership, and that is mainly focused in Nordic countries.

There was a "Trump bump" in the US following the 2016 election, with more people signing up to subscriptions for the New York Times and the Washington Post, but the percentage paying for news has stabilised at 16%. But in the UK just 9% pay for online news.

News organisations are trying out various approaches, from paywalls to schemes which offer extra content and special events to members. But the report says subscription fatigue may be setting in, with people preferring to spend a monthly fee on Netflix or Spotify rather than news.

When people were asked what they would choose if they could have just one monthly subscription, 37% said it would be for a video service, 15% chose music and just 7% opted for news.

That may make something like Apple News Plus, offering a range of news products for a monthly fee, more attractive to consumers - although many publishers might be wary of putting their fate in the hands of another giant tech firm.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
People are increasingly getting their news through sites like Facebook

Report co-author Professor Rasmus Kleis Nielsen says: "The good news is that those publishers who produce truly distinct, valuable, and trusted journalism are increasingly being rewarded with commercial success. The bad news is that many people find that much of the journalism they come across is neither valuable, trustworthy, or worth paying for."

For all the scepticism that people profess to feel about news they come across on social media platforms, the report finds that it remains hugely influential. Smartphones are increasingly where people get their news, and among under-35s in the UK almost half said they started their journey to stories via social media rather than going straight to a news app.

While Facebook is far and away the most important social network for news, people are turning to Instagram and WhatsApp in some countries. In Brazil, Malaysia and South Africa around half of respondents named WhatsApp as their principal news source. Many people are in groups with people they do not know, increasing the potential to spread misinformation.

And remember who owns both WhatsApp and Instagram? Yes, Facebook. For the last three years the news industry has been in thrall to the extraordinary power of Mark Zuckerberg's company while hoping that regulators and politicians might try to curb it or some rival might knock it off its perch. Now it appears the various arms of his empire have more influence than ever on the news that reaches billions of people, and journalists are just going to have to live with it.