The Reuters Institute Digital News Report is the largest and most authoritative ongoing study into news consumption habits in the world, surveying 80,000 people in 40 countries. Each year, it takes a detailed look at the global media landscape, revealing where and how people are consuming news along with the impacts of those habits on the industry itself.

Of course, the launch of 2020’s Report, hosted by Edelman this week, came against the backdrop of some of the most extraordinary times in modern memory. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on nearly every community, society and industry – with the media no exception. And while this year’s initial survey was conducted in January/February just before the coronavirus hit, a second set of polling data (in six countries) was collected in April when the crisis was at its peak. 

The Report makes for fascinating reading and you can download a full copy along with individual country fact sheets here. In the meantime, here are its key findings:

The (temporary) infodemic

COVID-19 has underlined the pivotal role that trusted news media play in moments of crisis. Traffic to the BBC news website doubled between January and April while television news consumption was up significantly across the board. As of April, trust in the media’s coronavirus coverage was high and more than twice the level for social networks, video platforms or messaging services.  Yet there is also evidence to suggest that news fatigue is setting in and that the ‘trust halo’ is likely to be short-lived. The reality of a massive fall-off in advertising revenues indicates an accelerating shift to a more digital, more mobile and platform-dominated media environment.

Falling trust

Despite the coronavirus-induced spike, trust in the news media continues to drop overall.  Only 38% of people globally say they trust most news most of the time while, in the UK, trust in the media fell 12 points to 28% during the last year. Divided societies seem to trust the media less as outlets carry news that people disagree with. Some publishers have therefore focused on strong and differentiated opinions as a way of attracting readers, but the majority of those surveyed say they still prefer ‘objective’ news.  Public service media brands remain the most trusted in those countries where they are independent.

Misinformation concerns

More than half of the people surveyed (56%) said they were concerned about misinformation, with domestic politicians named as its primary source.  In terms of channels, social media is seen as being most culpable for the spread of misinformation (40%), well ahead of news sites (20%), messaging apps like WhatsApp (14%) and search engines (10%). Facebook is seen as the main channel for spreading false information almost everywhere.

Evolving news access

Access to news continues to become more distributed. Worldwide, 28% of people say they use a website or app, followed by social media (26%). The Generation Z demographic has the weakest connection with news brands (16%) and is almost twice as likely to access news via social media (38%). Over two thirds (69%) now use their smartphone for accessing the news every week, encouraging the growth of short video and audio content.

Keeping it briefed

In the face of the growing power of platforms, publishers have been trying hard to build direct connections with consumers via news emails, mobile alerts and other subscribable content. Globally, 16% of people access news emails each week, with most (60%), consuming a briefing of general or political news.  The New York Times, for example, offers almost 70 different emails, with its popular morning briefing now hitting the inbox of 17 million subscribers. 

Pod power

The popularity of podcasts also continues to grow, especially those focused on news and politics. The Daily from the New York Times attracts 2 million listeners a day while The Guardian (UK) and Les Echos (France) also have hugely successful news podcasts. Furthermore, while podcasts used to be mainly accessed with Apple devices, that is changing.  In the last 18 month Spotify has doubled its podcast listens and Google has started promoting podcasts within search.  In the UK, BBC Sounds (28%) is ahead of both Apple (26%) and Spotify (24%) in terms of access.

Paywalls on the rise

Over the past 12 months, more publishers have started charging for content and there is a significant increase in the percentage of people willing to pay for news in most countries. However, this remains highly dependent on geography. For example, in the US, 20% of people say they are now reading beyond the paywall whereas in the UK, that figure drops to just 7%.

As well providing an in-depth picture of the key trends during the previous 12 months, the Report provides a chance for us to look to the future. And though it is still too early to predict the precise impact of COVID-19 on the news industry, it is likely to accelerate existing trends towards cost-cutting, consolidation and changes to business models. In the UK, analysts warn that up to a third of journalists could lose their job while local news publications are also set to be hit hard by readers’ changing habits.

Indeed, right now, it seems a few bigger, national brands are set to succeed in a winner-takes-all scenario.  But, then again, if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected.