What’s happening to our news?

The Reuters Institute is shortly to publish a wide-ranging report called What’s Happening to our News? It’s based on interviews with 70 significant players in the British media and quantitive data from a range of sources.  The report’s author, Andrew Currah, wrote a piece for Monday’s Guardian summarising the main research findings. First:

News publishers have always had some degree of consumer feedback – but never at the range, intensity and speed that the web makes possible.

He concludes that,

…as newsrooms become more digitally integrated, the flow of data from the web will be faster, more detailed and much harder to ignore. It will put pressure on editors and executives to review the popularity and revenue performance of content, the value of specific journalists and the overall allocation of resources. Already, in the quest for digital success, publishers are being nudged to depart from well-established brand and editorial values. This shift is contributing to the development of a softer and more populist news agenda in the UK, with preference given to topics seen as effective generators of traffic, such as celebrity, entertainment and sport.

To the main report, to find the evidence for this shift.  Unfortunately, the report does not contain any quantitive data on the softening of the news agenda in the UK.  On page 88 there is the assertion:

The distant and relatively ill-defined promise of the clickstream is also luring quality daily newspapers into a more populist, comment-driven andtabloid-like style, which is designed to attract eyeballs from the international ether of the web. For example, the inclusion of entirely new categories of coverage—such as ‘celebrity’, ‘lifestyle’ and ‘weird’—to the websites of the Daily Telegraph, The Times and the Guardian underscores the radical difference between these newspapers and their pre-digital counterparts.

All of the newspapers mentioned above have had such sections for years, and without giving the precise date for each paper’s beginning to include ‘soft’ topics it’s difficult to credit the tyranny of the clickstream with this kind of editorial shift.  Research by Professor James Curran is cited to support the thesis that the UK media has shifted toward ‘softer’ news, it’s true:

…research by Professor James Curran (Goldsmiths, University of London) has found that the UK news media are shifting towards the softer, entertainment-oriented model of the US, and away from the harder, factually oriented model of public service havens such as Denmark and Finland.

That paper hasn’t been published yet, but a report on the Reuters website on its forthcoming publication indicates that it was dedicated to assessing the impact of public vs private media ownership on the kind of news reported:

In collaboration with other colleagues, Professor Curran recently conducted research into the impact that the ownership structure of media has on the availability of different kinds of news in the United States, the United Kingdom, Finland and Denmark. The aim of the research was to assess what, if any, differences could be found between public broadcasting systems and commercial broadcasting when it came to the news mix on offer, vis-a-vis hard news and soft news as well as foreign and domestic news.

It’s possible that the report addresses a ‘shift’ from harder to softer news but

it seems unlikely, given that issue isn’t within its stated remit.

More evidence for a softening of the news agenda is provided, this time from the broadcast arena.  However, the evidence in this case is also questionable.  Quoting a 2008 study by the UK Department for International Development on the proportion of broadcast hours dedicated to international factual reporting the Reuters report says:

As UK citizens’ primary source of information about the wider world, television is uniquely placed to inform and educate audiences about other places … The results of this study show that the international factual output of the four main terrestrial channels in 2007 was the lowest recorded since these reports began … The data highlights the increasing migration of international factual
content to digital channels, which now make up 24 per cent of the total, the highest figure to date. ‘Soft’ programming topics such as
travel continue to dominate whilst ‘harder’ ones such as conflict and disaster and politics constitute only 12 per cent of all international factual output.

The report goes on, however, and this is not included in the Reuters study:

The data shows that the total amount of international factual output in 2007 (952.8 hours) was the fourth highest since the longitudinal research began and that since 2000/01 the total amount has remained significantly higher than in the 1990s.

The main point here is that factual output has not disappeared, it has just migrated, a function of the fact that terrestrial channels can move it.  It’s not clear here how this is an example of the digital revolution ‘softening’ news coverage – it seems rather that it’s allowing for the kind of specialisation of media that commercial broadcasters/media have presumably always wanted. Without a public service mandate, catering to the small proportion of viewers or readers who are interested in ‘hard’ subjects has always been a commercial albatross.  With multiple channels, commercial media can serve this population (who are, after all, of some value to advertisers, and thus to the broadcaster/publisher), while freeing up space on their mainstream channels to cater to, well, the mainstream.  The second point is that the DFID study does not include a year by year breakdown of the type of programming (soft vs hard) that makes up international factual output, but it does say ‘“Soft” programming topics such as travel continue to dominate’, with ‘continue’ suggesting that this trend is not a new one.

To return to the question of metrics; that newspapers are now armed with better statistics is worth pointing out, but important not to overstate, as it is here:

The digital revolution therefore heralds a new process of mechanisation in news publishing and in particular, the ascent of a new culture of metrics.

Until now, the market for news has lacked the behavioural metrics that underpin other consumer-driven sectors.
The clickstream is arguably as transformative to news publishing as the introduction of ‘electronic point of sale’ (EPOS) technology in retailing.

Because the metrics idea is new, this kind of overstatement of its implications is tempting, but should be resisted.  There have always been newspapers whose editorial line diverges from what’s profitable and popular – the Guardian for one.  More detailed statistics will not change what has historically driven newspaper sales – sex and sport – so one wonders if better measurement will impact on what newspapers choose to cover, if the broad brushstrokes have always been known, and a number of newspapers have pursued their own editorial line regardless.

More important to pursue, and it’s something this report doesn’t, is the impact of metrics on advertising, and the knock-on effect on newspapers as advertisers demand lower fees for publication.  As pointed out in a previous post:

When I worked in Advertising the ineffectiveness of advertising was hardly a secret. But customers couldn’t measure the effectiveness of ads. So they paid and continue to pay ridiculous prices for them.

Online ads, on the other hand, are measurable. They work just as well, if not better, than print, television, etc., the difference is that for the first time ad customers know exactly how ineffective they are.

While the author does concede that some newspapers will likely continue to pursue a particular editorial line, it’s not clear how this maintenance of the status quo is peculiarly relevant to online media.

A…viable strategy, we suggest, is for news publishers to identify and follow ‘editorial isolines’ as they navigate the trails of the clickstream. In practice, that would entail a strategic focus on certain kinds of coverage and hence, certain audiences, whilst sidelining others. The search for digital success would be refracted through the prism of existing editorial and brand values. The purpose would be to focus on the qualitative rather than the quantitative dimensions of web audiences. In other words, the publisher would seek to engage a particular type of audience, rather than focusing on the absolute maximization of eyeballs, which tends to disregard the characteristics and location of audiences. In turn, that might curry favour with advertisers seeking to access that type of audience. Sir Peter Job (former CEO of Reuters) suggests that, with a distinctive audience-focused approach, news publishers would be better able to position themselves within the web of information search and advertising transactions on the web.

With the exception of the word ‘isolines’ all of the ideas contained in this paragraph are very old ones.  This problem persists throughout the report; rather than addressing the unique challenges thrown up by web-publishing, it focuses on issues that have bedevilled the news industry for decades, and suggests only that newspapers follow already well-trodden paths to address these challenges.  Another example:

…a more targeted focus on audience characteristics—not size or volume alone—would have the potential to sustain a more robust business model over the longer term. For example, the engagement of audiences around targeted and relevant news content is more likely to attract and sustain the interest of advertisers. As Douglas McCabe (Enders Analysis) pointed out, advertisers are
increasingly demanding access to well-defined groups of loyal and engaged audiences, not the transitory eyeballs that are briefly attracted by the flicker of salacious or sensationalist stories.

This conclusion seemingly failing to recognise that the segmentation of the newspaper market into tabloid, mid-market and broadsheet has delivered this kind of ‘well-defined audience’ to advertisers for about as long as advertising funded newspapers have existed.

Some of the problems the reports assert inhere to writing and reporting for the web are easily remediable, for example:

As many interviewees emphasised, the skills that underpin print journalism are not easily transferable to the web,
particularly because of the global distribution of digital audiences. As news websites become more popular, with millions of consumers in a spread of different markets and cultures, otherwise simple issues in the production of stories—such as terminology, definitions and contextualization—can suddenly become extremely complex.

where in reality the ‘extremely complex’ problem of region specific terms and contexts can easily be circumvented by hyperlinking terms or topics to external sources that explain them.

Similarly the assertion that,

To maintain or extend their digital positions in foreign markets, news publishers are realising that they need to adapt their websites to the tastes, habits and language of overseas users. The Guardian, for example, is expanding its deployment of US correspondents to better serve readers of Guardian America.

Although presented as a lead-on from the issue of writing for a world audience encapsulates a quite separate issue: ie, the Guardian is trying to better serve American readers of a site aimed at Americans by covering more news that’s relevant to them. The Sunday Times has had an Irish edition that has done just this for years.

Whether and how much newspapers should invest in multimedia is an important issue, only glanced upon here:

The web also opens up entirely new modes of narrative presentation, which publishers are still struggling to understand and address. Alan Rusbridger (Editor of the Guardian) believes that ‘audiences increasingly want to graze on non-textual forms of news media’.

and with no exploration of whether or not users want or use these ‘non-textual forms’.  They may well do, then again the temporal restrictions imposed by them, added to the fact that they’re NSFW, implies that they could conceivably be a bad investment.  Some reliable survey data would be useful.

The final chapter of the report focuses on the potential ‘hollowing-out’ of democracy brought about by the digital revolution.  The point is made that non-profit organisations (like the Scott Trust and the BBC) are better placed to uphold the civic function of journalism than commercial ones.

publishers cannot afford to commit resources to the sustained monitoring and reporting of society, at home and abroad. To attract the interest of global audiences, however, news publishers need a growing amount of content; as such, they are
populating their websites with content from news wires, public relations gatekeepers, star commentators and the emerging army of citizen journalists. The overall point, therefore, is that the continued, systematic gathering and provision of reliable news—a vital prerequisite to the creation and renewal of an informed citizenry—appears to be under threat. Key areas such as coverage of political debate, foreign news or investigative reports
are under strain due to the scarcity of resources. There are relatively few havens, outside the shelter of the BBC, the specialised newspapers and the Scott Trust, where the costs and complexities of a multi-channel news
operation can be managed in a fashion that does not impair the civic function of the news.

While this argument has been around since at least the Sykes Committee report on broadcasting in 1923, an interesting point that could have been made here is the fact that the digital upheaval has brought the public service vs commercial argument back into sharp focus.  The commercial broadsheets, who once could pursue a reasonably civic minded editorial policy, thanks to an advertising monopoly of sorts, will, in the years to come, face serious challenges to the pursuit of such policies as ad revenue becomes more dispersed.  A few questions that need to be addressed to this issue: will the nebulous value of associating a brand with a certain kind of editorial line persist in the future?  Will publishers manage to bump up the cost of ads on their sites as they reach wider audiences than was ever before possible?  Will the broadsheets be able to pursue civic minded journalism by subsidising it through the acquisition of profitable classified and specialist sites? (as the Reuters report points out many have already done).  The report suggests both tax-breaks for public interest journalism, and a review of the Charities Act to allow for this kind of journalism to be funded by charitable foundations (as happens in the US with the Knight foundation, for example).

This report is not without value, but as an analysis of how newspapers are dealing with the transition online it doesn’t really offer an fresh insights.  Too many of the challenges it looks into are old ones shoe-horned into being unique to the online environment.  There is a certain tendency to assume all sites are digitised newspapers in various forms, as in:

…the digital revolution heralds an abundance of choice but a scarcity of attention. In the younger generation especially,
attention and time are increasingly focused on sites of sociability and fantasy, not sites of news. The transition from mass media to individually customised media is characterised by civic as well as commercial shortcomings. In part, the media is simply responding to a broader and ongoing process of fragmentation and individualisation amongst the audience

giving as examples of sites of ‘sociability and fantasty’ Facebook and Second Life.  These sites are not competition for newspapers, any more than sms and chess are.  They’re a different category, and people don’t visit them for the same reason they visit a newspaper site.  Attracting and keeping new readers is an issue, but one television threw into the mix more than half a century ago.  The point here is that it’s not useful to categorise all websites as equal, and this kind of category error is indicative of a failure to grasp that the internet is not a new medium in the simple way television or radio was, it’s an awful lot more expansive than that.

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4 responses to “What’s happening to our news?

  1. Eadaoin,

    Thank you for such a thoughtful review and critique so soon after publication. You raise some excellent points and valid criticisms. I will do my best to respond to the essence of your commentary.

    As a preface – we initially set out to map and measure current patterns of spending on news in the UK, at each of the national papers and broadcasters. We planned to use metrics such as ‘full time equivalent’ staff and data about budgetary allocations to determine whether news publishers had significantly altered where and how they spent their money over time.

    Unfortunately, as we admit in the introduction to the report, that degree of fine-grained data was not possible due to: (a) the commercial sensitivity of the data; (b) substantial differences in accounting and budgetary procedures in each publisher, making direct comparison difficult; and (c) limitations in internal record keeping, such that certain kinds of spending were not directly recorded (e.g. investment in particular kinds of content; to measure that you need to engage in time-intensive content analysis of output). Perhaps with more time, money and a wider circle of contacts, we might have been able to make more headway.

    Without that quantitative data, it is obviously harder to sell the main argument of the report. However, on the basis of some very revealing conversations with leading editors, journalists and commentators at the frontline of developments, we do stand by our assertion that, as you quote:

    ‘as newsrooms become more digitally integrated, the flow of data from the web will be faster, more detailed and much harder to ignore. It will put pressure on editors and executives to review the popularity and revenue performance of content, the value of specific journalists and the overall allocation of resources. Already, in the quest for digital success, publishers are being nudged to depart from well-established brand and editorial values. This shift is contributing to the development of a softer and more populist news agenda in the UK, with preference given to topics seen as effective generators of traffic, such as celebrity, entertainment and sport’.

    Clearly, the digital revolution is not the sole culprit. News publishers have been softening their output for years, and have created new, more populist categories of coverage in print, as you rightly point out. But that was not our point; the principal argument is that the conditions of the web, the challenges of the current commercial environment and the real-time detail of the clickstream do appear to be reinforcing the underlying economic rationale of that shift in content.

    That links with our discussion of the digital windsock – incidentally, a metaphor that seems to have struck a chord. On the basis of the trends we found in our interviews, news publishers are being lured towards a more web-centric strategy, which favours the processing (and digital packaging – e.g. search engine optimisation) of softer content as opposed to the sustained gathering, critique and verification of harder news stories. The idea of the windsock is that news publishing may, in the future, be given shape by the prevailing direction of clickstream attention.

    So although the web is not the causal agent of change, it is most certainly an accelerant to the process of softening described well by James Curran and colleagues at Goldsmiths. My understanding from his research is that ownership structures coupled to economic conditions are integral to understanding the changing output of news providers. Incidentally, another report out this week by Oxfam, Polis and IBT indicates that television coverage of international issues is declining precipitously. I’m not able to comment on the full range of dynamics at work in that report, but my guess is that our report is describing a part of the same picture.

    The report is entitled ‘The Great Global Switch Off: International Coverage in UK PSB’, and was authored by Phil Harding who attended our seminar yesterday. Sure – factual output has not disappeared, but its visibility and availability to mainstream audiences do appear to be declining. Of course, digital platforms also mean that this kind of content can be sliced, diced and delivered on a niche basis to audiences. We should have made the other dimension of the DFID report clearer in our analysis.

    In terms of audience attention, our point that the distribution of web attention is asymmetric is, I believe, accurate. As audiences (notably the current younger generation) spend less time around old media and more time on new media (the web, mobiles, games, virtual worlds), the overall amount of time they spend on consuming news and information appears to be less, or at least more directed and customised. (Is that leading to an echo chamber effect? We need further consumer research to test that proposition). Sure, the internet is not a single platform; it enables a range of different, expansive applications, services and platforms that compete for our attention in different ways.

    But still, consumers only have a limited amount of ‘media time’ to spend. There are only so many hours in the day. As the McKinsey data shows, the consumer segments that are skewed to a younger age tend to spend less time on the news. Whether that will lead to a ‘structural discontinuity’ in the future is an open and important question.

    I think it is revealing that the top 20 league of web destinations lacks any commercial news web sites. I also think the focus of popular search terms is revealing; as is the average duration of visits to news web sites, or the fact that attention and traffic to the news is generally mediated by the algorithmically packaged lens of search results and RSS feeds. All of these trends raise fascinating questions about our identity, our knowledge horizons, and our civic culture and sense of community in the digital age – e.g. see the latest book by Susan Greenfield. This is an aspect that we did not have the time to explore. Nonetheless, I think our underlying premise – that the web exhibits a centripetal dynamic – is very pertinent to the future of news consumption.

    Returning to the question of web metrics, we again stand by our outlook:

    ‘The digital revolution therefore heralds a new process of mechanisation in news publishing and in particular, the ascent of a new culture of metrics. Until now, the market for news has lacked the behavioural metrics that underpin other consumer-driven sectors. The clickstream is arguably as transformative to news publishing as the introduction of ‘electronic point of sale’ (EPOS) technology in retailing’.

    We may be exaggerating to some extent, but again our interviews confirm a general and growing feeling of anxiety about where such metrics might lead. Our analysis is more about a future potential rather than a present reality. Yes, publishers have always pursued a particular line when the ‘broad brushstrokes were known’; and we do emphasize the point that papers like the Guardian have had the freedom (thanks to the Scott Trust) to pursue an ideological line that is not necessarily profitable or popular.

    But in a period of fiscal constraint and possible market shakeout, especially at the local/regional scale, knowing specifically how content contributes to the bottom line MAY be transformational. Never before have publishers been able to track the performance of their information assets in such a way. Interestingly, though, the institutional memory of publishers (as represented by their archives) when linked and embedded in new coverage, via what we perhaps clumsily term ‘semantic enrichment’, may serve to reinforce existing editorial angles.

    Anyway, the point is that pressures appear to be favouring a windsock model; editorially-focused forms of publishing (and by default, original content creation) will likely need some form of cross-subsidy to survive.

    On the topic of advertising, yes we would like to have spent more time interviewing media buying and ad executives. We do actually mention some of the points you raise; namely, the knock-on impact of the clickstream for the terms, pricing and demands of advertising (notably in Chapters 2 and 3). Google is even involved in piloting a neuro-scientific approach to advertising metrics! We refer to recent studies showing how advertising networks on the web have served to commoditise inventory around the news; and how news publishers are still struggling to come to terms with the new skills that they need to succeed and monetise their traffic (especially internationally). Perhaps this dimension could have been clearer.

    Our attempt, at the end of Chapter 5, to sketch out what a successful model might look like (oriented around audience-focused editing and coverage) is admittedly vague and not exactly entirely novel. We do touch on a ‘well trodden path’. Our point was simply that advertisers are demanding more engaged, metric-based forms of audience attention; but that meeting those demands is perhaps difficult for many publishers because of resource constraints (e.g. building the systems and skills to succeed in an advertising-supported model; and having the resources / freedom to resist the race to generate traffic alone).

    A digital model that is more audience-focused, segmented and specialised may be part of a broader historical trajectory of segmentation, as you point out, but still, its not exactly happening yet; publishers continue to spend millions duplicating content, systems, coverage and racing to outperform each other on web rankings. As Jeff Jarvis suggests, maybe they should instead ‘specialise on what they do best and link to the rest’, and perhaps even share technology/infrastructure to some extent.

    Regarding the culture and operation of newsrooms in the age of the web – you suggest that the problem of region-specific terms and contexts can be circumvented by hyperlinking terms or topics to external sources that explain them.

    Yes, perhaps; but integrating those practices, building the systems and reorienting the culture in a direction that is more collaborative, open and responsive to the interactivity of the web is surely not an easy task, as many editors admitted to us. The web also requires a degree of localization, which may dovetail with existing foreign editions. Again, maintaining such operations is difficult for many publishers at a time of cutbacks and rationalisation. Only a few – e.g. the Times, Guardian, FT – can afford to do so. How the web of news is packaged and developed – e.g. via non-textual forms of presentation – is interesting and under-explored in the report. I would be interested to see any research that examines demand and consumer use of such alternative models; perhaps these models are best developed in a commons-based model by users themselves, rather than in big and possibly sclerotic institutions.

    Our Chapter on the democratic implications could certainly be extended. We merely outline some of the potential civic and democratic implications of the economic trends identified. Again, we realise that this part of a broader, historical process and debate. We tried to avoid overtones of ‘golden ageism’, a criticism levelled against Nick Davies’ book last year.

    So in summary, the report sought to provide a systematic and objective analysis of the forces of change (and the potential directions that will lead) via an admittedly limited sample of (highly placed) interviewees. Inevitably there are holes and drawbacks to any such analysis. To be honest, I find your conclusion that we don’t offer any fresh insights somewhat severe; after a detailed reading, many in the industry have confirmed the opposite. Our main hope was that the research would provide a platform for future study and discussion. So I’m pleased to see such a wide-ranging review and critique so soon. Thanks again.

  2. I’ve been reading the book and agree completely with what you’re saying – it is a summation of the echo chamber that is the opinions of senior figures in the news industry, with solutions based around ‘keeping things as they were if we can’. Thanks for a hugely insightful post – I’ll be linking when I post my own take on the report.

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