There are no two ways about it: video storytelling is the future of news.
However, it is currently being used as a secondary source to illustrate the written word, almost as an afterthought.
As highlighted in the 2022 Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute and the University of Oxford, you only need to look at Gen Zers and Gen Alphas to see the growing prominence and relevance of video. Practically everything these under 30s consume is done through video. And there’s no delineation between news content versus social content etc. for them. It’s all content. It’s all news. It’s everything.
Couple this with the continuing shoe-horning of TikTok trends and viral videos as news from online publishers, and you’ve got an up-and-coming audience with an appetite for video content before anything else. They’re always connected and they’re ready to scroll.
Why, then, are newsrooms the world over not adopting a video-first strategy? Worldwide, just 0.7% of articles have a video in them.
A video strategy isn’t enough
Having worked in newsrooms for nearly my entire career, I know that many publishers have a video strategy in place.
That strategy could take many forms, from creating in-article video galleries, to targeting social media as a video distribution channel to trawling the internet for the best viral content. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has sat in a news conference and debated the merits of making a viral video (a true contradiction in terms).
So, to clarify: At least on paper, newsrooms have a video strategy. But things aren’t going according to plan.
They know video is important and it’s something their audience wants. And it’s the most profitable medium newsrooms can utilize. There’s an audience that wants video and there are advertisers who want to run their ads against video. So why has video success been so elusive for so many publishers around the world?
Quite simply, it’s all in the execution.
A publisher can have the most innovative video strategy the publishing world has ever seen, but if they don’t have someone dedicated to enacting that strategy, it’s never going to reach its full potential. Commonly, publishers KPI their newsrooms on embedding video and think this will solve the problem. My experience is that it does not. Newsrooms are frenetic, and video is rarely a priority.
Ownership makes all the difference
Independent Online, known to readers as IOL, is one of South Africa’s leading news and information websites with over two million monthly readers. In early 2022 its video numbers had become stagnant despite video being highlighted by the editor as a priority for all staff.
As with most newsrooms, there were competing priorities and adoption was slow. Indeed, feedback from the editorial team around the video priority was: “It’s kind of a lack of focus,” “I’m super busy” and “To be honest, I really thought someone else was doing it.”
When it’s everyone’s job, it’s no one’s job.
In August 2022, IOL made the decision to hire a dedicated video embedder. An experienced journalist, she knows what makes a good story, what is meaningful to audiences and can work at the speed required for a hectic newsroom. She was given access to the CMS and permission to add videos to articles herself, working hand in hand with her boss and reporting up to an existing executive in the newsroom who volunteered to be video’s champion.
The benefits were immediate and nothing short of excellent.
“We are extremely happy with the deployment of an embedder across IOL. The positive impact is clear to see for all. Our streams are up 3x and user engagement is at an all-time high. It really does pay to have a team focused on driving our video strategy.”
–Faheem Khota, Content Manager: Video & Audio, IOL News
The results speak for themselves:
370% increase in video streams since she joined the newsroom
The percentage of articles with video (saturation) has risen from 8% to 48%
Play rate has risen from 3.9% to 8.5% due to more considered video choices
Due to this huge upswing in all video metrics for IOL, video advertising inventory is sold out and video consumption is at record levels. That means video is working for all facets of the organization: editorial and commercial.
But they’re not stopping there. IOL is now seeking to take the next step in video growth.
To date, the embedder has only fulfilled a reactive role – adding videos to the existing stories. IOL has now initiated a new focus with them on two key growth opportunities:
Watch stories. The embedder will work with the video champion and Oovvuu’s extensive video catalog to create video-first stories which will get homepage exposure
Fast video hubs. The embedder will use Oovvuu tech to quickly create video-only collections in big and fast moving and recurring stories: a. The Ukraine and Russia conflict b. The impact of big tech c. Manned exploration of space etc.
Oovvuu’s Africa lead Myles Brown has led the relationship with IOL. He said: “In truth, it wasn’t easy getting IOL to take the first step. It took months. But now it’s done, there’s no looking back and they are highly motivated to grow. We have shared the numbers with other publishers in the market and now they are asking for embedders too. It means we are giving new jobs and training to journalists, which is very satisfying to be honest.”
This seismic shift in the IOL newsroom is not unique to one publisher or region. In fact, it could and should be replicated around the world. IOL’s proactive tackling of a problem that is endemic in publishing everywhere, with hindsight, is so simple. If you aren’t in a position to create large quantities of video, you can start by working with a provider (like Oovvuu) to get the video assets.
Then, to be successful with video:
Make a person or a distinct set of people accountable.
Make them subject matter experts.
Harness the passion for what they do by empowering them to do the work.
In the end, it’s about delivering a world class end-to-end experience for our audiences. Today’s audiences, particularly younger ones – who are your growth opportunity – want video. Not every organization has the capacity or ability to create the quality and quantity of video that will be required to move the needle. But, if they are able to outsource that component, they can easily leverage their longstanding ability to employ subject matter experts to manage their content in a way that incorporates video to better engage and serve audiences.
As the Chinese social giant recently boasted over a billion active monthly users worldwide, even the White House is turning to TikTok influencers to deliver news to young audiences. And, given TikTok’s popularity, older social media sites like Facebook and Instagram are making big changes to their algorithms and content to compete. Because more people of all ages are getting news through social media, these shifts could have significant impact on delivery of news and information. However, there are steps media organizations can take to address this impact.
Focus on quick video clips: In 2020, Facebook added “Reels” to user feeds. Reels are 60 second video clips – the same length as the current TikTok limit on video length.
Less social, more media: Social media platforms are tweaking their algorithms to de-emphasize social connections, as TikTok has proven the “friends” angle isn’t necessary to engage users. Instagram recently rolled out changes giving less priority to content by users’ friends and family in favor of automatically “recommended” short video reels like those of TikTok.
Focus on fun: As TikTok’s stated mission is to “inspire creativity and bring joy,” other platforms are shifting to emphasize lighter content.
De-prioritizing news: News article links constitute only about 4% of what users now see in their Facebook feeds, a spokesperson from Meta told Today, adding: “We have learned from the data that news and links to news content are not the reason the vast majority of people come to Facebook, and as a business we can’t over-invest in areas that don’t align most with user preferences.” Facebook changed the term “News Feed” to “Feed” in February.
Misinformation concerns grow
A related concern is the number of Gen Z adults using TikTok as a search engine. A recent study by Newsguard analyzed 540 TikTok search results on prominent news topics – including school shootings, elections, and vaccines – and found that 19.4% turned up misinformation. The study also found TikTok results to be more polarizing than similar searches on Google. (However, TikTok did detect and remove several false or misleading videos planted by Newsguard as part of the study.) TikTok’s website states its content is vetted by technology, with a “safety team” to evaluate some flagged content.
Social media features problematic for news providers
As entertaining content captures more engagement from users, platforms are incentivized to deprioritize serious news, wrote Navene Elangovan for Today. Her interviews with experts in academia and journalism highlighted social media issues problematic for news providers: emphasis on engagement over content, emotion as a driver of engagement, and the opacity of social media algorithms.
Social media platforms are geared to maximize engagement by having as many users as possible. The goal is to have users spend as much time on the platform as possible, engaging in as many ways as possible. Because strong emotions trigger engagement, social media algorithms reward upsetting content- the opposite of the objectivity valued in traditional news journalism. “Outrage fatigue” can then lead to news avoidance.
Another problem is the opacity of social media algorithms. Changes made to reduce emphasis on quality news should be communicated to audiences. If users are aware of social media platforms downplaying news, they may be more likely to seek reputable news sources elsewhere.
Tips for news providers
Experts interviewed by Elangovan suggested steps newsrooms might take in response to social media TikTokification:
Separate marketing from journalism so that journalists can focus on content, not views.
Create incentives for viewers to return daily to news sites to build a habit.
Diversify channels of news distribution.
Find ways to draw viewers from “lighter” platforms to more serious content, accepting social media sites as conduits rather than main sources of delivering news.
Newsrooms may consider setting up their own social media platforms as a means of diversifying how content is communicated.
Will outrage fatigue turn to fluff fatigue?
When Instagram changed its algorithm and content to align more with that of TikTok, a flood of user complaints forced Instagram head Adam Mosseri to defend the decisions at length on Twitter. In the wake of this pushback, Instagram rolled back some of the changes.
When it comes to news content on social media, some experts surmise that outrage fatigue may give way to fluff fatigue. As users are increasingly bombarded with frivolity in their social media feeds, they may turn to more traditional news outlets for deeper and more reliable coverage of major events.
The young are restless when it comes to their news habits and preferences. Under-30 audiences prefer broad content and lighter tone. They are less likely to be loyal to news brands and more likely to consume news from a variety of media formats and platforms. While myriad preferences can be challenging for news purveyors, they also create new opportunities in the form of side-doors.
These observations stem from The Kaleidoscope report on research performed with 72 people aged 18–30 in Brazil, the UK, and the U.S. by market research agency Craft for Reuters Institute. This qualitative research adds specificity and texture to the wider statistical research leased earlier this year in Reuters’ 2022 Digital News Report.
News versus “the news”
Young people make a distinction between what they consider “news” – which includes a variety of lighter topics such as sports, arts, culture, and celebrity gossip covered by a variety of platforms and brands – from what they consider “the news,” which is comprised of weightier topics such as international affairs and “need to know” information more likely to be covered by mainstream media.
Emerging from The Kaleidoscope data are three types of news consumers among those aged 30 and under:
Hobbyist/dutiful users seek news for entertainment or out of a sense of duty to stay informed and contribute to civic conversation. They appreciate more frequent updates on news stories, engage on a deeper level, and seek news from a broader variety of brands.
Main eventers tune in for practical “need to know” stories and developments that impact their daily lives. They use a combination of mainstream and newer brands.
Disengaged people typically avoid ‘the news’ but are sometimes motivated by FOMO (fear of missing out) and the need to be aware of big stories that might come up in conversation or impact their lives. These users are often late to a story and seek quick summaries and explanations to catch up. They are more likely to turn to mainstream brands or use popular search engines.
Skepticism and news avoidance
A lack of trust in the motives behind news stories was cited by many of the 30-and-under participants in The Kaleidoscope study. They expressed weariness with depressing topics such as the pandemic and political polarization, and topics that seem to drag on without resolution. The following were often cited as reasons for avoiding the news:
It’s upsetting. Younger audiences report an interest in more mood-elevating and entertaining content.
It’s repetitive. Many under 30 report tiring of repetitious coverage of major topics, citing a preference for more variety of news stories, with a broader definition of news, including “softer” news topics such as culture and the arts, education, sports, and celebrity coverage.
They don’t trust it. The skeptical comments of young people in the qualitative study aligned with statistical findings of Reuter’s 2022 Digital News Report, which found that only about a third (37%) of people under 35 say they trust most news most of the time, compared with nearly half of those 55 and older (47%).
What DO younger audiences want from news?
More variety in media formats
More diverse voices and opinions
News tailored to their personal interests
More “softer” stories to balance the serious ones
Formats that enable participation through commenting and sharing
Study participants cited content tailored to personal interests as a prime reason for preferring social media to television news. However, they were also aware of how the filter bubbles and algorithms of social media feeds were likely to support bias.
Text and traditional media still matter
The Russian invasion of Ukraine began during the study period, enabling researchers to examine how participants reacted to a major developing news story. Participants responded to the magnitude of this event with greater attention to mainstream media, live and on-the-ground coverage.
Although younger audiences often engage with multimedia and video content, most still report a preference for reading news rather than watching it. Some cited the privacy factor of reading in public and described reading news as more “professional” and “serious” than watching video or television.
These findings again align with Reuters’ 2022 Digital News Report, which found that while under-35’s have a strong inclination towards video content, 58% claim to prefer to mostly read news. Only 15% reported a preference for watching news, especially when seeking live updates and summaries on a need-to-know basis.
Authors of The Kaleidoscope report suggest using content more in tune with contemporary internet culture. This might include:
Use of emergent platforms, and an understanding of codes and conventions therein.
Recruiting talent knowledgeable in the content and vibe of emergent platforms.
Creating new brands or sub-brands to engage younger audiences, while retaining the credibility of mainstream brands.
While variety in media and content is paramount to under-30 audiences, younger people still rely on traditional sources when they think it matters most. Therefore, maintaining mainstream options while developing novel offerings may be the best approach.
Since 2004 almost 1,800 local newspapers have closed their doors in the U.S. alone. Oddly, though — and despite an economic downturn — it appears that a slew of new local news outlets have emerged online. Unfortunately, one needs to take a good look under the hood before celebrating this trend.
In October 2019, the Lansing State Journal uncovered dozens of websites branded as local news outlets throughout Michigan that posed as local news but instead were outlets for political messaging. Again in 2020, The New York Times reported that the local site, Maine Business Daily, is part of a network of 1,300 questionable websites. They look like local-news outlets, but the stories are directed by political and corporate public relations firms. Algorithms create much of the content on these sites.
While investigative reporting uncovered these sites, little is known about their impact on readers. The Tow Center’s new report, Reader perspectives on local partisan news sites, examines how local news audiences assess and interpret these so-called news sites. In particular, the research explores whether news consumers infer any bias in the reporting of these sites, how they navigate and respond to these pseudo-local news websites, and how this affects consumer trust in news.
The Tow Center recruited 90 participants to assess these local news sites.
Participants completed an initial survey about their local news consumption habits and needs and assessed their assigned local website.
They completed a daily diary exercise to detail their experience of using their assigned website and other local news outlets over five consecutive days.
Participants offered a final reflection about their assigned website, addressing issues such as how, if at all, it improved their understanding of local issues and assessed trustworthiness.
Local site general assessment
Two-thirds of participants recorded an initial negative impression of their assigned website. Reasons for a negative response included the lack of updates and relevant content. The remaining third reported a positive impression, they noted a favorable impression of the sites’ layout and design, lack of paywalls, and mobile responsiveness. Interestingly, only one-third of participants claimed there was conservative bias in their assigned outlet’s editorial coverage.
The most common response from participants throughout the five-day diary exercise was frustration at the lack of new content and the prominence of outdated content on the homepage. Upon repeated visits, they found the content mostly irrelevant to their daily lives and communities and noted it as “odd,” “weird,” and “bizarre.”
Supplied with automated, data-filled stories, these local sites offered few articles with reporter bylines. Most participants found the automated stories to be disconnected from their communities. In addition, respondents reported that the sites were all about politics and little of anything else.
Perceptions of trustworthiness and bias
While most final impressions were negative, the question of these sites’ trustworthiness and potential bias was somewhat mixed. Many participants excused the sites for their low-cost, algorithmically generated output. While most participants rated the outlets as untrustworthy, there was a narrow majority rating the coverage as fair and balanced.
A strong majority did not look for information about site ownership until prompted and said it did not cross their minds to investigate even with an unfamiliar news source. Only a minority of participants investigated the ownership of their assigned site and describing the lack of transparency as “shocking,” “unsettling,” “odd,” and “worrying.”
Despite the industry’s emphasis on fake news and misinformation, some participants accepted these sites at face value, despite the site’s clear lack of objectivity and partisan status. Consumers do not seem to focus on identifying who owns and operates a news source. Unfortunately, their opinions of this sort of site will affect the broader industry as they fail to distinguish between these partisan sites and legitimate news sources. With the 2024 elections approaching, the news media must address consumers about the importance of considering the source of their information and reinforcing the value of trusted, reputable local news brands.
The January 6 hearings demonstrate a significant opportunity for streaming services – SVOD, AVOD, FAST – to provide public service and to engage new and existing audiences. Most people can’t take two hours in the middle of the day to watch the hearings in full. But they can time shift, binge, or play the hearings at 2x speed on connected devices. And in my experience (which includes running CBS News Digital and CBSN for more than five years) they will. This is: they will if video is available and easy to find.
In fact, at this point in the streaming evolution, it should be easy for viewers to find most major breaking news events live and on demand within each of the major streamers. Unfortunately, it is not easy enough. And, in some cases, it’s nonexistent.
Most of the major streamers either operate news divisions or incorporate numerous news streams into their products. Based on the numbers and the research, it’s well known in the streaming industry that live, breaking news is both in demand and an expectation among viewers. In addition, there are no significant technology or distribution issues blocking these companies from streaming live, breaking news coverage.
So, it’s a major miss for the streamers that, when there is a major, scheduled news event in which it’s in the public interest to provide access, they continue to make it hard to find news within their services. It seems that most choose to continue to heavily promote tentpole entertainment properties – even in the middle of the day – rather than promoting scheduled news events that their properties already are covering.
The January 6 hearings have been among the most riveting live news events in recent memory. The testimonies of Georgia election official Shaye Moss, former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, and former Oath Keeper Jason Van Tatenhove were dramatic, compelling, and newsworthy. Yet the major streamers are generally opting out of the opportunity to serve their viewers by making the hearings accessible live and on demand.
The good news is that it’s not too late to fix this. Here’s how streaming services can make it easy to watch critical scheduled news, such as the January 6 hearings, using four simple, inexpensive tactics:
Use front door promotional “marquees” to drive in real time to the live hearings and to communicate the upcoming schedule.
Showcase on demand video of the full hearings prominently within said marquees and other promotional space.
Re-run the hearings on streaming news services and in VOD sections after hours and on weekends.
Use their vast promotional and marketing capabilities including emails, mobile notifications, social, promotional trailers, etc. to put this coverage front and center.\
Audiences are intelligent, curious, and interested in making up their own minds. They want facts and are hungry for knowledge, not just opinion. Offering them the opportunity to easily consume these kinds of news events more easily provides a satisfying solution.
Delivery and growth
Every time CBS News streamed a major live news event, it increased our viewership base. When we made the full video of major news events available on demand, our viewers watched in large numbers. We created loyalty by delivering service and meeting viewers’ expectations for trusted news coverage.
Simply by focusing on, and delivering solutions for these needs and expectations, our CBS News team grew the live streaming news service to more than 1 billion views in both 2020 and 2021. As the digital audience grew, we saw no evidence of cannibalization of the linear audience. In fact, we saw brand loyalty strengthened in multiple research studies conducted during a period of six years, starting in 2015.
Major streamers can do the same by showcasing news when viewers expect it, such as during major live breaking events such as the January 6 hearings. Considering the investment that these organizations are making in their content and delivery optimization, it is an oversight in terms of serving consumers’ information needs. In an increasingly competitive streaming environment, streamers who take the opportunity to engage and grow audiences interested in breaking news will experience a payoff in long-term loyalty.
The annual Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism is a must-read for anyone in the news, media and digital publishing industries. Clocking in at 164 pages, the latest study, which came out today, covers a cornucopia of topics, informed by an online survey of more than 90,000 digital news consumers in 46 countries.
DCN members will want to read the complete report when they can, but ahead of that, we wanted to share some of the most relevant findings for digital content companies. To do this, I read the full report, identifying key trends and corresponding with the lead author, Nic Newman, to discuss these areas in more detail.
It is a decade since the first Digital News Report was published. Newman reflects that, since then, we have seen a relentless decline in consumption of traditional news sources such as TV, radio, and print and the growing importance of digital and social media.
“This has brought [a] greater variety of sources and perspectives than ever before, especially for educated and interested news consumers,” Newman says. “But at the same time,” he adds, “we see those that are less interested [in the news] often feeling overwhelmed and confused.”
It is against this backdrop that major themes emanating from the latest report — including growing news avoidance, as well as declining interest and lower levels of trust in the news —need to be considered. With that in mind, here are four developments publishers cannot afford to overlook, and recommendations to help tackle them.
1. Respond to the implications of news avoidance
One of the biggest topics explored in the report is news avoidance. “Selective avoidance” is on the rise globally, with growing numbers deliberately steering clear of content that is often seen as difficult and depressing. Long-running and recurrent stories — such as those covering politics, the war in Ukraine, or the COVID pandemic — are also driving audiences to disconnect more frequently from the news.
Implications / Solutions:
To avoid audiences checking out, publishers need to recognize that some approaches in practice can be off putting. Therefore, they may need to offer a different content mix and tone. Addressing this is challenging, Newman says, because audiences also want — and expect — the media to cover difficult stories. Nevertheless, Newman identifies three areas where journalists and publishers can tackle several core reasons people often give for news avoidance: accessibility, negativity and bias.
First, he argues, we need to make news content more accessible and easier to understand. “This is one of the reasons why young people and less educated groups selectively avoid the news.” He also notes that content is typically produced for avid news consumers.
“Avoiding jargon and insider speak will help,” he says. More explanation, directly asking for — and addressing — audience questions, as well as producing fact-based content for video and podcast formats, could also be useful.
Secondly, telling stories differently might mean embracing approaches such as solutions and constructive journalism, as part of a mix of formats and content styles. Newman suggests outlets consider “finding more ways to cover difficult stories that provide hope or give audiences a sense of agency around stories like climate change.”
Lastly, we need to rebuild trust and credibility. Over a quarter (29%) of news avoiders believe the news is untrustworthy or biased. That rises to nearly four in ten (39%) in the United States.
“Some of that is about partisanship,” Newman says, “some is about sensationalist chasing eyeballs and clicks.” Potential remedies include “signalling opinion more clearly,” as well as “not labeling everything breaking news when it isn’t,” an approach CNN has recently broached.
2. Double-down on revenue diversification
Increasing reader revenue is a key strategic goal for many publishers. However, much of the digital spoils generated by subscriptions are enjoyed solely by the biggest national brands. In the U.S, around half of paid subscriptions go to just three titles: New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. More widely, fewer than one in five digital news consumers (19%) in pays for content.
Implications / Solutions:
This “winner takes most” dynamic can make it difficult for smaller and local publishers to compete. Furthermore, the rising cost of living may also mean that some audiences will look to cut back their expenditure on paid-for content.
That’s a development Newman says news providers are alive to.
“More publishers are recognizing that subscription on its own will not be enough,” Newman says, “especially as further growth is likely to [be] constrained by rising prices and the squeeze on household budgets. Developing multiple revenue streams will provide resilience and help publishers weather the coming storm.”
This impending subscription storm is not unique to news publishers, but all media players. A chart on page 21 of the report outlines this tension. It shows that while 14% of digital news users in the U.S. think that they will have more media subscriptions in the next year, a further 14% of users believe they will have fewer subscriptions in the same period.
3. Ensure you have an effective first-party data strategy
However, news consumers appear to be wary about providing personal information, such as email addresses, to publishers. Just under a third (32%) of the report’s sample indicated they trust news websites to use their personal data responsibly. This drops to fewer than one in five in France (19%) and the USA (18%).
Implications / Solutions:
Most publishers understand that they need to develop their first-party data capabilities. But knowing you need to get to grips with this, and effectively doing so, is not the same thing.
“The low numbers (28% average) who have currently registered with a news site show that most news websites simply do not have a clear enough value proposition to get people [to] give up their data,” Newman argues.
This principle aligns with the subscription challenge publishers face too. It is hard to convince audiences to pay for content if the same material is available elsewhere for free. In these circumstances it seems not even inclined to hand over their email address to access it.
To remedy this, Newman suggests, “publishers will need to use a mix of competitions, events and special features to get those numbers up. They also need to persuade people that they will treat personal data responsibly.”
4. Do things differently if you want to reach Gen Z
As we outlined recently, Gen Z is a demographic with its own outlook and media habits. The Digital News Report reinforces this, with Dr. Kirsten Eddy, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Reuters Insitute, commenting on the growing gulf seen in the media behaviours and preferences found among many younger audiences compared to other demographics.
Implications / Solutions:
This cohort is less interested in traditional news subjects like politics. It also has a weaker connection with news brands. “They are also more skeptical of traditional sources,” Newman advises. “They are also shaped by social aspect of news ‘who is telling the story’ and what others think about it.”
As a result, this is a demographic more likely to seek out diverse voices online. They are less concerned about impartiality and more comfortable with journalists expressing opinions on social media. A preference for more visual social networks has meant that across all markets the use of TikTok for news consumption has jumped among 18–24s from 3% in 2020 to 15% in 2022.
“But they are not simply all TikTokers,” Eddy cautions, recommending in a dedicated essay (found on pages 42-45 of the full report) that publishers connect with the topics young people care about, and develop content that is aligned to the style and tone of specific platforms. Publishers should do this, in preference to “expecting young people to eventually come around to what has always been done.”
The big four (and much more)
These four issues – reaching younger audiences, addressing issues of news avoidance, ensuring you have an effective first party data strategy and the need for revenue diversification – matter to publishers large and small. As a result, these were the topics that emerged as most critical upon first read of the Digital News Report 2022.
They are, of course, just a fraction of the actionable insights that can be gleaned from this weighty annual research study. Readers may also want to delve further into issues such as trust, polarization, as well as data related to the consumption of podcasts, online video, email news and attitudes towards coverage of climate change.
Mental shortcuts, snap judgments, gut feelings: everyone uses these to some degree while navigating an increasingly overwhelming news landscape. However, new research finds that these instant reactions are even more prevalent among the 25% of the population with the lowest trust in news. Low trust audiences are more likely to receive the bulk of their news incidentally while engaged in other online activities such as socializing, shopping, or searching for specific information pertinent to their daily lives. Significantly, low trust aligns with low interest. These individuals are unlikely to visit news sites on purpose. They are also the least-studied segment of the population when it comes to news-related behavior.
It is important that content providers understand the impact of snap judgments because they occur upstream of further engagement with news material. Research from the Trust in News Project out of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford offers insights based upon an exploration of the behaviors and habits of this audience segment.
News, cues, and clues
The report, Snap judgements: how audiences who lack trust in news navigate information on digital platforms was based upon a qualitative study that involved participants from four countries: Brazil, India, the United Kingdom and the United States. One hundred individuals were interviewed in depth via videoconference as they used one of three platforms: Google, Facebook, or WhatsApp, between December 2021 and January 2022.
Six types of cues were found to serve as as shortcuts for evaluating news:
Pre-existing ideas about news in general or particular news media brands, including reputation and perceived reliability of the news outlet.
Social endorsement cues, especially from friends and family.
Tone and word choice of headlines, with a skepticism for headlines that seem sensationalized.
Visual cues, with a preference for photographs and videos perceived as recent and relevant, as well as numerical data and links to other sources.
Presence of advertising or indications of sponsored content are often seen as indicative of bias and profit-driven motives.
Platform-specific cues such as Facebook likes and Google search engine rankings. (insert cues graphic)
Comfort and control
The study found low-trust individuals have much more favorable opinions of Google, Facebook and WhatsApp than they do of professional news sources. They consider these platforms valuable tools used in everyday life, whereas many stated most news is irrelevant to them. In fact, some perceive news as an attempt to manipulate them; many stated that politicians control major news sources. In “shoot the messenger” fashion, low-trust users tend to conflate content they dislike or find upsetting with news journalists or brands.
News reports on hot topics such as politics and issues that have become politically charged such as the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic are viewed with particular skepticism by the sample group. Participants indicated that content providers have more incentive to be untruthful about such topics.
Low-trust users are more likely to look favorably upon information presented in a manner perceived as enabling them to make up their own minds. Some participants cited the presence of numerical data or links to other sources as indications that news was reliable, while others praised Google search results as such a resource.
Addressing the audience gap
While some of the 25% have overtly hostile feelings towards news organizations, indifference is more to blame for lack of engagement. Lack of knowledge in how journalism works is also a factor. Those aware of their limited knowledge may be less confident in their ability to decipher content and more likely to ignore it altogether or rely on opinions of trusted social contacts.
Trust-building strategies employed by digital news organizations tend to focus on the behavior and practices of the savviest news consumers. This makes sense if the goal is to solidify one’s base. However, expanding outreach requires more understanding of the less-engaged 25%. Building relationships with new user groups requires deeper understanding of how they engage with their platforms of choice.
This research is significant for digital media providers because it represents data from the least-studied segment of the population, and because the findings are not limited to this group. While some of the cues relied on by these users are under exclusive control of digital platforms, others can be utilized by news providers. The study has compelling implications for how information can best be conveyed to those hardest to reach.
Audiences are spending more time than ever consuming content. Still, even an explosion in digital subscriptions couldn’t prevent massive job cuts across the nation’s newsrooms. Any argument that closures hit companies that churned out poor quality journalism or fake news falls flat when looking at the data. Of the 10 newspapers that have earned Pulitzer Prizes for local reporting in the past decade, all but one were impacted by cuts in the last year.
Why is online news in a crisis? There are lots of theories. Many point to the impact of the Google/Facebook duopoly. The two behemoth companies gobble the bulk of ad revenue, leaving scraps for news organizations. Others suggest that the digital media industry itself is to blame. Ethan Zuckerman points to the “original sin” of building the entire Internet around advertising, putting algorithms, not audiences, in control.
New research confirms that media organizations need to do a critical rethink, but not just of the business model. It appears that media organizations are relying on a faulty content-creation and evaluation formula. The good news is that there’s plenty they can do to rethink storytelling to better engage and monetize audiences.
The findings, part of the Clwstwr Policy Brief project, reveal that audiences prefer “inclusive and reflective” storytelling models that help them understand and navigate their world. This, the research says, “challenges the perceived – and long-established journalistic principle – that the inverted pyramid model of news storytelling is the most efficient way to deliver news.”
The traditional approach for news — arranging facts in descending order of importance — lacks creativity and flexibility. What’s more, the research says this style alienates younger audiences that crave a “more thoughtful, considered and purposeful approach” to online news. They want it to reflect the reality of their lives, rather than industry norms.
Media organizations have an opportunity to rethink the way that they report the news. And, with new formats, they can encourage consumers to engage more actively with content.
Continuing with our series of video interviews, I talk to the lead author of the report, Shirish Kulkarni, an award-winning journalist and researcher. He makes a case for a complete rethink of news storytelling models. He shares the “seven building blocks” that successful news stories have in common. These include a linear narrative, personal context, and transparency about where the information comes from in the first place.
Kulkarni also walks us through the “narrative accordion,” a prototype model that gets high ranks from readers because it allows them to sort and skim through the key elements of a story on their terms. Finally, he discusses how news organizations can drive meaningful engagement and revenues by harnessing AI to “individualize” content at scale.
WATCH OR LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW
Peggy Anne Salz, Founder and Lead Analyst of Mobile Groove interviews Shirish Kulkarni, a researcher focused on identifying and prototyping innovative forms of news storytelling.
Peggy Anne Salz: Mainstream journalism is in crisis. Now we may think it’s due to a lack of trust or a lack of interest, but new research suggests people aren’t consuming news because the wrong stories are being told in the wrong way, by the wrong people. Now, new storytelling models, provocative prototypes, new building blocks.
They may offer the answer and we get the inside track on this and more today on Digital Content Next. I’m your host as always Peggy Anne Salz, mobile analyst, content marketing consultant, and frequent contributor to DCN. My guest today is an award-winning journalist and researcher, who’s going to share eye-opening results of his latest research project that goes to the core of what is broken in online journalism and how to fix it. Shirish Kulkarni welcome to Digital Content Next. It’s great to have you.
Shirish Kulkarni: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here.
Salz: Now you’ve got our attention with these results, the wrong people, doing the wrong thing, in the wrong way. That is something pretty provocative. You spent the last two years asking these fundamental questions about journalism, and now you’ve come up with a construct for a model of what you call reflective journalism. Now it’s not just, you. It’s had global impact. You’ve presented it at Reuters Institute, World Association of News Publishers, and many more. Tell us what is reflective journalism.
Kulkarni: Yeah. So I think we have…well, I have two reasons really, for calling it reflective journalism. Firstly, I think it’s important that we, as journalists, reflect on what journalism is for, right? What the needs of audience is rather than our organizations. Because that’s something that’s really been missing a lot in journalism. And we need to take the time. We’re in a crisis, as you said, and we need to take the time to stop and think, what are we doing wrong? What could we do better?
The second reason is that it also is super important that our industry is much more genuinely reflective of society. So, largely, if we’re talking about Western Europe or the U.S., this is a very homogeneous industry. And frankly, it’s driven largely by white, middle class, Metropolitan men, for the most part. And actually, when you think about it, that is a really small proportion of the population. And they don’t reflect, or frankly, understand the experiences, the day to day lives of most people in society. And as journalists, I think it’s our job to reflect what’s going on in society. And I don’t think as an industry, we’re actually structurally prepared to do that. So, two reasons for calling it reflective journalism, because we need to reflect both on the industry and also reflect society.
Salz: And it’s interesting Shirish because you’re making this point that. We need to reflect, and we’ve done that in a way you could even say we’ve been forced to reflect. Let’s put it that way. So we do know what is broken in principle at the core you’re stating it’s all about new forms of narrative. We need new forms of narrative. This is actually very good news because we know what is broken. We know how to fix it. And this is where your policy brief, your news storytelling, storytelling research hits upon the answer. You propose linear narratives. Now, how does this differ from what we’ve been doing? Because what we’ve been doing is the inverted pyramid style. So what makes linear better?
Kulkarni: It helps to start by thinking, why do we do the inverted pyramid, right? And actually, the kind of prosaic reason for that is because of the telegraph, the original news wire. But actually, the telegraph, when it was used widely, was expensive and unreliable. So people thought, let’s put all the important stuff right at the top, because then it’s cheaper. And if it drops out, then we haven’t lost too much of the important stuff, we’ve lost some of the boring stuff, right? So, technology has clearly moved on by about six generations since the telegraph. But largely, we are using those same habits and formulas, which come from the telegraph era. So that is strange in and of itself. So that’s why we use the inverted pyramid now. And actually, there’s not really a reason for it anymore.
When I talk about why writing linear stories is better, or producing stories of whatever kind, whether that’s text or whatever, in a linear format is better, we just go back to what are stories for? And stories are there for a kind of evolutionary, anthropological, there’s a neuroscientific basis for storytelling. They help us navigate the world. If you wanted to bring in kind of modern day techniques, they’re like a virtual reality simulator for the world. That’s what stories teach us. And I’d really recommend a book by Jonathan Gottschall, called “The Storytelling Animal.” And in that, there’s a really beautiful quote, where he says, “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.”
And so, we know that to be true, right? But those stories aren’t told in inverted pyramid style. They’re told as a linear narrative. Starting at the beginning and ending at the end. And that is what we’re hardwired for as human beings. But as journalists, if we’re writing in an inverted pyramid style, we’re essentially going against what we’re hardwired for. We’re putting up a barrier between the storytelling and the engagement with a story, from the get go. And that, again, is not logical. It’s not rational. It doesn’t make any sense.
So actually, just on that kind of linear storytelling, we built a bunch of prototypes. But actually, what I was really interested in testing, for exactly the reasons you’re interested is, what if it was just linear storytelling, there’s no other formatting, would people find that interesting? So we did a prototype, which we just called kind of a plain text, dramatic prototype. And that was literally plain text, writing a story, sort of casting it quite badly, in my own opinion, because I wrote it, in a kind of three act dramatic structure, like we were just talking about. And the results from that were absolutely startling.
We tested it with more than 1300 people, against options of news which were currently available to them. And what we got the people to do was essentially, say whether they thought that it was more engaging, more informative, and more useful. And we created, I guess, a net approval rating. So on the kind of engaging axis, people have found just a plain text narrative more engaging than a BBC story, or an ITV story, or Sky News story here in the UK. The rating for that was plus 57, not 57%, plus 57, of the positives against the negatives. On informative, it was plus 41. And on useful, plus 37. So those are big, big numbers. And in some ways, you’d say for news organizations, they’re a no brainer, right? If you can, tomorrow, do something which is more engaging, more informative, and useful by big margins, just by essentially changing the structure of your story, why wouldn’t you do that?
Salz: Now we’ve had some companies here on Digital Content Next, they have been sharing what they’re doing and they are already taking a more modular approach to news and to storytelling. So there are companies moving in this direction. They understand that just by encouraging readers to skim, they’re not really driving engagement. And they have to do it in a different way. They need to break down the stories. How can news organizations further improve what they do to draw their audiences in? What is it that you’re telling them?
Kulkarni: So the very first thing is clearly thinking about what the audience, what citizens want, right? So when I was writing my prototypes, really, the first thing was to blank my brain. I’d tried to forget all the conventions of journalism, and ask myself the question, what do I actually need to know about this story to help me understand this? Rather than, what would a journalist normally write here? Because those two things are actually surprisingly different. And I think it’s where I think the kind of practice of journalism has become quite disengaged from the purpose of journalism. And as you say, there’s lots of hand wringing over, you know, people in newsrooms looking at analytics, when they are looking at analytics, and probably not enough people are sort of hand wringing over, well, people only spend 10 seconds on our page. Well, kind of, of course, they only spend 10 seconds on your page if you write an inverted pyramid style, where you’ve put in the headline, and in the first paragraph, something that looks like everything you need to know about that story. And then people think, well, actually, it gets more boring, and less interesting as I go down.
Now, actually, the truth is, it’s not everything you need to know about the story, because we all know, headlines don’t represent a story. They’re largely used as a sales technique. And the first paragraph often is a kind of one side of the story or just a really quick summary. But actually what people are telling us they want routinely, and not just me, in lots of research, they want more context around a story. What we tend to do is drop people into an on the day story, just on the day. And not everyone consumes news in the same way as journalists, right? They don’t read the news necessarily every day or every hour. We need to explain to them what’s led up to this point, and actually to some extent, what’s going to follow from this point. And so, actually providing all those things as a service, because yeah, journalism is a service, again, something which we forget. Then all those things are going to help people engage.
Salz: News as a service, you’re absolutely right here. And you’re also talking about what news organizations need to do to embrace the linear approach. Fortunately, it’s something they don’t have to do on their own because your research also shows that it’s really about collaborating, co-creating whatever you want to call it with AI to keep reader attention, as the story unfolds. Even determine the best starting points in the news. Ways to draw the audience in. So how does this collaboration working with AI? Look, what is the role of AI to get people to come into the story and stay?
Kulkarni: Lots of journalism organizations are using AI very well now, already. And so this is going to be the future of journalism. The next stage of journalism will be driven by automation and AI. So we have to be in that space. And I think the starting point is, look, right now online news is largely just newspaper articles put online, right? We’re not using, we’re not taking advantage of all the digital and technical storytelling tools that are available to us.
And I think what we’re seeing is that we should be in a post-article world, right? We can’t provide, or we shouldn’t be providing exactly the same article to everyone, right? We can’t be all things to all people. And where that leads to is personalization, essentially. That actually, we can provide news, information, in a way that is personalized to meet individual user’s needs in a really efficient way. So that might be, for example, I’m based in Wales, where we have quite a big immigrant community as well. If I’m a Chinese person living in West Wales, accessing BBC Wales’s news, wouldn’t it be interesting if I could access that in my first language, even though it’s news about Wales? That’s going to be more accessible to me. Working in that modular way, where we’re taking out a lot of interstitial language, we’re building short modules of information, which we’re putting together in different ways for different people. That, for example, takes out a lot of translation problems. It actually takes out a lot of inherent bias that exists within us as journalists. So it’s more accessible and more inclusive in that way.
So providing fact-based modules of journalism, that can be put together in different ways, by AI, to match the personalization preferences of users, citizens, audiences, has to be one big part of the future of journalism, I think.
Salz: That’s fascinating Shirish because we did start with personalization in news. It was about the categories asking audiences to choose the categories they wanted. Now it’s about personalization taking that personalization to a next level, a new level. And we agree it’s about the audience. It’s also about context, transparency, diverse perspectives.
Now these are the guiding principals, but it also comes down to the experience and that’s where your research also offers some answers. You’ve come up with ways to allow a different experience for different readers. The linear story is the concept, but you have accordions, timelines, videos. What can you tell us about the best on-ramp right now for organizations listening in, they want to know what is the best way to make the biggest difference in their stories and their metrics?
Kulkarni: The narrative accordion is really my favorite prototype. And actually, the favorite generally, with users. And what we’ve done here, essentially I’ve gone back to the basics and asked myself the question, what do I need to know about the story? What’s going to help me understand it? And I put these kind of expandable and collapsible questions, which means that people can either read them from top to bottom, so they make a linear story from top to bottom. Or if you’re interested in a particular question, such as, is this a green solution? I can go straight to that and check out the answer to that first, and navigate around exactly how I want it. Because what audiences really told us they wanted was some agency in storytelling. They wanted to be able to decide how they navigated the story. And we all understand that, don’t we? Like, when we go to find something out ourselves, we remember it better. We understand it better, because we feel like we’ve been part of that investigation process.
And as I say, the narrative accordion overall, in our testing, did really well. So basically, 75% and upwards, comparing the narrative accordion to options which are available to them in the general market, said it helped them understand the story better, and was more engaging.
Now, again, going back to the commercial needs or publishers, if you can do tomorrow, this doesn’t take a lot of kind of tooling or engineering, you could do tomorrow, something which more than 75% of people say helps them understand the story better, and is more engaging. Now, that, in a commercial sense, to me, is a no brainer, right? If you can do that tomorrow, why wouldn’t you?
Salz: That makes perfect sense. Absolutely. It’s a no-brainer and there’s no reason not to pursue that, but you’ve also found something else interesting in your research. You’ve found out that we are hard-wired, literally for the hero story or the heroine story. We want to have that arc of the story. Now, how can organizations apply that to journalism and still keep a credible balance? Because of course, drama can quickly become melodrama. It can become exaggeration very easily. So how do they approach this to give us the story? But again, also the engagement, because that’s the way of generating revenues.
Kulkarni: So, I see the tension, I’m all for kind of fact-based journalism, which sometimes, we get into kind of click bait stuff, which is about creating a particular kind of drama, right? When I’m talking about, this kind of hero, heroine story, it’s that fundamental evolutionary need for a particular kind of story, which you might describe as essentially, a fairy tale, is a great example of that. It’s why they’re so popular and successful. And that could be by just thinking about who are the characters in this. We don’t have to go off into kind of writing “non-objective,” but I’m going to put objective in quotation marks there, “non-objective” stories. What’s the sense of character, a resolution as well, because fairy stories always have a resolution. And new stories very rarely have a resolution. And actually, at that evolutionary level stories which don’t have a resolution leave us feeling uncomfortable.
So actually, that’s where we get into kind of news avoidance, because so much of our storytelling is inverted pyramid storytelling. Leaves us feeling uncomfortable and unresolved. So that’s a really important point as well.
Salz: So the answers here are context, narrative, linear narrative, AI, imagination, innovation, engagement, but achieving this, internalizing, this can take time, maybe even other talents. So what would you leave us with here? Give me a few steps news organizations can take right now to change the old habit.
Adopt the new model, adapt the new prototypes that you’re proposing such as the accordion, and also integrate AI more into this process. What can they do that they’re not already doing?
Kulkarni: When I started doing my research, I think people wanted me to come up with some kind of nonlinear gamified piece of storytelling, innovation, right? And I quickly realized that’s like putting a $100,000 kitchen in a house which doesn’t have a roof, right? We need to sort out the fundamentals. It’s journalism which is broken, and we need to fix that.
So, that comes down to understanding the user need, the audience need, remembering that journalism is for citizens, it’s for people. It’s not for journalists. So our audiences shouldn’t be other journalists. They should be what people really want from journalism. And so we need to listen to that research, not going with preconceived ideas of what we think journalism should be like in the future. We need to listen to what people actually want from journalism and then action that. And in terms of the storytelling, yeah, I think it’s using personalization, meeting people where they are, meeting their needs. And to do that, we need to leverage AI, essentially. Because to do that at scale, we need to use automation.
People want that information, they do want to understand the world, they do want to engage with it, but they’re feeling let down by journalism at the moment. So there’s repressed kind of need for that, which we can tap into. And actually, yeah, people are willing to pay for that if they get something which meets their needs. I talk about it in terms of, if you were working at Procter & Gamble or Unilever, and you never listened to your customers needs, you just carried on doing what you’ve always done without thinking about what you need to change, then you wouldn’t work at Procter & Gamble or Unilever for very long. But actually, in journalism, that’s what we do. We just carry on doing the same thing we always did, because we like doing it and we know how to do that. Regardless of the fact, we know people aren’t engaging with it or consuming it. So, there’s a really clear, hardnosed business model for doing storytelling better.
Salz: Shirish, I can’t thank you enough for sharing and, yes, for being exactly like your research, open, transparent, a bit provocative. It’s been great to have you.
Kulkarni: Thank you so much. It’s been a real pleasure.
Salz: Thank you. And of course, thank you for tuning in taking the time.
Of course, more coming in the series around how media companies are taking charge of changing their business and also increasing revenues. And in the meantime, be sure to check out digitalcontentnext.org for great content and including a companion post to this interview. And of course, join the conversation on Twitter at DCNorg until next time I’m Peggy Anne Salz signing off for Digital Content Next.
In conversation with Digital Content Next’s Michelle Manafy, Flipboard founder and CEO Mike McCue and Washington Post managing editor Kat Downs Mulder explore the evolution of digital media, serving the audience “where they are,” and leveraging emerging technologies to better meet their needs. Their talk, which was part of Collision Conference 2021, covers the challenges and opportunities of social media news distribution and consumption and the rise of Substack. They also talk about the challenges facing local news in particular. Their discussion explores AI and other technologies that increasingly impact news creation, delivery, consumption, and user experiences.
Last Friday marked 100 days since Donald Trump officially left the White House as U.S. president. His departure ended a chapter crammed with chaos and controversy for hundreds of millions of Americans, and many more around the world.
As the pandemic enters a second year, a deafening lack of Trump has been coupled with a general public malaise from too much news. As a result, the historic ratings bump enjoyed during the Trump administration quickly turned into a slump. Few outlets have been spared.
The Washington Post reported that of the three largest cable news networks, only Fox News has held relatively steady. Its three prime-time opinion shows fell just 6% in viewership since the first weeks of the year. MSNBC and CNN, meanwhile, declined 26% and 45% in the 8-10 p.m. ET time slot, respectively.
But it’s not just cable networks that have been affected. The Washington Post itself saw a 26% fall in the number of unique visitors to its website from January to February. The New York Times experienced a 17% decline in the same period.
A slump by any other name
While the “Trump Slump” is a legitimate reason for the downward trend, it’s not the only cause. Nor is it a universal experience.
At The Atlantic, SVP of growth Sam Rosen says that, “We’ve found even in just the past five or six months, what has really changed is that the motivation to understand this historic moment has decreased and the desire for personal intellectual growth has increased.”
As he points out, “It’s been an exhausting five years for many people and especially the past year. So, it kind of makes sense that the core desire to just understand what’s happening in the world still exists. But people want to invest in their own growth.” And the company is banking on that willingness to invest.
On the retention side, The Atlantic focuses on the fundamentals. For example they’re migrating as many subscribers to auto-renew as possible. Targeted email campaigns are also reawakening dormant subscribers.
Acquiring new subscribers has been more colorful. For example, experimenting with new slogans such as “Read. Think. Grow.,” which are a change from more newsier lines of messaging in the past. Rosen said The Atlantic thinks of its audience in terms of psychographics: people that are curious, interested in the world, willing to consider multiple perspectives, and open to new ideas.
“Looking at the vanguard of marketing technology is one of our biggest priorities right now,” Rosen said. “We’re evaluating a slew of technology partners that do customer journey orchestration, dynamic paywalls, personalization, and content recommendations. So that is where we’re doubling down.”
Not content with the content
Another newsroom building value not reliant on Trump’s hoopla is Axios, which was launched in January 2017. The well positioned itself strategically for a post-Trump world. Though the fall in traffic is unmistakable, Axios’ director of audience and growth, Neal Rothschild, believes this could actually be a good thing.
“I think if you were going to ask the founders of the company [Axios] whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, they would say it’s 100 percent a good thing,” Rothschild said. “Jim VandeHei, our CEO, has maintained that people needed to wean themselves off of politics during the Trump years. It was like fast food and it became very unhealthy. So, we’re starting to see the news landscape kind of clear out and make way for the topics that were core to the founding of Axios. Though it may not have seemed like it just because Trump sucked up so much oxygen.”
Those other topics include the rise of China, climate change, and the gaming industry. For the latter, Axios hired Stephen Totilo and Megan Farokhmanesh from Kotaku and The Verge, respectively, to write Axios Gaming. Their newsletter launched this week and will focus on the multi-billion dollar gaming industry. Rothschild added that the company isn’t limiting its expansion to specific topics. Its strategy of hiring experts to build readership extends to local journalism in news deserts, where just a single outlet currently operates, or where no community newspaper exists at all.
“To stand up a newsletter in each city, we try to hire two experts that can helm that newsletter so that we can speak to the city and have it growing quickly. I think that’s a departure from previous models for supporting local news. Usually, you need more of a physical presence in that city or at least need to invest more on the ground,” Rothschild said. “That’s not a huge site traffic audience strategy. But it is a pretty good growth and revenue strategy. And it is increasing our footprint around the country.”
As important as local news has been to CBS, Trump was an international story. Significantly, the international audience it gained over the past four years remains. While many U.S. outlets have cut their international presence in recent years, CBSN — CBS’ 24/7 streaming news service — last year expanded to almost 100 countries. That global presence was critical in CBSN delivering 291 million streams in the first quarter of 2021, up 30% from the same period a year ago.
Christy Tanner, EVP and general manager of CBS News Digital said her team has only just scratched the surface of its global potential. Through Network 10 in Australia, which ViacomCBS owns, its partner the BBC and its own international bureaus, it’s creating even more international programming.
“With streaming audiences, we do not see what was at one point conventional wisdom in the news business: Allegedly, U.S. audiences are not interested in international news. That’s simply not true from our perspective.” In fact, Tanner said, “We think it’s an important differentiator. It’s important to tell the stories. We at CBS News digital have been extremely fortunate that CBS has continued to invest in international coverage.”
The local news
That said, Trump was as much a local story as he was a national and international one. So, CBS is also taking advantage of the dearth of local newsrooms. It now offers 14 total live streams including 10 in local markets such as the Bay Area, Pittsburgh, and Minnesota.
One new feature Tanner is especially excited about are video push alerts. Launched last fall, the proactive alerts nudge CBSN viewers whenever news is breaking across the U.S. Instead of only watching that day’s White House news conference on the national live stream, viewers could easily toggle over to CBSN Minnesota to watch Minneapolis’ police chief providing an update to the George Floyd case.
Tanner says her team sends out alerts dozens of times a day. This means that viewers are engaged in numerous stories, as opposed to any one story such as Trump or Covid-19.
Fail to prepare, prepare to fail
The past four years certainly provided newsrooms across the country with a welcome surge in readership. However, the smartest strategists were planning for Trump’s inevitable departure well in advance. As a result, the fall in traffic hasn’t been enough to hurt their bottom lines too much.
For Tanner, who entered journalism as an editor at the AP in 1991, the Trump presidency was just another wild cycle. And she’s experienced many. Tanner says to work in digital media, one always has to be ready for what’s next, and make intelligent fact-based decisions.
“Things are constantly changing and those who don’t adapt fall by the wayside.”
The decline of cable TV is not news. Ever since streaming services offered consumers entire seasons of their favorite shows – affordably, on demand, and ad free – cable has been losing subscribers.
The number of pay-TV households fell from its peak of 105 million in 2010, to approximately 77.6 million last year. And this number is predicted to drop to 63.4 million by 2024. Meanwhile, the numbers of subscribers to the largest U.S. streaming platforms went up 50% in 2019 from the previous year.
There is no doubt Covid-19 boosted streaming figures, as millions of viewers spent their lockdown binge-watching the latest Netflix recommendation. However, cable was in decline long before the pandemic, with new, younger audiences favoring a “buffet style” viewing experience. In fact, more than half of 18 to 29 year-olds who pay for a TV bundle say they stream more often than watch cable.
What is really interesting, amidst all this change, is that cable news continues to make a killing. In January 2021 CNN recorded its highest viewing figures in its 40-year history, beating both Fox News and MSNBC in total viewers. However, Fox News remains the most-watched cable news network in the U.S. And it took in a whopping $12.3 billion in 2020.
“The news environment of the past four years, with Trump in the White House, has given a life extension to cable news,” says Mosheh Oinounou, an Emmy award-winning journalist who went on to launch CBSN, and is now a consultant for media organizations. “More recently, Covid and major political events, such as the storming of the Capitol, have seen record revenue and record ratings for cable.”
On the flipside, news is under-represented in the booming premium OTT arena, particularly that of local markets. Given the habits and preference of younger audiences, it might be time to take another look at the local news.
Streaming news still a rarity
While news is still a rarity in the streaming space, things are starting to change. This month, ViacomCBS launched Paramount Plus, which will incorporate CBSN, as well as livestreams of local CBS affiliates. Fox Entertainment’s streaming service Tubi launched News on Tubi in October 2020. It recently added nearly 80 stations, with 24-hour live news feeds. Amazon Prime is also looking to get in on the news game, adding live and on-demand local news to Fire TV.
ViacomCBS already has a head start in streaming news, as CBSN was the first streaming news service to launch in the United States in 2014. And the company continues to make news part of its OTT strategy. Christy Tanner, EVP and GM at ViacomCBS, believes their “marriage of journalism and technology” differentiates them in the streaming wars.
“It baffles me that news is not a bigger part of streaming services. It’s such an incredible opportunity to reach a highly engaged audience,” says Tanner.
“News has been a really important driver of growth within CBS and now ViacomCBS. And that is the reason it is one of the three pillars of Paramount Plus. We know that news users are loyal. They come back frequently, and they stay for a long time. Now we are expanding on this knowledge to improve our news offering within our streaming services.”
However, creating live news, 24/7, is not without its challenges. There are issues around the nature of news content and the digital development resources required. This could be why few providers offer it as part of their streaming packages.
“Entertainment and news are very different,” says Tanner. “News is a real commitment. And you have to be prepared for what comes with that. Also, providers don’t see the financial opportunities they are missing. They see news as a loss leader or break-even proposition – but what we’ve done is proof.”
Oinounou agrees that some major streaming companies may be reluctant to “get too deep into news game” because of the constant need to feed the news monster with fresh content. “Media companies want evergreen content. But news is ephemeral, it’s only relevant for couple of hours, which is a real challenge,” he says.
Falling off a cliff
However, Oinounou is less convinced by the financial opportunities of streaming news, when compared to the figures cable news commands. Digital news revenue is largely ad-based while cable news relies on subscription and massive advertising income, both of which are hard to replicate online.
“There is revenue there, but not on the same scale as broadcast,” he states. “Streaming services need to ask how they can grow revenue in order to compensate for the cliff they are about to go off, in terms of cable subscriptions. We know that people will pay for sport and entertainment online. But it’s not yet been proven as a revenue source for news.
“We saw this evolution in print. News was free online. But then classified revenue fell through the floor and print subscriptions collapsed, so newspapers realized they had to start charging and put up a paywall.”
It’s only in recent years that news titles have started to generate significant subscription revenue. That said, these tend to be larger national titles or conglomerations of local news brands that have greater resources than most local brands.
However, the trend offers proof that people will pay for a quality product and a good digital experience. Therefore, it seems likely that broadcast news producers are heading in the same direction. But the question is, who goes first? Which company will be brave enough to put digital news behind a paywall?
Fox Nation is one example of how a news subscription model can work. They offer additional content on interesting topics with big names and personalities as a draw. WarnerMedia has also floated the idea of launching a similar streaming channel, with a CNN-based subscription service.
“OTT live streams need to do the same thing, by offering either exclusive content or access, which will add value and persuade customers to pay an extra fee,” says Oinounou. “They also need to make sure content is authentic to the platform. Consumers on new devices have different needs and digital news is more interactive. So content has to be adapted to the streaming space.”
A new business model
Along with great content, creating a successful streaming news channel is also about having the right technology to ensure it’s available on all platforms. This is something Tanner prides herself on. “CBSN’s strength is to enable the viewer to find our news wherever they are,” she says. “The channel is available on more than 20 devices, services and platforms.”
Oinounou agrees if news providers don’t move quickly to adapt to streaming technology and get on all new and emerging platforms “you are going to be left behind”.
Creating a good product is not just about attracting subscribers. It’s also about retaining them. And a key to reducing churn, is to reduce user fatigue and financial outgoings, which are often associated with too many streaming services. One solution is to bundle streaming content, in the same way as cable TV, where consumers pay one fee and have access to all the entertainment, sport, and news they want.
Bundling their own streaming services is a no-brainer for brands. However, given the proliferation of offerings on the market, partnering with other streaming companies could be the service consumers really want. We have already seen this happen with ViacomCBS, who partnered up with Apple TV+ last year.
“There is a lot of experimentation happening right now with all major companies trying to figure out a new business model for news,” said Oinounou. “But media executives are still focused on where the money is, and that’s not in digital.”
However, with the likes of Altice USA CEO Dexter Goei predicting the death of cable TV, the question is not “if” broadcast news will be streamed, it is a matter of how and when. What media executives need to focus on now, is how to make the new model match the traditional pay-TV bundle.
Local news outlets have been on the ropes for a while, and this year is no different. Competition for digital advertising has been fierce, and it is well documented that two technology companies eat the lion’s share of the revenue.
In fact, just this month, HD Media LLC, a news publisher, filed a federal antitrust lawsuit against the duopoly, Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc. The lawsuit asserts that the two companies are manipulating the digital-advertising market, making it difficult for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and others to survive.
Exacerbating the financial implications is the way in which these two tech companies disintermediate news distribution and consumption. Given this reality, how can local news organizations successfully compete and manage a successful audience relationship?
Local news study
Sarah Stonbely’s research, from the Center of Cooperative Media, identifies news ways to answer this question. Stonbely maps local news organizations (LNO) to their coverage area, using New Jersey as a proxy for other local news markets. She then applies demographics characteristics to these maps in a first step to understand which communities are served and to what degree. Importantly, studying the local news ecosystem offers insight into the needs and interaction of information producers, content, and their audiences.
This study includes local news outlets such as newspapers, local television, and radio stations and digital native news outlets in New Jersey. In total, 779 local news providers are part of the analysis.
Stonbely’s mapping of local news outlets shows that communities characterized by less education and located in rural areas are less served. Further, the research also shows that Hispanic communities are particularly underserved by local news.
In contrast, communities with higher income and located in the suburbs are served by more local news organizations. Interestingly, education is not a significant variable. The level of education does not necessarily correlate to whether a community is more or less likely to have a greater number of local news originators.
More affluent municipalities are more likely to have a greater number of local news providers serving them. And, in turn, a community in the lowest income bracket (median household income of $25,000 to $50,000) is more than twice as likely to be a news desert as a news oasis.
It is not surprising that local news organization coverage correlates to a higher median household income. Increasingly, local news outlets are supported by those able to pay for their content. While, the audience-revenue model is key to sustainability, the author’s findings suggests that this model does not serve lower income communities because they may lack the ability to pay for news access.
And even for those supported by advertising, more affluent communities are likely to boast more potential advertisers as well as present appealing demographics to those advertisers. In either case, less affluent communities are not able to sustain local journalism, which in turn can expand the economic divide.
Municipalities with the greatest percentage of Hispanic residents are most likely to be news deserts. In fact, the likelihood of having a higher number of local news outlets increases as the percentage of the population that is Hispanic decreases.
As such, the research reveals that New Jersey’s largest minority is underserved (ethnic outlets were not available to map). While there are certainly some Hispanic news organizations, additional investment in local news would better support local markets.
Local news also helps keeps a watch on municipal spending. Stonbely reports that New Jersey municipalities spent $15,1 billion the year this research conducted. Almost half, $7.4 billion, was spent in municipalities with zero to two local news originators. Community journalism’s coverage of municipal spending is important in maintaining a transparent and honest local governance.
Road to sustainability
The findings here align well with the Local Journalism Sustainability Act introduced in July 2020 by Representative Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ), which offers an alternate revenue model to fund local news. The bill allows individual and business taxpayers tax credits in support of local newspapers and media. In addition, the bill allows for philanthropic funding to be put toward local news operational costs.
Stonbely’s work offers a granular and comparative view of New Jersey communities served by local news coverage. The work provides insights into how mapping local news organizations to communities can highlight opportunities for improvement and growth. This study reveals gaps that news outlets can fill to fuel new audience relationships. It also provides a stark look at the realities of finding a model that both sustains local journalism and the interests of the communities these outlets serve.