This week, FuJo in conjunction with the BAI, launched the annual Digital News Report (Ireland) 2019. Each year, as part of the Reuters Institute’s International Digital News Report, consumers are surveyed to understand how news is used and valued in Ireland and globally.
This year’s report comes against the global backdrop of rising populism and polarisation as well as intensifying concerns about giant tech companies and their impact on society and, indeed, democracy. In Ireland, some of these concerns are not as pronounced as elsewhere, but there is an awareness of the difficult context created by Brexit, Trump, populist political rhetoric, and the spread of disinformation and hate speech facilitated by the tech giants.
In confronting these trends, Irish news organizations are challenged to report events without simultaneously playing a role in amplifying such negative content. Overall, it is clear that political polarisation has created a more polarised news environments with diminishing levels of trust. When combined with rising volumes of disinformation and the deliberate attempts of some to question all journalistic veracity, these conditions raise many questions about how to deliver fair and balanced reporting that underpins rather than undermines the common good. In a further challenge, news organisations must do this in a context where their business model is undermined by the sheer size of the digital giants and their ability to hoover up the vast bulk of digital advertising revenues.
Last year, Facebook announced major algorithm changes that decreased the amount of journalism appearing in its news feeds. At the same time, there is a shift towards news discussion within closed or private apps such as WhatsApp. This may, in some instances, make it harder for disinformation to spread, but it also makes it harder for researchers and regulators to track and tackle the problem. More broadly in the news media sector, there are ongoing questions about the extent to which journalism is holding the powerful to account and, separately, there are ongoing efforts to innovate and find new ways of reaching audiences. Irish news producers are taking advantage of the Irish love of audio to pivot towards podcasts. This is a promising development although the ultimate contribution of podcasts to the bottom line is still unclear. The three sections of this report aim to cast light on these key issues with additional reflections provided in the essay comments by the authors.
In summary, some of the most important findings from our 2019 research include:
• There is only a small increase in the numbers paying for online news, which is now at 12 per cent. Nevertheless, this represents a slow and steady climb over the past four years. The under 35s are most likely to pay and that number has also been increasing slightly. However, the Irish figure is well below countries in the Nordic region where 34 per cent of Norwegians and 27 per cent of Swedes pay for news. In the coming years, it will be interesting to see whether the arrival of Mediahuis introduces any changes that impact on online payment figures in Ireland.
• Regarding online subscriptions generally, the vast majority only have one online subscription, which suggests that winner takes all dynamics are dominant in this area. Many prefer to spend their limited budget on entertainment subscriptions (Netflix/Spotify) rather than news even though some 50 per cent of our sample came across advertisements for subscriptions
when trying to read online news.
• In terms of online platforms, Facebook is the most popular for accessing news in Ireland and across the EU. Interestingly, WhatsApp use is higher in Ireland than the EU average. However, the numbers are still relatively low at 15 per cent compared with non-Western countries such as Brazil (53%) Malaysia (50%), and South Africa (49%). Despite the growing popularity of closed messaging apps, few users are abandoning Facebook entirely. It remains the dominant social network and is by far the most important social network for news.
• Concern about misinformation and disinformation is growing. Some 61 per cent of Irish respondents are concerned about distinguishing what is real or fake on the internet. Although this is well below the UK (70%) and US (67%), it is much higher than in Germany (38%) and the Netherlands (31%).
• Some 48 per cent trust the news in general while 55 per cent agree that they trust the news media they themselves use. Trust in the news found via search (31%) and social media (17%) is extremely low.
• This concern about the quality of online information may be good for trusted news brands. Some 32 per cent say they have started relying on more ‘reputable’ sources of news while a further 22 per cent say they have stopped using sources that had a dubious reputation. This underlines the importance of publishers being careful with their reputation in terms of publishing high quality content.
• Some 59 per cent of Irish respondents believe the news media is doing a good job in helping them to understand the news. This is around the same level as UK respondents, but above the EU average (48%). Over two thirds (68%) believe the media are good at keeping people up to date and only 38 per cent believe the news media is too negative, this is lower than the EU average (39%) and the UK (46%). However, less than half (40%) think the media do a good job in holding the rich and powerful people to account, which is below both the EU average (42%) and the UK (42%).
• More people say they are actively avoiding the news (32%) than when we last asked this question two years ago. In the UK, avoidance is driven by boredom, anger, or sadness over Brexit.
• The smartphone continues to grow in importance for news with over half (56%) now using the device to access news weekly, well ahead of the EU average (50%) and the UK (49%).
• The growth of the smartphone has also been driving the popularity of podcasts, especially among younger age groups. More than a third of our combined sample (37%) say they have consumed at least one podcast over the last month, well ahead of the UK at just 21 per cent.