The rise of connected devices has fuelled increased access to the news via distributed environments, such as aggregators and social media. And yet, as this year’s Reuters Institute Digital News Report has also shown much of the news consumed still relies on content provided by well-established, broadcast- and print-born news brands. While distributed environments offer news brands increased reach and access to new audiences, there are concerns regarding a loss of control over content. This essay considers the future role for news brands in an increasingly multi-platform and fragmented environment. How worried should traditional brands be about these trends? And, at the heart of this, to what extent do people notice and value brands within distributed environments?
In exploring these questions, we will draw on qualitative insights from research conducted to inform this year’s Digital News Report.
The qualitative study covered four countries – the UK, US, Germany, and Spain – with a series of pre-tasked discussion groups allowing detailed investigation of people’s digital news habits and preferences. Fieldwork in each nation was split between groups of younger and older participants, encompassing digital users of various broadcast, print, and digital-born news brands.
Perceived roles of platforms and brands
When considering the future for news brands, it is important to firstly explore current perceptions of the roles of platforms and brands in an already fragmented environment. While we researched users of digital sources, they readily identified roles for both traditional and online formats. However, in line with broader trends, the vast majority observed declining use of print and, to a lesser extent, broadcast TV.
TV and print were most valued for news by older and less tech-engaged participants, who pointed to traditional strengths of the formats. They strongly associated TV news with offering an effortless, curated experience, and a direct visual connection with unfolding events.
Print was valued for providing immersive, detailed news consumption with the written word conveying authority. In a multi-platform environment, print and TV news brands were recognised as having wider cross-platform roles. The vast majority of participants valued the tried-and-tested capability and reach of well-established brands in delivering accurate news coverage, regardless of the platforms used.
Online news websites were seen to deliver up-to-the-minute coverage blending the detail of print with the visuals of TV. Moreover, the online services of print and TV brands benefit from already well-established news credentials.
The distributed social media environment proved more divisive. While it was valued for breaking news and content from established brands, there were misgivings expressed over accuracy of information and over the heated comments and debate that were often generated.
News usage in a multi-brand world
Multi-platform use has been accompanied by a growing array of news brands, fuelled by the emergence of digital-born services. Consumers also expect traditional brands to work across platforms, with digital allowing perspectives to be efficiently compared across sources. Most participants claimed to use a repertoire of providers, rather than sticking to a single, reliable brand. However, the abundance of news brands risks overwhelming consumers, with individual brands often associated with specific roles and content types.
The majority of participants had a go-to brand for learning about news stories and gathering key facts. These tended to be online services from favoured print brands and well-established broadcasters, with the BBC website a prominent example in the UK. Less avid news consumers often referred to headlines from email and internet brands to learn about news stories. Initial awareness among younger people often centred on social media, where breaking stories were shared or commented on by friends.
Verification and immersion
Several participants triangulated perspectives from a range of news brands to immerse in and corroborate developing stories. They were most likely to proactively compare sources when following serious and complex news stories, and particularly those where reporting could be influenced by political biases.
For example, participants frequently cited using multiple news sources to make sense of and to verify coverage of the refugee crisis. The story was particularly salient in Germany, with many seeking to compare sources to get a fuller and more accurate picture of unfolding events.
“I do that [compare sources] very often…for subjects that might be more controversial…I look at television, hear radio…get different impressions and then I make up my own mind. Not just blindly hear something.” (20-34, Germany)
“Well, I try to compare when, for example, Bild newspaper presents a headline…I’m quite careful. And then I check for what other sources such as Welt and so on…say about the same topic. I don’t think you have to jump on every bandwagon.” (35-54, Germany)
Content types and day parts
News brands were also perceived as having specific roles relating to the type of news story and the time of day consumed. For example, brands such as MailOnline and BuzzFeed were prominent sources for celebrity and entertainment stories. Established print and broadcast brands were more readily associated with harder news stories, and those demanding greater immersion. Platform also played a role, with TV and print often favoured for greater immersion in the evening or at weekends, with digital formats allowing news to be consumed throughout the day.
In addition, digital-born brands, such as BuzzFeed, Vice, and The Huffington Post were mainly associated with consumption via distributed environments. Rather than visiting websites or apps directly, most people noticed articles linked to on social media or through aggregators.
While digital-born brands were valued for their independence and centrist stances, they were generally less likely to be visited directly than established providers. For example, in Spain, brands like El Confidencial and El Español provided important counterpoints to sources with perceived establishment links, yet were not widely used as go-to destinations. Most people gravitated toward brands with established news-gathering credentials for initial exposure before seeking out other perspectives.
Value and recognition of news brands in distributed environments
The qualitative research demonstrated that news brands play a valued and, in many instances, cross-platform role in today’s fragmented news landscape. However, with news increasingly consumed via distributed environments, questions remain regarding future engagement. In particular, to what extent do people notice news brands in distributed environments? And what value is placed in news brands versus distributor brands?
Awareness and use of aggregators was greatest among more avid and proactive news followers, with the less tech-engaged least likely to appreciate their role and value. With consumers often keen to triangulate perspectives across news brands, aggregators provide an efficient means of doing this. The less tech-engaged typically failed to appreciate this and focused on the perceived effort of customising services and the possible content overload generated.
The news aggregators discussed broadly fell into two categories: highly customisable app-based services such as Apple News and Flipboard; and ‘websites’ like Google News and Yahoo News that allowed users to search by story or topic across multiple providers.
Brands were more likely to standout on customisable services, where users had specifically pre-selected news brands and categories of interest when registering. Within such environments, active news consumers expect to see pre-selected brands, which are often well-signposted in visually rich interfaces.
“And I also look at it [the news brand] if it’s on Apple News, where the source is coming from? So if it’s from legit sites like CNN or sources that I went through before, I usually click on them.” (20-34, US)
The role of brands in search-based aggregators is generally less clear. People typically search for specific stories of interest, and attention-grabbing headlines can outweigh brands. Brands can also be less prominent within text-heavy search results, and their importance can vary by the type of story. For example, recognised and trusted brands are more important when using aggregators to immerse in serious news stories, while headlines can be a bigger draw for lighter content.
“Oh the brand is the number one thing for me. So if I’m using an aggregator and I’m seeing the same topic several times I’m going to go to the brand that I know. I know this sounds like a commercial for the [New York] Times but it’s usually the Times or the Washington Post or something like that. Something that I know.” (35-54, US)
The role and perceived value of news brands in social media is more complex, and depends on the active or passive news-following mindsets of users. As summarised in the diagram below, the role of news brands needs to be considered alongside the impact of headlines and sharers.
With news generally not the main focus of social media use, specific headlines and accompanying images grab most initial attention. News brands are most likely to be noticed by users who have actively followed or ‘liked’ specific brands. People expect to see content from sources that they have followed, with recognition fuelled by their existing engagement with the brands.
“Newspapers on my Facebook page: I get things on my newsfeed from them all the time from certain news resources that I ‘like’…I’m always seeing things on my newsfeed that I’ll click on that way.” (20-34, US)
Moreover, when news brands are followed on social media, they effectively become both the source and the sharer of the story. This dual role delivers greater visual prominence for news brands, with users not required to further mentally filter content in relation to the friend or contact sharing the story. Indeed, where stories are shared by friends, users can primarily consider the person’s knowledge of the topic and motivations for sharing, rather than dwelling on the brand.
People are also more likely to devote attention to brands where more serious news stories have been shared. In these instances, established brands add credibility to news consumed via social media platforms, and can be actively used for further immersion and verification.
“Firstly it would be the story, the interest. Is it something I’d like to read? And then I’d look at the source…is it from the BBC or Sky, or just a friend of mine that posted it?” (35-54, UK)
“So first does the headline resonate with me? Is this something I would be interested in reading? If so, what’s the source? Okay, then who shared this? Because they shared it for a reason. Why did they share it?” (35-54, US)
Those passively following news via social media – and particularly the younger users – are generally less likely to notice the brands accompanying the stories shared. In addition, for lighter news, the reputation of the brand is less important than the attention-grabbing, clickbait credentials of the content.
“Those of us who have a tradition of those brands and are familiar with some of them, yes, but the younger people who are starting to use social media never look to see if it’s ABC or El País, they look at it on social media and that’s it.” (20-34, Spain)
The prominence of news brands also varies across social media services. For example, in Facebook, news brands can be recessive and standout less than the accompanying headline and image. Nonetheless, brands do continue to have a greater mental presence in Facebook when they are actively followed by users. Brands can be more noticeable on social media services such as Twitter, where prominent brand logos and more active following enhance recognition.
Many participants, and particularly the more active news followers, highly valued the presence of well-established news brands on social media. With traditional news brands having earned people’s trust over several years, they signal accuracy and credibility in an emerging distributed environment.
However, with content from news brands also passively and incidentally received via social media, over time the platform itself can become a trusted news destination with less credit going to the news brands. Indeed, younger and currently less avid news followers already place significant trust in the social media platforms that are their principal news destinations. It is essential, therefore, that established news brands maximise their prominence in distributed environments and continue to develop long-standing, valued relationships with consumers.
The qualitative research shows that established and trusted news brands play a valued role and that people want this to continue. However, the visibility of brands varies across distributed environments. News brands are important in situations where news is typically actively consumed, and lend credibility to both the content and the aggregator. In particular, news brands achieve greatest prominence in aggregators where active selections of brands and topics of interest are made.
Likewise, where news is actively followed in social media, brands are important, yet their visual prominence varies across different services. Social media works particularly well for breaking news, which can be provisional and raw. The trust and authority of news brands can be of less importance at this initial stage, although they play a valuable role in corroborating and immersing in stories if they are pursued further.
News can also be received by serendipity in social media. In platforms where cues to the news brand are less prominent the social media brand itself can develop trust over time, with less credit going to the traditional news brands.
As a result, it is crucial that news brands maximise standout and recognition within distributed environments. By heightening prominence, news brands are likely to gain credit for content in the long term and to appeal to both existing and new audiences. In this respect, traditional news brands face similar challenges to digital-born brands in converting exposure to content via distributed environments to audiences using them as go-to destinations for news.