Senior Research Associate, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism
The UK’s prolonged and tortuous exit from the European Union has dominated the news agenda over the last year, generating widespread Brexit fatigue. Meanwhile politicians have been flexing their muscles over the regulation of big tech platforms, the role of the BBC, and the need to sustain quality journalism.
More than a third (35%) say they often or sometimes avoid the news in the UK and the majority of these cite Brexit as the main reason. Avoiders say coverage negatively affects their mood or they feel powerless to affect events. Partly as a result, and with the exception of television (+5pp), there has been no Brexit bounce for the media, with online usage flat and newspapers on the slide.
Popular newspaper brands have suffered double digit falls in print circulation with the Daily Star (-18%), Daily Mirror (-13%), and Daily Express (-12%) hardest hit 1. These titles are now owned by Reach plc, which has merged some editorial operations to cut costs by over £10m.
Broadsheet titles have also suffered significant year on year declines in print but are pinning their hopes on new online revenue. The Financial Times hit its target of a million paying subscribers a year ahead of schedule, while The Times and Sunday Times have around half a million paying customers with the majority now digital-only. And after years of making substantial losses, the Guardian announced a small operating profit for 2018-19. More than a million people worldwide have contributed to the Guardian in the last three years, with 650,000 currently paying to support the publication on an ongoing basis2. A new ‘slow news’ venture, Tortoise News, launched in April with 2,500 members – 40% of its early backers are under 30.
By contrast, advertising-supported media has been affected by widespread job cuts – including around a dozen at digital-born BuzzFeed. But it is the local and regional sector that has been hit hardest with the net closure of 245 local news titles in the last 13 years according to Press Gazette research. One of the UK’s largest publishers, debt-laden Johnston Press, collapsed in November 2018, though most titles continue under a new company owned by its creditors (JPI media).
Against this background, a government-appointed review, headed by Dame Frances Cairncross, argued that local news coverage could disappear unless the government provides direct financial support. Her report, published in February 2019, recommended the introduction of a range of different direct and indirect public subsidies to support high-quality journalism and that Google and Facebook’s approach to news should be scrutinised by a new regulator.
Further pressure on the platforms came with a highly critical report by a parliamentary committee of MPs that had been looking into disinformation. The committee accused Facebook of purposefully obstructing its inquiry and failing to tackle attempts by Russia to manipulate elections.
And in April the government announced its plans to fine or block tech platforms if they fail to tackle ‘online harms’ such as terrorist propaganda, child abuse, and other distressing material. The issue captured public attention with the case of 14-year-old Molly Russell who took her own life after looking at posts about suicide on her Instagram account. Molly’s father told the media that he holds the social media giant partly responsible for her death. By this time next year, the UK could have among the most stringent regulation of online platforms in the world, even as critics warn about the potential implications for free speech.
The BBC also faces new scrutiny from both politicians and commercial rivals. Its online news site came under fire from commercial rivals for publishing too much ‘soft news’ and for an obsession with younger audiences. It has been accused of wasting millions on promoting a new podcast-filled app (BBC Sounds) and neglecting its core speech radio channel (Radio 4). Meanwhile licence fee income is being squeezed by lack of interest from the Netflix generation and a government plan to give free TV licences to the over 75s.
Further pressure comes from calls to increase BBC funding for the local democracy reporting scheme, which has supported more than 130 new jobs in commercial newsrooms, and delivered more than 50,000 stories in its first year.
More publishers are getting involved in audio. The Guardian, The Economist, and the FT have launched or rebranded daily news podcasts in the last year. The BBC is investing heavily in smart speakers and AI while the Guardian has set up an experimental Voice Lab.
TV news reach has started to decline but a key parliamentary Brexit vote during our survey period showed how people still turn to the medium at times of crisis. In terms of online news, the British are becoming increasingly dependent on smartphones.
Trust in the news has fallen over 11 percentage points since 2015. Even the most trusted brands like the BBC are seen by many as pushing or suppressing agendas – especially over polarising issues like Brexit and climate change. Broadcasters have higher levels of trust than tabloids or digital-born brands.
- ABC figures Feb. 2018—Feb. 2019 via Press Gazette ↩
- BBC News: Guardian records first operating profit since 1998, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-48111464 ↩