Research Associate, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism
The UK media have played a leading part in exposing the shortcomings of tech companies over internet safety, privacy, and fake news. Meanwhile, politicians are looking into misinformation and the role of platforms in undermining journalism.
The Observer/Guardian and Channel 4 News revealed that Cambridge Analytica used information from more than 50 million Facebook profiles to build a system that could target US voters. Earlier, investigations by The Times embarrassed Google, showing that ads for reputable brands had appeared alongside YouTube videos advocating extremism, as well as those featuring children and sexualised content.
Meanwhile a committee of British MPs has been investigating fake news and demanded information from Facebook and Twitter about any Russian activity during the EU referendum. Pressure for some kind of regulation is growing, even as our data show usage of social media usage for news starting to go into reverse (-2).
The power of platforms and changing consumer habits were among the factors leading the government to set up a review into the sustainability of high-quality journalism. UK newspaper print circulations have halved since 2001, with the average revenue from digital users less than 10% of a print reader. The review is due to be published by early 2019.
But many publishers aren’t waiting for government solutions. Quality newspapers are increasingly trying to charge online readers directly. The Telegraphhas put most of its premium content behind a paywall, and is looking to increase revenue from personal finance and sport. The Guardian relaunched as a tabloid in January and refocused its online strategy on donations and membership. It says it has 800,000 paying supporters; reader revenue now outstrips advertising; losses have halved in the last financial year, and it is hoping to break even by 2019. The Financial Times topped 900,000 subscribers in 2017, three-quarters of them digital. And The Times and Sunday Times have more than 450,000 print and digital customers, plus 2m registered users who have exchanged email addresses for a limited number of free articles. Despite these moves, our data show that fewer than one in ten (7%) pay for online news, one of the lowest figures in our report.
Mass-market and local publishers find it harder to charge for online news and are pursuing alternative strategies including cost-cutting and consolidation. In one of the most significant newspaper mergers for years, the owner of the left-leaning Mirror group bought right-wing tabloids the Daily Express and the Daily Star for £200m. The papers will maintain their editorial independence, but pooling reporters in areas like sport may save £20m each year. Local news providers like Johnston Press are looking to save money by sharing content via regional hubs. This year also sees the deployment of 150 new local democracy reporters. They will be employed by local newspapers but funded by the BBC at a cost of £8m — part of a range of initiatives in which local media gets access to BBC local video and data journalism.1
It has been another difficult year for the BBC with its Director of News leaving to start a ‘slow news’ website. It was also criticised over its Brexit coverage and was at the centre of a row over equal pay. A prominent BBC journalist resigned from her post when it emerged she was being paid considerably less than men in similar roles. Carrie Gracie accused the BBC of a ‘secretive and illegal pay culture’. Coincidentally, new legislation forced all major companies to reveal gender pay gaps. Women at the Telegraph Media Group were paid 35% less on average than men.2 The BBC figure was 9.3%, against a UK average of 18%. Fixing these imbalances will be difficult when the BBC has savings targets of £80m.
Despite this, the BBC remains Europe’s most successful public broadcaster with impressive weekly reach online (43%) and via TV and radio (64%). Britain’s vocal and partisan national newspapers have often led the debate over Brexit, particularly in the absence of a strong government.The Guardian’s (15%) online weekly reach overtook the Daily Mail (14%), while the Sun (7%) has been fastest-growing after abandoning its paywall.
Awareness of alternative or partisan websites such as Breitbart (19%) and the Canary (16%) is relatively high, but weekly usage is very low (just 2% for each), not least because the UK’s opinion-filled newspaper websites fill the gap.
The continuing decline of TV and print news has been evident for the last six years with social media growth finally levelling off. The smartphone has become the most used device for news, overtaking the computer/laptop.
Trust is particularly low in social media (12%), not surprising given widespread media coverage of fake news and misinformation. The gap between overall trust in news and trust in favourite sources has grown, suggesting increased political polarisation. The BBC is the most trusted news organisation in the UK with tabloid papers amongst the least trusted.