Threats abound in the future of news

What is the future of news and why should you care? Because it’s about more than newspaper sales and the decline of print media — it’s about democracy, writes Joyce Fegan

According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report of 2018, 27% of Irish people are now considered “digitalists”, meaning that they consume their news online. This is an increase of four percentage points from 2017. In comparison with “traditionalists” — those who get their news from newspapers — that figure also stood at 27% in 2018, but it was a drop of 4pp from 31% on the year previous.

What about everyone else? A total of 46% of people report being “half and half”. The report on Ireland was compiled by the Institute of Future Media and Journalism in DCU.

But why does any of this matter? There are two reasons. One is obviously that — and this is not news — newspaper sales as a major source of revenue for a publisher are in sharp decline. Secondly, ad spend is going online, but it’s not going to news publishers; they are finding it increasingly difficult to keep afloat. A free media is essential to democratic society, but not if nobody can afford to publish.

Associate professor Jane Suiter, from DCU’s School of Communications, the director of the Institute of Future Media and Journalism, says there are two issues at hand.

News is now a commodity that people expect to get for free and, therefore, publishers are becoming increasingly dependant on ads — however, Prof Suiter argues that ads will not save journalism.

“Ads are not going to save news,” she says. “We always had a dual model of some ads and some others [direct sales of newspapers]. But the problem is, the big brands, which is where the big brands are, they are not going to be in smaller places.

“So they’re going to be in the big marquee brands. If you look at it, even Glamour magazine is going online. They had the huge brands with the huge ad spends and the glossy paper and all of that kind of thing.”

Brands want to spend their money on ads that will guarantee sales and the likes of Facebook, through its micro-targeting of consumers, can achieve that, whereas publishers cannot.

I think Facebook and Google between them take up about 80% of the digital ad market and the digital ad market is now the larger portion of the ad market overall,” says Prof Suiter.

“So that’s why all sorts of publishers all around the world are going out of business and can no longer publish online because they were based on this adverting market that Facebook and Google own now.

“Facebook has the ultimate in ad delivery where people are being targeted, they’re micro-targeted based on personality types, micro-targeted based on their feelings that day, based on their attitudes, based on their values. Their demographics is almost one of the last things they’re being targeted on. That’s just gobbling up the whole thing [ad spend].

“That’s basically what Facebook is — it’s an enormous ad-hosting company. It’s a massive ad sales company, that’s what it is, and it happens to have a platform that does some good connecting people, and does a lot of bad in terms of destabilising democratic values around the world, but it’s all in the name of selling ads.”

The changes in adverting, thanks to the rapid advancement of technology, is playing a major role in the future of news.

It used to be that you put an ad in a paper or magazine and people would see it. Now, the programmatic advertising market is delivering ads to the person you want.

For example, if you are a new coffee shop in a small town and you want to get the word out about your opening, you could pay for a sponsored post or ad on Facebook and detail exactly the area and the age, gender, and interests of the person who you want to see your ad. The new digital landscape allows businesses to connect far better with their so-called ideal or target customer, and spending your advertising budget with Facebook or Google can seem more attractive than taking out an ad on a news website.

“Even if I’m signed into the Irish Times and they’re looking at me going from one story to another, they don’t really know much about me that they can sell to an advertiser, whereas Facebook has that,” says Prof Suiter.

Another key issue affecting the future of news is that it is now a commodity. Furthermore, as a small English-speaking country, Irish publishers face even more difficulties.

“It’s very difficult at the moment,” says Prof Suiter. “So the actual provision of the basic news, so what the weather is going to be like tomorrow, what a politician has said, that’s now a commodity, so that’s free. People won’t pay for that.

We’re in a particularly difficult position in Ireland because we’re English-speaking. So we can get the very basic commodity journalism from the New York Times or the Guardian or the BBC.

“Whereas if you’re in Denmark, there are not that many outlets giving you local Danish news. So it’s really difficult for Irish media outlets. So that kind of basic news provision is just a commodity and it’s something that is free and people will not pay for because they can get it for free.”

As a former journalist and now an academic carrying out in-depth research in the area, Prof Suiter believes three things are needed to ensure the future of news and therefore democracy: Regulation of online platforms, governments supporting credible publishers through the tax system, and building citizens’ resilience to ‘fake news’ with media literacy programmes.

Paying and possibility

People are willing to pay for news. Payment for online news has increased over each of the last three years in Ireland, reaching 12% in 2018, according to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report. Younger consumers are more likely to pay for news than older ones and the rise is particularly marked in the 25-to 34-year-old age group (19%) and among 35- to 44-year-olds (15%).

Willingness to pay for news was still highest in households with gross income in excess of €70,000 but has increased in households with income between €30,000 and €49,000.

In international terms, Ireland remains mid-table, above the UK (7%) but below the US (17%).

Furthermore, more than 66% of Irish news consumers make ongoing payments of one sort or another to digital companies which include a news service (77%) the same as the EU average but below the US (84%) and UK (87%). The most likely method of payment was as part of a regular subscription.

Prof Suiter says three payment options are working well globally, when you move away from depending on adverting revenue. However, news publishers need to add extra value other than basic news provision, in order to attract money from consumers.

“A lot of the long reads [on the New York Times] are in behind [the paywall] or the really good explainers or big scoops,” she says. “Then when they got a particularly big scoop, that was free, but that was to bring more people in [as a subscriber]. The good news is that some of those things seem to be paying but they’re obviously huge, the New York Times.

The Guardian is voluntary, you just kind of donate and people said it wouldn’t work and it is kind of working.

Pointing to China, she says there is a tipping system, while in Canada, news subscriptions are written off in your end-of-year tax filing. She says these are interesting ways of bringing in non-advertising revenue.

“In China they have a tipping system,” says Prof Suiter. “So if you want to buy [an article], you can actually just pay 50c to read that article. So you don’t have to go and pay the whole year’s subscription and that’s working. You can mess around with that and give different options to people, because it has to be paid for.”

In Canada, news is supported by the government indirectly. This is something Prof Suiter thinks needs to be done in order to support the media.

“There has to be some form of support there,” she says. “That’s why the Canadians have come up with a way to support journalism through the tax system. We need to realise that supporting sound journalistic principles and values is something that is essential to democracy. Not putting up the Vat rate for newspapers, you know, that’s like sticking plaster over a wound.

“The Canadians have done much more, where you can write-off the money you spend on news in tax. They want to prioritise healthy news. The government isn’t saying what’s good or bad, and you can be as critical as you want to be of the government.”

In order to bring in non-ad revenue, Prof Suiter believes individual publishers need to find “compelling” ways of doing so.

Trust

In Ireland, people believe the news can be trusted. “As in the three previous years, more news consumers agreed in 2018, that most news can be trusted most of the time than the reverse assertion,” states the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2018.

Slightly under a quarter of those surveyed distrusted the news, with a similar percentage remaining neutral on the issue. Over half trusted the news.

There was however, scepticism when it came to news on social media.

“There was scepticism about news on social and search where only 19% felt they could trust news on social and 33% on search,” says the report. “This perhaps reflects the publicity around Cambridge Analytica and concerns around Brexit and the US presidential election.”

Declining trust is not such a bad thing, argues Prof Suiter.

“We can now think more critically,” she says. “We wouldn’t want to have 100% trust in all news media. Some of the trust declining makes sense because it’s critical, but it’s when it kind of turns over into cynicism, when they go about politicians, ‘oh they’re all the same’, or ‘journalists can’t be trusted’.

“There’s a difference between the ability to critically engage and realising you need to be able to ask questions and not blindly trust and then moving over to proper cynicism where you just don’t give things a chance at all.

“Some of the reasons they don’t trust a lot of it is because they believe there’s political and commercial influence.

“Ireland wouldn’t be one of the worst countries [for lack of trust], but still there is a bit of cynicism around the amount of political and commercial influence in the news media here.”

Threats to democracy

Key issues that have emerged as threats to news and democracy are troll farms, which spread disinformation on social media, and the use of closed groups to disseminate false news.

“That whole area of disinformation is huge and we’re very much running behind,” says Prof Suiter.

“If you look at the Trump election, Twitter found 10m tweets that were problematic and 9m came from one troll farm, the Russian Internet Agency in St Petersburg, so 9m out of 10m were from that one troll farm.”

However, now that that behaviour has been detected, those trolls are operating in more refined and discreet ways.

“If you look at the kinds of things they’re doing now, they’re getting much more sophisticated,” says Prof Suiter. “They have accounts that look like Kardashian fan accounts. They have accounts that look like they’re feminist #MeToo accounts. So they use these things to build huge audiences and then start putting disinformation into those.

“About two or three weeks ago, a whole load of these accounts were suspended because it was eventually discovered that they were emanating from St Petersburg, despite the clever things that were put on, the VPNs [virtual private networks] to make them look like they came from elsewhere. So that’s what they do.”

Most concerning is the use of closed groups such as WhatsApp, which are beyond the eyes of scrutiny.

Facebook co-founder, chairman, and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg prepares to testify in Washington last year. Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram are all owned by the one company. Picture: Chip Somodevilla/Getty

WhatsApp was behind the Brazilian elections,” says Prof Suiter. “Here, we just have small WhatsApp groups, maybe your kids’ school or your friends or your family, whereas there, people were buying up large numbers of telephone numbers and putting them into a group and you get Groupon codes and things like this if you stayed.

“Then they pushed out a load of disinformation ahead of the Brazilian elections. No one can actually see what’s in WhatsApp because it’s all encrypted content. So a lot of the really bad content now is moving to these things like WhatsApp, which is also owned by Facebook. Facebook say they can’t see what’s in WhatsApp because of the entwined encryption. People are sharing in smaller, closed groups; that means regulators and policy makers can’t get in there to see what’s happening.”

Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram are all owned by the same company, a monopoly that calls for concern and

attention. Prof Suiter believes that regulation is a must, as is education, in order to support news and democracy.

“Regulation is always going to be behind technology — that’s why what we have to do is build resilience among the citizens (through media literacy), so that’s why we need to support good content,” she says.

“You have to regulate and you have to do something about it, but you can’t say that’s going to be the only answer. What you have to do is promote credible content, so that means you have to actually support the credible news industry, you have to absolutely do that.”

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