New models, old skills
One consequence of the shift in business models is the focus on developing loyalty and retention, which is why newsletters are making a comeback, with more publishers reclaiming them from marketing teams. One new trend for 2018 was the development of pop-up newsletters, designed to drive episodic engagement. CBC ran an eight-week series on the Royal wedding called the Royal Fascinator. Politico experimented with an eight-week series of explainers and tools aimed at educating younger voters. The format engaged over 8,000 people with open rates of over 55%.
Pop-up newsletters – with a podcast sensibility
Optimising for Google has also been another ‘back to the future’ trend for 2018 with publishers noting a bigger proportion of their traffic now coming from news search and AMP pages in 2018, as well as from the new tab on Chrome browsers, which now displays personalised news sites. Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) skills will become ever more important in 2019 following Google’s decision to put a news feed (called Discover) on the main search page of all mobile browser for the first time. This will roll out gradually but will have a significant impact on news referrals.
GDPR – was it worth all the fuss?
This time last year, media companies were stressing out about the impact of new European privacy legislation on businesses. So, did GDPR clean up the worst excesses of ad tech and give consumers back control of their data? Not exactly …
GDPR has led to bigger, complex privacy notices, and more digital clutter
GDPR forced publishers to clean up their permissions and processes (a good thing), but the wider benefits are harder to see. In practice, the messages and overlays were too confusing and complex for most people to engage with, so the majority just ticked ‘yes to all’. So unwanted emails continue, third-party cookies continue to be served and consumers are still routinely targeted across the web programmatically. One unexpected side-effect was that GDPR also broke the internet with more than 1,000 US publishers, including the Los Angeles Times, choosing to block European readers rather than face the risk of massive fines. Nine months on, most publishers report little impact on their bottom line (even though many spent significant sums preparing for the new regulation).
GDPR implementation may be done and dusted but the core issues around privacy won’t go away and better and more imaginative solutions will be needed in the future. Now all eyes are on the US where a similar privacy proposal is in play.
Nic Newman –
Senior Research Associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism
Technology as an enabler for better journalism
The past year has also shown how technology can help journalists uncover the truth – something we’ve highlighted in previous predictions reports. Perhaps the best example came from BBC Africa Eye’s investigation into the killing of women and children in Cameroon. The team used open-source technology, collaborative human networks, combined with tools like Google Earth to show where and when the atrocity took place – and to finger the likely culprits. The resulting TV programme and Twitter thread will deservedly win awards this year.
Key Trends and Predictions for 2019
In this section we explore key themes for the year ahead, integrating data and comments from our publishers’ survey. For each theme, we lay out a few suggestions about what might happen next.
Platforms under pressure
Information Disorder Spreads to Closed Networks, Platforms Struggle to Restore Reputation
Our Reuters Institute Digital News Report has tracked the growing importance of WhatsApp and other messaging platforms particularly in developing countries (see chart below). Around 120m people use WhatsApp in Brazil and with politics deeply polarised this closed network has increasingly turned into a political battlefield. The Brazilian elections were something of a test case for whether it is possible to track and debunk misleading information in WhatsApp.
WhatsApp has become a key network for information and disinformation in Brazil
Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2014-18, Q12b. Which, if any, of the following, have you used in the last week for news? Base: Approx 2000 each year. (Urban sample)
The Comprova project, an alliance of 24 newsrooms, started a WhatsApp ‘tip line’ where ordinary people could send information to be checked. At its peak, it was dealing with 2,000 messages a day, but the project could only check a fraction of those. In total it managed to check 147 successful debunks – an impressive task but just a drop in the ocean compared with the scale of the problem.
Claire Wardle, who runs First Draft which supported the Comprova project, as well as others around the world, says the nature of the problem has changed. Misinformation is no longer about completely false news, but rather a constant drip, drip, drip of ‘misleading content designed to deepen divisions in society’. In this context, she argues, newsrooms may need to change their approach this year.
Fact-checking and debunking may need to be supplemented by a greater understanding of how stories are spread and by whom. First Draft research shows that misleading content is often discussed first in the anonymous web (4chan and Discord), then co-ordinated in closed or semi-closed networks (WhatsApp or Facebook groups), is then socialised in conspiracy communities (Reddit forums, YouTube channels), before being seeded in a co-ordinated way in public networks like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Broadcast media and newspapers can then often make the problem worse by picking up and amplifying these claims. In September, social media scholar dana boyd warned that the media are being ‘played’ and need to be more aware of the role they can play in giving credence to unfounded claims (e.g. that the Parkland students were ‘crisis actors’).
Platform approaches are developing fast
Facebook has deployed advanced technology as well as increased human resources to identify and remove fake accounts. It has tightened up rules on political and ‘issue-based’ advertising with new requirements for authentication and clarity about the affiliation of those taking out ads. It has continued to work with fact-checkers to identify problematic content, claiming that the visibility of identified content has reduced by 80%. At the same time, it has boosted the prominence of ‘trusted news sources’ in its algorithms, based on surveys of Facebook users. Overall, the impact of these changes is hard to assess though a study from the University of Michigan suggests significantly reduced engagement levels with unreliable sites in the US since 2017. A French study suggests engagement with ‘dubious’ sites has halved in France since 2015. The company has helped fund wider initiatives such as the News Literacy Project and the News Integrity project.
WhatsApp has tried to reduce the virality of false news by imposing limits on forwarding from 250 people to a maximum of 20. In India, the limits are even tighter while a ‘quick forward’ button next to media messages has been removed. Full-page newspaper and TV spots were taken out in India to warn of the dangers of sharing fake news. Expect a ramping up of this activity ahead of elections this year.
YouTube has implemented new measures to counter conspiracy videos and false news. Trusted news sources are now prioritised around breaking news, while it plans to add more contextual information on news sourcing and around historic conspiracy theories like the ‘fake moon landings’. YouTube is also attacking economic incentives by marking problematic videos un-monetisable and enlisting prominent YouTubers to help with digital literacy.
Twitter has clamped down on fake accounts and introduced new ways of identifying bots impersonating humans. Twitter now challenges around 9m accounts a week that it suspects could be automated to prove that there is a human behind them. In the US mid-term elections, it removed over 10,000 accounts and introduced a new labelling system for official candidates.
I think we’ll learn in 2019 whether platforms are serious in their attempts to combat misinformation or work with news organizations to more clearly label trusted sources. I’d like to believe they are, and the teams they have working on these issues are coming at them conscientiously. It’ll take real resourcing to give these efforts teeth.
Senior leader at a top US publisher