Last week, Reuters laid out what is working in media and what isn’t. It’s a great, free report, running to 144 pages. Anyone who’s interested in what people really think of the media should read as much of it as they can.
But there were four main findings I thought were particularly interesting, especially with Ireland in mind.
1. Most fake news comes from mainstream media
This is one you won’t see reported much, for obvious reasons.
“Most respondents believe that publishers (75pc) and platforms (71pc) have the biggest responsibility to fix problems of fake and unreliable news,” says the report. “This is because much of the news they complain about relates to biased or inaccurate news from the mainstream media rather than news that is completely made up or distributed by foreign powers.”
Ouch. But touche. People aren’t stupid. They know that we, in the mainstream media, often frame reports in ways to suit our own ideological, political or commercial ends. Even when the conclusion is pretty debatable.
And it’s ubiquitous in private media, from Fox News and the Daily Mail to MSNBC and The Guardian. This is why political commentators last week called the succession in editorship of the Daily Mail as the UK’s most important political event of 2018.
After all, who was more responsible for Brexit? Facebook or the Daily Mail? What entity was more influential in electing Trump? Facebook or Fox News?
Can we honestly say there was nothing misleading or biased in those organs’ reporting on those issues?
(This is not to solely pick those individual news outlets. All private media do this to some extent, from The New York Times to local radio stations. We all, to a lesser or greater degree, seek to bolster partisan world views through our reporting.)
Another indication is a secondary finding in the report, that a staggeringly small number of people (23pc) say they trust news from outside their preferred, chosen outlets. When people see a different spin on something, the omissions or embellishments in the reporting process become more acutely visible.
2. Online-only news brands still have some way to go to be ‘trusted’
The Reuters Institute Digital News Report section measured “the most and least trusted brands” in Ireland and 36 other countries. “We find that brands with a broadcasting background and long heritage tend to be trusted most, with popular newspapers and digital-born brands trusted least.”
It went on to name names. The five most “trusted” news brands in Ireland, in order, are: BBC News, RTE News, Irish Times, Irish Independent, TV3 News. At the other end of its “trust” scale (of 15 news brands names) were: TheJournal.ie, the Daily Mail, Huffington Post, Her.ie/Joe.ie, Yahoo News.
(One noticeable side note here is that the same survey names TheJournal.ie as Ireland’s most used online news source, narrowly ahead of RTE.ie and Independent.ie. So “trust” and “usage” may not be indelibly linked.)
3. Radio is becoming irrelevant to young people
If young people listen to broadcast speech, it’s increasingly likely to be via podcasts. This is especially the case in Ireland, the report finds.
“Young people are far more likely to use podcasts than listen to speech radio,” it says. “Podcasts are twice as popular in Ireland (38pc) as they are in the UK (18pc) despite the BBC’s extensive, well-promoted and high-quality podcast output.”
To many older people, podcasts are like YouTube video blogs: they’ve heard of them, but it’s a world they know nothing of.
And yet, over a third of Irish people listen to a podcast.
This makes total sense in a world that increasingly uses on-demand services such as Netflix and Spotify.
No-one doubts the reach and power of RTE’s The Marian Finucane Show or other popular radio programmes. But ask them about Blindboy Boatclub and they’ll look at you blankly. Yet Blindboy, of the Rubber Bandits, has an estimated 100,000 weekly listeners. He is relatively unacknowledged.
Some of Ireland’s most successful media growth stories are in podcasts.
Second Captains, the five-man team who used to work on Newstalk’s Off The Ball, now have over 10,000 paying monthly subscribers (at €5 each). They have far more free subscribers on top of that. From that base, they build other revenue streams such as regular events.
There aren’t many other media companies in Ireland matching this kind of growth.
For full disclosure, I have some exposure to this. Six months ago, I started a weekly tech podcast (The Big Tech Show) for Independent.ie. It gets around 9,000 weekly plays (on average).
That’s pretty modest by some standards, but I don’t think a new standalone, not-on-the-radio podcast would have attracted several thousand listeners five years ago.
4. Facebook doesn’t want to be the world’s newsroom any more
European countries are using Facebook less as an information source, according to the report. In Ireland, for example, it’s down 7.5pc. (In the US, it’s down some 18pc.)
This appears to be because of two separate factors. First, Facebook is sick of being blamed for ‘fake news’ and is de-emphasising news articles in our daily feeds.
“Almost all of this is due to a specific decline in the discovery, posting, and sharing of news in Facebook,” says the report.
Second, some people themselves are getting tired of being associated with news stories on public Facebook feeds. Instead, a small number are starting to shift their sharing of news stories onto messaging app such as WhatsApp.
Either way, Facebook wins: it owns WhatsApp and is getting ready to commercialise the service more.