What do we know about the future of journalism?

The rise of digital media has empowered people worldwide but also enabled the spread of disinformation and demagoguery and undermined the funding of professional journalism as we know it.

The move from a media environment defined by broadcasting and newspapers to a digital, mobile, and platform-dominated environment is the most fundamental change in how we communicate since the development of the printing press, and we are only thirty years into a period we can trace back to Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web in 1989.

What do we know so far about the implications for journalism and by extension politics?

Some key broad trends can be clearly documented, and they are sometimes at odds with much of what is asserted in public and elite debate.

Too often, discussions of the future of media are based on misunderstandings or outright “media change denial” where people double down on arguments that are directly contradicted by a growing consensus among researchers.

First, we have moved from a world where media organisations were gatekeepers to a world where media still create the news agenda, but platform companies control access to audiences

Established news media tend to be at the centre of online discussions of, for example, elections, and often drive the agenda.

But we have moved from a world where media organisations controlled both content and channels and we came to news directly by going to a specific broadcaster or publisher, to a world increasingly characterised by “distributed discovery”, where media organisations still create content, but people access it through platform channels like search engines, social media, and news aggregators.

In 2018, two-thirds of online news users surveyed across 37 different markets worldwide identified distributed forms of discovery as their main way of accessing and finding news online. (See Figure 1.) Amongst those under 35, three-quarters relied primarily on social media, search engines, and the like.

Second, this move to digital media and platforms generally does not generate filter bubbles but more diverse news diets

The automated serendipity of social media feeds and search engine results and incidental exposure (where people come across news while doing other things online) drive people to more and more diverse sources of information.

While echo chambers exist, where highly motivated minorities self-select into insular news diets and like-minded communities, fears of algorithmically generated filter bubbles currently seem misplaced.

Empirical research consistently finds that search engines and a wide range of different social media including both Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube demonstrably drive people to use more different sources of news, including more diverse sources and sources they do not seek out of their own volition. (See Figure 2.)

Third, journalism is often losing the battle for people’s attention and, in some countries, for the public’s trust

While a small minority of news lovers are extremely interested in news and access news several times a day, a far greater number of people access news less than once day.

Segmented on the basis of interest in news and frequency of access, our survey data from 37 markets shows that news lovers make up only 17% of the public, daily briefers about half (48%) and casual users, who access news less frequently than once a day, 35%. (See Figure 3.)

These patterns of news use points to a future of far greater information inequality - not because of lack of access, but because of limited interest, low engagement and, in some countries, little trust in news.

In Greece, just 26 percent say they trust most news most of the time, and in the United States 34 percent. But this is far from a universal phenomenon. Just north of the US border, 58 percent of Canadians say they trust most news, just like half the German population does.

And low levels of trust often obscure significant variation, especially along political lines. In the United States, just 17 percent of those on the political right say they trust most news, whereas half of those on the political left do. The differences in trust between the right and the left in the United States are bigger than the difference in trust between Greece and Germany.

Fourth, the business models that fund news are challenged, weakening professional journalism and leaving news media more vulnerable to commercial and political pressures

Even thirty years after the invention of the World Wide Web, the majority of professional journalism is still funded by newspapers. And an estimated 90% of publishers’ revenues worldwide still come from print, digital revenues are in many cases growing only slowly, and, where they exist, public service media are under considerable pressure.

Most of these existing forms of funding for professional journalism will decline as we continue to move to a more digital media environment where platforms like Google and Facebook capture most of the advertising, leading to further job cuts in newsrooms.

The risk here is not simply retrenchment and less coverage of many important issues, but also a less robust business of journalism more vulnerable to media capture by the state or politically motivated owners, and to pressure from advertisers.

Fifth, news is more diverse than ever, and the best journalism in many cases better than ever, taking on everyone from the most powerful politicians to the biggest private companies.

It is clear that cost-cutting, increased pressure to produce more stories across more channels, and a 24/7 news cycle has led to a large volume of more superficial journalism.

At the same time, digital media have also allowed different marginalised voices to be heard and offer access to a far wider range of different sources and points of view.

And as journalists have embraced digital media and evolved various new formats, the best journalism in many countries today is in some ways better than ever – more independent of elite sources, more accessible, more timely, more informative, more interactive, more engaged with its audience.

The role of journalistic revelations in many different cases, including the #MeToo movement, in confronting corruption amongst public officials, and in fuelling public debate around platform companies’ power and privacy practices, underline the continued relevance of investigative reporting.

Where we are heading with digital media and journalism?

These five trends will not play out the same in every country. They will clearly differ depending on cultural, economic, political, and social context.

And with the continuing development of artificial intelligence, voice operated systems, and the integration of connected, digital media in more and more everyday objects, we are equally clearly only in the early phases of this fundamental change.

As we move forward, independent professional journalism will be more important than ever in helping people understand the major challenges and opportunities facing us, from day-to-day local events to global issues.

But as the business of news changes, journalism also risks becoming less robust, and ultimately incapable of helping the public make sense of our times or holding power to account.

This challenge is only compounded by increasingly open political hostility towards independent professional journalism, in the worst cases a veritable war on journalism.

In the absence of independent professional reporting providing accurate information, analysis, and interpretation, the public will increasingly rely on self-interested sources and rumours circulating online and offline, a shift that will hurt both the political process, civil society, and private enterprise.

At its best, independent professional journalism is essential for both the public good, politics, and private enterprise – and as it adapts to the digital media people all over the world are embracing, it can help ensure that this communications revolution results not in chaos, but in change for the better.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Professor of Political Communication at the University of Oxford.

Meera Selva is Director of the Journalist Fellowship Programme at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.