More Important, But Less Robust?

Today we are launching a new Reuters Institute report in Davos by Meera Selva and myself called “More Important, But Less Robust? Five Things Everybody Needs to Know about the Future of Journalism” at a breakfast meeting hosted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation (and streamed online) and featuring a panel discussion with Marty Baron, Sylvie Kauffmann, Nick Kristof and Mark Pieth chaired by Monique Villa and hosted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


The report is primarily based on a wide range of our own research from the last few years, but many other researchers have done work on these trends, and I include links to some examples here.

The five things are

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 increasingly control access to audiences. (As documented in our annual Digital News Report by Nic Newman et al and discussed in the work of, for example, Kjerstin Thorson and Chris Wells)


Second, this move to digital media generally does not generate filter bubbles. Instead, automated serendipity and incidental exposure drive people to more – and more diverse – sources of information. (As documented in work that Richard Fletcher has led on social media and search engines, but also in the work of others, including for example Seth Flaxman et al.)

slide2Third, journalism is often losing the battle for people’s attention and, in some (but not all) countries for the public’s trust, increasing information inequality. (As documented in for example a recent factsheet by Antonis Kalogeropoulos and myself, building on work by for example Markus Prior.)


Fourth, the business models that fund news are challenged, weakening professional journalism and leaving news media more vulnerable to commercial and political pressures. (See for example this handbook chapter and the work of Anya Schiffrin on media capture.)


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. (Different people will have different standards for what they consider better or worse journalism, but we base our cautious optimism on for example the rise of collaborative investigative journalism, deeper engagement with readers, and joint fact-checking work, as well as the growth of what Kate Fink and Michael Schudson call “contextual reporting”.)


These are five broad, global trends trends, but they will not play out the same in every country. They will clearly differ depending on cultural, economic, political, and social context, most notably the intensifying “war on journalism” waged by some politicians, militants, criminals, and others with an aversion to accountability reporting and independent journalism.


A new business for news

“2019 will be another terrible year for the business of news, and journalists will have to face the harsh reality that no one will come to their rescue — not benign billionaires, not platform companies, and not policymakers.”

I’ve written my 2019 prediction for the Nieman Lab at Harvard, focused on the urgent need for building a new business for news, the need for journalists to lead in that process, and the need to recognize that doing so will be a long, hard slog (and that many will fail along the way).

A historical analogy I offer is the time it took to build the mass business of paid print newspapers that is now in terminal decline. As we track the development of new digital pay models for news month by month and year by year, with the fits and stats, break-out success stories few saw coming (here’s looking at you, MediaPart), set-backs, and occasional disappointments (so long, The Sun paywall), we sometimes forget how long it took to build the old models.

Consider the evolution of paid printed newspaper circulation relative to population in the United States — it took 50+ years to build the mass circulation that peaked in the middle of the 20th century (circulation that has been in non-stop decline since).


As I write in the Nieman piece, “mass paid print circulation thus did not appear overnight, but took decades of hard work and constant editorial, commercial, and technological innovation.”

It may well take as long to develop new business models as it took to develop the old ones. Doing so is one of the most important and urgent challenges facing journalism, and I hope journalists will lead in the attempts to do so. “No one cares more, no one has more at stake, and no one is better positioned to build new businesses around journalistic values, editorial independence, and the timeless aspiration to seek truth and report it.”

The full text of my Nieman piece is here.


Do people know where they get their news from? New article

People increasingly rely on distributed forms of discovery like search engines and social media for finding and accessing news. Do they know where the news they consume in these ways come from? In a new article, Antonis Kalogeropoulos, Richard Fletcher, and I look more closely at this question, based on data from a tracking study we’ve written about previously with Nic Newman (in this report). We find that users are far more likely to correctly attribute a story to a news brand if they accessed it directly rather than via search or social, but with significant variation depending on whether it is their main brand (one they are already loyal to), how much of an article they read, as well as interest in news.

The “main brand” finding is  particularly important for news organizations as it underlines how important it is to build a strong brand and a loyal audience to really make the most of the opportunities for increased reach via for example search and social, just as the finding that longer reading time helps with correct brand attribution is important, if people find your journalism interesting enough to actually engage with it, they are significantly more likely to remember who produced it.

Full article here, abstract below.

The digital media environment is increasingly characterized by distributed discovery, where media users find content produced by news media via platforms like search engines and social media. Here, we measure whether online news users correctly attribute stories they have accessed to the brands that have produced them. We call this “news brand attribution.” Based on a unique combination of passive tracking followed by surveys served to a panel of users after they had accessed news by identifiable means (direct, search, social) and controlling for demographic and media consumption variables, we find that users are far more likely to correctly attribute a story to a news brand if they accessed it directly rather than via search or social. We discuss the implications of our findings for the business of journalism, for our understanding of source cues in an increasingly distributed media environment and the potential of the novel research design developed.

New article looking at search engines as example of “automated serendipity”

Richard Fletcher has been leading an important line of empirical research for us in the last few years, giving evidence-based answers to a series of important questions around the implications of people’s increasing reliance on algorithmically-curated services like search engines and social media when accessing news.

The latest installment is a piece examining reliance on search engines, which we find drive what we call “automated serendipity” and (controlling for other factors) leads people to sources they would not have used otherwise.

Like our previous work on social media, in challenges widely held assumptions about the role of digital media. As in several other studies (e.g. this), we find no evidence of “filter bubbles” — if anything, the opposite.

Abstract and three key figures below and full article (open access) here.

Search engines are an absolutely central part of the web. Yet we know relatively little about how they shape news consumption. In this study, we use survey data from four countries (UK, USA, Germany, Spain) to compare the news repertoires of those who say they use search engines to search for news stories, and those that do not. In all four countries, and controlling for other factors, we show that those who find news via search engines (i) on average use more sources of online news, (ii) are more likely to use both left-leaning and right-leaning online news sources, and (iii) have more balanced news repertoires in terms of using similar numbers of left-leaning and right-leaning sources. We thus find little support for the idea that search engine use leads to echo chambers and filter bubbles. To the contrary, using search engines for news is associated with more diverse and more balanced news consumption, as search drives what we call “automated serendipity” and leads people to sources they would not have used otherwise.


New article on how legacy news media respond to a changing business of news

“Comparing legacy media responses to the changing business of news: Cross-national similarities and differences across media types” has just been published in the International Communication Gazette.

Alessio Cornia led on this, based on interviews done by him and our co-author Annika Sehl as part of our joined research project on how legacy news media across Europe navigate the rise of digital media, audiences transformations, and a changing business of news.

Here is the abstract

In this article, we analyse how legacy media organizations in six countries are adapting to the changing business of news. We focus on how similarities and differences in their responses to digital developments are shaped by the interplay between organizational legacy and national context. The study draws on media sociology and comparative media systems research and is based on 54 interviews with senior editors and managers at 25 newspapers and commercial broadcasters in Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and the UK. We find that organizations within the same medium respond to change in similar ways (newspapers versus broadcasters), and that these responses are surprisingly similar across different countries. We argue that factors related to the medium-specific legacy shape media adaptation more than do structural differences between national media systems because news organizations faced with a changing and uncertain environment imitate the strategies adopted by peer organizations elsewhere.

Full article here.

The rise of platforms (2019 ICA post-conference)

Platform companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter are increasingly central to most forms of mediated communication around the world and therefore to most of the individual, institutional, and governance questions with which communication research deals.

To bring together different scholars with overlapping interests in the implications of this rise, Erika Franklin Fowler, Sarah Anne Ganter, Natali Helberger, Dave Karpf, Daniel Kreiss, Shannon McGregor and I are organizing a post-conference May 29 after the 2019 ICA conference.

More information about the post-conference here, deadline for extended abstracts is January 11.

We hope to see lots of interesting and intellectually and geographically diverse work presented and discussed at the post-conference.

What academic work on journalism/news/media would it be useful for journalists to read?

Back in August, Meera Selva, Joy Jenkins and I — all from the Reuters Institute — started asking people for suggestions of what academic work on journalism/news/media it would be useful for journalists to read.


We wanted to create a list of reading suggestions for the incoming Reuters Institute  Journalist Fellows, mid-career journalists from all over the world who spend between 3 and 9 months with us in Oxford working on a project of their own choosing

A stable version is on the institute website here, and a Google Document open to editing is here.

We also hoped this would be useful for journalists elsewhere thinking about the present and future of their profession, the institutions that sustain and constrain it, its social and political implications, and how it is changing.

I’ve often felt (and written about) that academic research on journalism is too disconnected and far removed from urgent, present conversations about the future of news, so it was great to be reminded that there are many in the academic community who care  about how research can play a role in these discussions, and enthusiastically offered up suggestions.

We had hundreds of suggestions — and I’m sure we could have collected or come up with hundreds more — so what we have done to make it  a bit more managable and easy to access is to create 17 topics with a few suggested readings, including one marked as a good place to start on that topic, and then collected the other suggestions at the back of the document.

The 17 topics, and suggested first readings, are

1. Some classic big ideas on journalism, media, and ideas in public life

* Lippmann, Walter. 1997. Public Opinion. New Brunswick, N.J., U.S.A: Transaction Publishers.

2. What is journalism and news?

* Deuze, M. (2005). What is journalism? Professional identity and ideology of journalists reconsidered. Journalism, 6(4), 442-464.

3. Audience behaviour

* Newman, Nic, Richard Fletcher, Antonis Kalogeropoulos, David A. L Levy, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. 2018. “Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2018.” Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

4. Trust and the news media

* O’Neill, Onora. 2002. A Question of Trust. Reith Lectures ; 2002. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Also available at

5. Inequality and polarisation in news use

* Prior, Markus. 2005. “News vs. Entertainment: How Increasing Media Choice Widens Gaps in Political Knowledge and Turnout.” American Journal of Political Science 49 (3): 577–92.

6. Framing and media effects

* CommGap. 2012. “Media Effects”. World Bank Communication for Governance Accountability Program. (short overview).

7. Relations between reporters and officials

* Bennett, W. Lance. 1990. “Toward a Theory of Press-State Relations in the United States.” The Journal of Communication 40 (2): 103–27.

8. News, race, and recognition

* Lamont, M. (2018). Addressing recognition gaps: Destigmatization and the reduction of inequality. American Sociological Review, 83(3), 419-444.

9. Women and journalism

* Franks, Suzanne. 2013. Women and Journalism. London: I.B.Tauris.

10. Business of news

* Nielsen, Rasmus Kleis. Forthcoming. “The Changing Economic Contexts of Journalism.” In Handbook of Journalism Studies, edited by Thomas Hanitzsch and Karin Wahl-Jorgensen.

11. Innovation in the media

* Küng, Lucy. 2015. Innovators in Digital News. RISJ Challenges. London: Tauris.

12. Platform companies and news media

* Bell, Emily J., Taylor Owen, Peter D. Brown, Codi Hauka, and Nushin Rashidian. 2017. “The Platform Press: How Silicon Valley Reengineered Journalism.”

13. Digital media and technology

* Dijck, José van. 2013. The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

14. Disinformation

* Wardle, Claire, and Hossein Derakhshan. 2017. Information Disorder: Toward an Interdisciplinary Framework for Research and Policy Making. Report to the Council of Europe. https://shorensteincenter. org/information-disorder-framework-for-research-and-policymaking.

15. Democracy, journalism, and media

* Schudson, Michael. 2008. Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press. Cambridge, UK: Polity. (Especially the chapter “Six or Seven Things that Journalism can do for Democracy”)

16. Censorship and propaganda

* Simon, Joel. 2014. The New Censorship : Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom. Columbia Journalism Review Books. New York: Columbia University Press.

17. International/comparative research

* Hallin, Daniel C., and Paolo Mancini. 2005. “Comparing Media Systems.” In Mass Media and Society, edited by James Curran and Michael Gurevitch, 4th ed., 215–33. London: Hodder Arnold.

There are topics not yet on the list (local journalism, for example), and the list reflects the biases of published English language research and of our personal/professional  networks in tending towards studies of and from Western countries, often specifically from the US. (It also reflects the fact that I (a) have learned a lot from my time at Columbia University and (b) am proud of the work we have done at the Reuters Institute.) The list is thus, like any list, limited, but we hope it  is potentially useful and interesting, at least as a starting point, and hope journalists all over the world will find it useful.

Let us know what you think, we plan to update it going forward.