Audiences Want ‘News That Feels More Relevant’; Report Urges ‘Restoring’ of Trust

In an article on Digital Marketer last week, I read this sentence: “By leveraging AI, businesses can deliver personalized content recommendations to potential leads, increasing engagement and conversion rates.” Yet, in the just-released Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2023, 48% of respondents “worry that more personalized news may mean that I miss out on important information.” And 46% worry that they may miss out on challenging viewpoints. It’s a quandary.

The “potential effects of over-personalization” makes me recall when The Atlantic, after two years of reader research, determined that people appreciated the content range that they offered. So in marketing emails to prospective subscribers, The Atlantic emphasizes that range. “The reader needs help me stay intentional in how we’re using our readers’ time,” said a senior editor.

According to the annual Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2023 (available here), the challenge ahead of media organizations is clear. “Audiences are ambivalent about algorithms, but [more importantly] they are still not convinced that journalists and news organizations can do any better in curating or summarizing the most important developments.” AI only adds more complexity to this equation.

Less than a third (30%) of Reuters respondents say that having stories selected for them on the basis of previous consumption is a good way to get news. “Despite this,” the report notes, “on average, users still slightly prefer news selected this way to that chosen by editors or journalists (27%), suggesting that worries about algorithms are part of a wider concern about news and how it is selected.” It goes on to talk about “general skepticism” towards news selection and reader trust.

Here are more takeaways from the Reuters Institute Digital News Report.

Pay attention to your social media. “Across markets, only 22% now say they prefer to start their news journeys with a [specific] website or app—that’s down 10 percentage points since 2018—vs. 30% who prefer social media. Young people are “showing a weaker connection with news brands’ own websites and apps than previous cohort—preferring to access news via side-door routes such as social media, search, or mobile aggregators.”

Content and price matter most. In the U.S., 21% report that they pay for online news. Only Norway (39%), Sweden (33%) and Australia (22%) are ahead. A disappointing 42% of U.S. non-subscribers say that nothing could persuade them to pay for online news—with lack of interest or perceived value remaining the obstacles. What would most encourage people to pay? More valuable content (22%), no ads (13%), and cheaper/flexible pricing (32%). Similarly, the most important stated reason to subscribe is to get access to better quality or more distinctive journalism (51% on average, 65% in the U.S.) than can be obtained for free.

Encourage sharing and comments. The report found that “many measures of open participation, such as sharing and commenting, have declined across countries, with a minority of active users making most of the noise.” Only 22% are now active participators, with 47% not participating in news at all. I think we all multi-task these days and have lots of responsibilities—meaning less time for interactivity. It has to be made easy and fast for people.

Do you want to invite negotiation or offer a trial? Around 23% of news subscribers say they have cancelled at least one of their ongoing news publications, while a slightly higher number say they have negotiated a cheaper price (23%) Others have taken up new subscriptions, often using a cheap trial offer. That can carry significant risks around long-term profitability. Among those cancelling their subscription in the last year, the cost of living or the high price was cited most often as a reason.

Look at possible bundles. Getting back to the idea of offering a content mix, many potential subscribers, especially younger people, “do not want to be ‘tied down’ by one subscription. Instead, they want to access multiple brands with little or no friction for a fair price.” Schibsted in Norway includes six national and local newspapers, 44 magazines, and exclusive podcasts in its all-access package, which costs just a bit more than a single publication subscription.

Promote your best journalists. People subscribe based on either a long-standing relationship—including Identification with brand journalists—or the sense that the outlet speaks to them for them. “This brand identification is closely linked to the content itself, raising questions about whether paid models may encourage more partisan editorial approaches.”

Look for relevancy and context. The majority still prefer to read the news (57%), rather than watch (30%) or listen (13%), but younger people (under-35s) are more likely to listen (17%). Makes sense. It’s clear that “most consumers are looking not for more news, but news that feels more relevant, and helps them make sense of the complex issues facing us all.” I recall a quote from ALM CEO Bill Carter: “We have to provide context and insight, data and analysis, forums and events that allow our customers to excel as practitioners as well as business professionals.”

Trust matters. The report concludes by saying that your journalism needs “to stand out in terms of its accuracy, its utility, and its humanity… The challenge ahead is, more than ever, about restoring relevance and trust through meeting the needs of specific audiences.”

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