The 2021 Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute points to some promising findings for those who value independent and reliable news.

  • The Covid-19 pandemic appears to have increased trust in mainstream news – at least back to 2018 levels.
  • Three quarters of the survey respondents indicate that despite increases in partisan news options, they prefer to follow news that “reflects a range of views and lets them decide what to think.”
  • There are “significant” increases in people paying for online news in some Western countries. In the United States and Norway, up to half of paid subscribers pay for multiple subscriptions, often to local or regional newspaper brands.

However, the report, which is based on data from a YouGov survey of over 92,000 online news consumers in 46 markets, also highlights the changes and challenges facing news agencies.

  • More people see the value of local and regional news limited to a small number of subjects and instead rely on internet searches for weather, housing, jobs and entertainment information that used to be part of the local news “bundle”.
  • Many more young people are using social media for news, including via influencers. TikTok reaches a quarter of under 35s, with an average of 7% using it for news.
  • There are signs that some “are turning away from the news media and in some cases avoiding news altogether”.
  • Media are seen to represent young people – and especially young women – as well as political partisans and minority ethnic groups – “less fairly”.

All these are signs of the increasing competition and complexity of the news and information environment that need equivalent complex and creative solutions. But the fundamentals may remain the same:

  • The value of diverse, independent news sources.
  • The need to prioritize media literacy – particularly digital media literacy – along with protecting freedom of expression.
  • Equitable distribution of income from news and data.
  • The importance of offline communities to online behaviour.

It is the latter that, while harder to address, perhaps needs to be incorporated more in discussions around regulating digital platforms and protecting quality journalism. As noted in the report in the changes faced by local news agencies, Dr Anne Schulz states, “We have to consider that, while a well-functioning local news ecology can create community attachment, community attachment can also create demand for local news. And surely, where community attachment is missing to begin with, local and regional media will always have it harder.”

In our increasingly online environment, grown substantially during the Covid-19 pandemic, what is the state of our own “community”? How can we strengthen the local – the value of dialogue, care of place, friendship, and commitment – so that our digital media more accurately reflect, rather than drive, the world we want to see?

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