Print news consumption has halved since 2016, and more people than ever are accessing their news digitally and though social media according to an annual report from the University of Canberra’s News and Media Research Centre.
However, there’s still an urgent need for professional journalism, and consumers want their news to be balanced and accurate, the seventh edition of the Digital News Report found.
The online survey of more than 2000 adult Australians found that around 80 per cent of respondents said they have not read a newspaper or news magazine in the past week, although 81 per cent of Australians access information about their local community regularly.
Only four per cent of respondents said that print publications are their primary news source, and the number of people reading their local papers has dropped from 19 per cent to 11 per cent during the past five years, perhaps also reflecting the precipitous decline in local mastheads.
But the study also found there has been no increase in the number of Australians paying for news, although many traditional news mastheads have also introduced paywalls on their digital sites.
The dramatic decline in print figures extended to people’s engagement with other traditional media sources, including television and radio news.
“During the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic, news consumption surged because people were thirsty for up-to-date information regarding the virus, and trust went up as well,” said Professor Sora Park, who is an Associate Dean of Research at the University of Canberra’s Faculty of Arts and Design.
“But this year’s report survey was conducted in January and February. After several lockdowns, people’s trust went down again as their news consumption declined even more as news media went back to their usual habits of sensationalising content.”
One of the report’s most interesting findings is that respondents strongly indicated a preference for impartial, balanced and non-partisan news, despite global trends in the media towards opinion based content.
“There may be people who will pay for opinions and partisan news, but it’s a small fraction of audience,” said Professor Park.
“The majority want their news to be free, and while they might be willing to pay for news that suits their own positions or more in-depth coverage of certain interest areas, that’s definitely not true of the majority of news consumers.”
At a local level, Professor Park said there is still a strong focus on traditional news topics although interest in court reporting and local politics has declined slightly in favour of local information about events, weather, jobs and education issues.
But while television, radio and print audiences have also declined, the report says digital audiences continue to grow, via Facebook, Twitter and other online platforms. Digital consumers now increasingly include older Australians, although Professor Park cautioned that much of this news access is incidental.
“During the years, Facebook use has grown slightly, but people are really concerned about misinformation on Facebook,” she said.
There’s also some transfer to other digital platforms, including WhatsApp and TikTok, even among older generations.
Professor Park said that while social media provides a pathway to news sites, it does not and cannot replace local news sources.
“Facebook doesn’t replace journalists in local communities who understand the issues and are professionals,” she said.
“In local areas where there is no other way to get information, social media is a stopgap, but it’s often not professionally produced and there’s a real risk that it could be gossip without filtering devices.
“There is a huge gap in regional Australia if news companies close down because we lose accountability.”
Professor Park believes local media has reached a crossroads for its future unless there is immediate action.
“News businesses are struggling to find a sustainable financial model and most regional media has not been successful in doing so,” she said.
“Either we recover and provide news for citizens, or we don’t, which is detrimental to our democracy.”