Inside Story

How disasters are shaping Australians’ news habits

A new study tracks the rise in news consumption during the bushfires and the pandemic — and finds a glimmer of hope for publishers

Making the news: prime minister Scott Morrison (centre) touring Wildflower Farm in Sarsfield, Victoria, on 3 January this year. James Ross/AAP Image

In times of great uncertainty, readers and viewers will seek out reliable, accurate and up-to-date news — doubly so when their own safety and wellbeing are at stake. But will the news media continue to be there when they’re needed?

The latest Digital News Report: Australia, the sixth annual study of national news consumption trends, provides further evidence that Australians still rely on the news media — directly or indirectly — regardless of its financial difficulties. Drawing on a survey of 2131 people in late January and early February, the report finds that compared with last year’s report, the proportion of respondents who qualified as “heavy” news consumers increased from 52 per cent to 70 per cent; the number of Australians who accessed news more than once a day rose by 4 per cent during the 2020 bushfires and by another 14 per cent in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The study finds that more than two-thirds (69 per cent) of Australian news consumers shared or interacted with news sharing on social media by talking in person with others, talking online, and sharing on messaging apps. This is a 6 per cent increase in the past year.

Two categories of consumer — those who don’t trust news and those with a high level of political interest — tend to share more. Among the first group, this may reflect a feeling that information needs to be “fact-checked” by discussing it with other people. The latter groups are more interested in news generally and therefore their sharing of news reflects their higher overall engagement.

The proportion of consumers who find their news via social media has gradually increased since our first survey in 2015, and jumped six per cent over the past twelve months to 52 per cent. Older news consumers are catching up with their younger counterparts, with a 6 per cent increase in news-seeking via social media among baby boomers and a 5 per cent increase by those aged seventy-four-plus.

News consumers are also diversifying their sources of news and information. On climate change, our survey shows people mainly receiving information via TV news, with around 15 per cent seeking more detailed information from specialist blogs and websites. According to a supplementary News and Media Research Centre survey during the Covid-19 pandemic, Australians have also sought information about the coronavirus from non-news sources. About a third of respondents went directly to the Department of Health website, for instance, at least partly because of concern about the reliability of other sources. These trends reflect the breadth of online information sources available and the shift in the public’s perceptions of what constitutes “news.”

During the bushfires, overall trust in news was down to 38 per cent, 6 per cent lower than last year and in line with the global trend. Regional news consumers generally have less trust in news, and their distrust is deeper than among city consumers. This year’s survey recorded a steep decline in trust among print news readers, while radio news listeners maintained a level of trust similar to last year’s. But trust in news about Covid-19 during the pandemic was a much higher 53 per cent.

There are several likely reasons for this “trust bump.” First, when people are asked to think about “most news,” much of what they call to mind may not be relevant to their lives — an obvious contrast with news about the coronavirus. In response, groups normally not interested in news are consuming more of it. In contrast to a news update on a sports match or what happened in parliament, tuning into news about the coronavirus is central to everyone’s health and wellbeing.

Second, the news media has treated informing the public about the pandemic as a social responsibility. While the traditional emphasis on conflict and sensationalism has featured in the coverage, many news outlets have focused on providing constructive information from authoritative sources rather than generating clickbait and fuelling dissent. These results reflect how contextual factors can influence perceptions about trust. The challenge will be for news organisations to try to extend this extra trust in reporting on the coronavirus to news coverage more broadly.

The data also highlight that local news still matters in a crisis. Almost half of news consumers (45 per cent) say they are “very” or “extremely interested” in local news, and local newspapers and their websites were cited as the top source of local news (41 per cent). But almost a quarter of news consumers are seeking information about their community from local social media groups and other alternative news sources as well as traditional news. This suggests traditional news media are not fully meeting consumers’ needs, and especially the needs of younger consumers.

When asked if they would miss their local news services if they were to close, 81 per cent of respondents — especially those on low incomes and in regional areas — reported that they would miss local radio the most. Three-quarters would miss local newspapers (76 per cent) and nearly four out of five (79 per cent) would miss local TV. Given this survey was conducted during the bushfires, this likely reflects the particular importance of local radio in keeping communities up-to-date and safe during emergencies.

But who is prepared to pay for this sought-after local news? A persistently low 14 per cent of Australians are paying for online news. Given the choice between paying for Netflix and paying for news, Australians show an overwhelming preference for a videostreaming service. But consumer behaviour might be changing. Subscription to online news is the fastest-growing and most common method of online news payment. The number of respondents subscribing to online news has doubled from 4 per cent in 2016 to 8 per cent in 2020. Interestingly, younger respondents were more likely to pay — and especially generation Y, 20 per cent of whom were news subscribers.

Still, news subscriptions alone cannot cover anywhere near the full costs of producing news. To be fair, though, consumers have never fully covered the costs of producing news: traditionally, subscribers to print newspapers contributed around 20 per cent of revenue, with advertisers covering most or all of the balance. Free-to-air television has always been entirely reliant on advertising, and even pay TV is rarely based on a full fee-paying model. The real problem is not that audiences aren’t paying; it’s that online advertising has shifted away from journalistic content.

With Australia introducing strict social distancing in March, major news platforms saw a surge in their audiences. Advertising income, on the other hand, plunged as media buyers withdrew their spending and sport events were cancelled. The local news media landscape consequently shrank at a time when the public needed it the most. More than one hundred News Corp local newspapers have closed or suspended their print editions because of the rapid decline in advertising, and Australian Community Media suspended many of its local print editions as well. Regional broadcasters are planning to stop their local news bulletins as advertising dollars dip by 50 per cent.

News businesses, digital platforms and the government will need to reconsider how to maintain a healthy news ecosystem and keep citizens informed. Paying attention to what news consumers are telling us would be a good starting point.

Our survey confirmed that social media and search are now the two major pathways to online news, with a growing number of people accessing news through mobile alerts, newsletters and aggregator apps. News consumers are trying to find efficient ways to curate and organise the vast amount of news available to them. Rather than go directly to the news-brand websites themselves, audiences are increasingly relying on Google and Facebook to find what they want.

The decline in print and traditional broadcasting will most likely shift consumers, particularly in the regions, towards social media. While social media provides a fast and diverse range of information, we also know that news found on social media is trusted less and consumers are concerned about encountering misinformation there. Not everyone has the skills or energy to navigate through this vast range of information, and the media industry and government need to respond more effectively to this reality. The ACCC’s digital platforms inquiry recommended the government invest in media literacy for children and the wider community. With the growing use of misinformation in politics and elections, it is important that action is taken on this front.

In many ways, the bushfires and Covid-19 have acted as a circuit-breaker. They have reversed some of the downward trends in news consumption and the negativity revealed in the previous five years of the Digital News Report: Australia survey. Interest in news was up during the survey period, people were consuming news more, and the slide in trust had been reversed — all of this in response to relevant and generally high-quality reporting of the global pandemic.

Public interest journalism undoubtedly plays a major role in democratic societies and everyone — even those who don’t consume the news — benefits from news that calls governments and organisations to account. But we know news media businesses are struggling to adapt to the digital environment, and we know they haven’t yet found a sustainable means of surviving. •

The survey behind Digital News Report: Australia 2020 was conducted by YouGov using an online questionnaire between 17 January and 8 February 2020. The sample is drawn from an online panel of 89,850 Australians and is reflective of the population that has access to the internet. Respondents must have consumed news in the past month, which meant that 7 per cent of the initial survey respondents were excluded. The data were weighted to targets based on age, gender, region and education level to represent the total population based on Australian Bureau of Statistics census data.