Changes in technology have even affected the way news is consumed, with images of someone sitting in a bus or taxi holding a newspaper very quickly being replaced by South Africans glued to their phones. This is especially true in urban areas.

Political polarisation has encouraged the growth of partisan
agendas online, which together with clickbait and various forms of
misinformation is helping to further undermine trust in media

According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2019, the last 12 months have been especially interesting. There has been a rise in populism, political and economic instability, along with intensifying concerns about giant tech companies and their impact on society.

“News organisations have taken the lead in reporting these trends, but also find themselves challenged by them – further depressing an industry reeling from more than a decade of digital disruption,” says Nic Newman, who is a senior research associate at the Reuters Institute for
the Study of Journalism.

Just as other industries, newsrooms across the globe, including South Africa, have not gone unscathed by the disruption
brought on by technology.

“Platform power – and the ruthless efficiency of their advertising operations – has undermined news business models contributing to a series of high-profile layoffs in traditional (Gannett) and digital media (Mic, BuzzFeed) in the early part of 2019.

“Political polarisation has encouraged the growth of partisan agendas online, which together with clickbait and various forms of misinformation is helping to further undermine trust in media – raising new questions about how to deliver balanced and fair reporting in the digital age,” says Newman.

The data is based on 40 countries, including South Africa for the first time.


  • Despite the efforts of the news industry, there has only been a small increase in people paying for online news. This is whether it is subscription, membership, or donation. Payment is a recent practice in South Africa and the uptake has been slow. The document says that even in countries with higher levels of payment such as (Norway 34% and Sweden 27%), most people only have one online subscription – “suggesting that winner takes all dynamics are likely to be important”. But it’s not all doom and gloom as most payments are now ongoing, rather than one-offs.
  • In some countries, the report says subscription fatigue may be setting in, with the majority preferring to spend their limited budgets on entertainment such as Netflix and Spotify instead of the news. It says many see news as a chore, meaning that publishers may struggle to substantially increase the market for high-priced single title subscriptions. “As more publishers launch pay models, over two-thirds (70%) of our sample in Norway and half (50%) in the United States now come across one or more barriers each week when trying to read online news.”
  • In many countries, people are spending less time on Facebook and more time on WhatsApp and Instagram than this time last year. Although some are abandoning Facebook entirely, it remains by far the most important social network for news. In South Africa, according to the Southern African Marketing Research Campaign, there are 21,000,000 Facebook users and 38% penetration. While Johannesburg has substantially more users, there has been dramatic growth in smaller centers. It says the reason for this is a greater penetration of Facebook due to Facebook Lite and Messenger.
  • The Reuters report says social communication around news is becoming more private as messaging apps continue to grow everywhere. WhatsApp has become a primary network for discussing and sharing news in non-Western countries like Brazil (53%) Malaysia (50%), and South Africa (49%).
  • People in these countries are also far more likely than those in the West to be part of large WhatsApp groups with people they don’t know. This trend reflects how messaging applications can be used to easily share information at scale, potentially encouraging the spread of misinformation. Public and private Facebook Groups discussing news and politics have also become popular.
  • Concern about misinformation and disinformation remains high despite efforts by platforms and publishers to build public confidence
  • Across all countries, the average level of trust in the news, in general, is down two percentage points to 42%, and less than half (49%) agree that they trust the news media they themselves use. South Africa scores highly on the press freedom index, and largely enjoys a strong and ethical news environment. This is reflected in a 49% trust in media, one of the highest in the report’s survey.
  • Smartphones continue to grow in importance for news, with two-thirds (66%) now using them to access newsweekly. This growth is also driving the popularity of podcasts, especially among young people.
  • The report says voice-activated smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home continue to grow rapidly. But their usage for news remains low.

While mobile phone growth has slowed down in many parts of the world, excluding Sub-Saharan Africa, the report says their dependence for news continues to grow. Two-thirds of the combined sample now use smartphones for newsweekly, with usage doubling in most countries over the last seven years.

“People are still using computers and tablets for news but when we ask about preferred device the convenience and versatility of the smartphone tends to win out,” it reads.

But because fewer people are using tablets, it has become difficult to make display advertising work on smaller screens, which is contributing to financial difficulties for publishers. Another concern is that with the change in technology, content formats designed for the print/desktop era are becoming increasingly outdated on mobile displays.

“… and (thirdly), personally addressable devices enable targeted content and experiences – putting a greater premium on those with access to more content and more data (primarily platform companies),” says the report.

Mobile aggregators are now offering new opportunities, but with strings attached. Google News relaunched last year with a new design and a greater focus on AI-driven recommendations. Mobile manufacturers running the Android operating system are integrating news aggregators like Upday, News Republic and Flipboard into the core operating system.

But it is difficult to capture these trends accurately in a survey because respondents often see these as ‘news links on their phone’ rather than a distinct destination, says Reuters Institute.

“But our qualitative research is giving us a clearer picture of the role these services play in news repertoires. Younger groups in particular love the convenience, the lack of friction, and the way it brings multiple brands into one place. We find some users actively curating and configuring the news that is most relevant to them, but most are using them in a more incidental or passive way.”

The report says that for social media it has been a dramatic year. Facebook and YouTube came under fire for spreading misinformation, encouraging hate speech and online harm – as well as being dodgy about privacy. In February, Mark Zuckerberg announced a shift of focus to more private messaging and expects WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger to be the main way that users interact across the Facebook network.

This ultimately means that the sharing of news and comment in the future will be less open and less transparent, which could result in further security risks as a result of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

By: Amy Musagrave