Canadians value journalism’s role in democracy, but are largely unaware that the news media is in dire financial straits.

In preparing its report The Shattered Mirror, the Public Policy Forum partnered with the Canadian Journalism Foundation and engaged the Earnscliffe Strategy Group to conduct research that would provide a consumer perspective on the subject in question: news, trust and democracy in the digital age. We conducted six focus groups, two each in Montreal, Toronto and Regina in August and September 2016, and followed these up with a nationwide Internet survey of 1,509 adult Canadians between September 22 and October 2, drawn from a Leger panel. We looked at changing patterns of news consumption, trust in various delivery platforms for news, the linkage between democracy and both the presence and the consumption of news, awareness of financial difficulties facing news-gathering organizations and public reaction to various public policy options that might be considered to remedy these difficulties. Here is what we found.

The news conundrum

Canadians feel they are inundated with news: 93 percent agree that “we get more news today, more quickly and frequently than we ever have in the past.” But fewer than half have heard, read or seen anything about news organizations facing business and financial difficulties. For media organizations and others who are worried about the future of journalism, the puzzle is how to persuade the public that “the news is in peril” when that claim is counterintuitive, runs contrary to the actual consumer experience and is not part of public consciousness.

The story so far

This sense of being inundated unquestionably relates to the changing ways Canadians are consuming the news today:

  • Only one-third use a single medium to get their news.
  • Only 16 percent of adult Canadians subscribe to a print version of a newspaper. Forty percent report that they used to subscribe but have stopped because of cost and what they believe is the availability of the same content from a different source.
  • More Canadians now access news online than offline.
  • Four out of 10 accessed their news “yesterday” on a mobile device.

Additionally, a generational divide is driving this change. Those 18 to 34 years old are

  • significantly more likely to access news using a mobile device and are significantly less likely to rely on print;
  • more likely to get their news from a single medium; and
  • more likely to come across news while “doing something else on the Internet” than to actively look for news.

A significant majority of Canadians believe that the news that is available on nondigital media is “similar” to digital news, and a plurality believe that the professionalism and objectivity of nondigital journalism are “the same” as for journalism that is available online.

7 out of 10 users of online media are getting their news from the websites of traditional media organizations.

The reason for this is perhaps both surprising and obvious: 7 out of 10 users of online media are getting their news from the websites of traditional media organizations. Put another way, consumers see digital and nondigital content as similar and the objectivity of journalism as the same because, by and large, they are. In short, it is not the digital-only news sources that are drawing audiences and driving changing consumption of news so much as it is the digital versions of traditional media.

Consumers are also fully aware that “a lot of bogus and untrue news and information appears online” and that “getting news from friends and through social media is all right, but sometimes I want to get news from organizations and journalists that I know.” Indeed — and notwithstanding the perceived similarity or sameness of the different platforms — news obtained from traditional sources continues to be accorded significantly higher levels of trust and authority than news obtained from nontraditional, digital-only sites.

The pattern here suggests that it is the source and not the platform or channel that builds trust and confers authority. The fact that traditional sources of news draw the largest digital audiences therefore is a major contributor to the trust and authority of all online media. Add the other obvious advantages — high speed, low cost — enjoyed by digital, and it is small wonder that traditional news formats are wrestling with shrinking audiences.

The big picture

Canadians overwhelmingly believe that news and journalism play a major role in democracy, beyond their utilitarian functions. The evidence suggests further that consumers relate to this role at both the individual level — “news arms me with the information I need to protect my rights” — and the societal level — “news holds the powerful accountable.” Moreover, the threat to democracy is seen to be far more dire should news stop emanating from legacy media sources (TV, radio, newspapers, magazines), as opposed to digital-only news generators.

Perhaps even more important for practical purposes, our research indicates that there is a direct correlation between news consumption and democratic behaviours such as volunteering, donating and engaging with fellow citizens in civic discourse. The more closely people follow the news, the more likely they are to participate in all these forms of civic behaviour.

Deeper analysis, however, indicates that the type of media used to access the news has very little bearing on these behaviours. Specifically, it appears that civic involvement is driven much more by how closely people follow the news and the volume of news they consume than by the media through which they get the news. Because digital media is easier to access and has increased the total volume of news available, far from posing a threat, it appears to have the potential to enable democracy.

From a public opinion perspective, therefore, the threat to democracy — to the extent that it exists — comes not so much from a shift to digital news as from the prospect of less news being available.

As the story unfolds

When forced to consider the possibility of declining Canadian news organizations, consumers associate with it a number of negative consequences, including less-informed citizens, shrinking public accountability and a decline in political honesty.

Printing costs, loss of advertising, reader preferences and an unwillingness to pay for digital news are all cited as credible reasons for news-gathering organizations to be facing financial and business difficulties. Significantly, the costs of paying journalists is decidedly less likely to be seen as a contributing factor.

At bottom, however, while Canadians are far from unanimous, most believe that “the day will come when we will get all of our news online”; and for almost half, when that day arrives, “nothing would change for me if online and digital news replaces newspapers and local television.”

The picture that emerges, therefore, is of a population that is both relatively unaware of and indifferent to the plight of traditional media. At the same time, they associate negative consequences — beyond the impacts on the news organizations themselves — with their prospective demise. These conflicting positions suggest one of two explanations: either the public has not internalized these rather dire consequences, or consumers simply do not accept the premise that the decline in news-gathering organizations would result in a decline in the availability of news.

Whither goest

Clearly, public opinion does not provide a ready or easy answer to the conundrum posed at the start of this article.

Canadians value news and see news as a pillar of our democracy. It informs their views and influences the behaviour of both citizens and authority. They value journalists for their objectivity, impartiality and professionalism, and they associate these qualities much more with traditional news gatherers than with digital-only sources and platforms.

But they do not know much about the threats to these organizations, and their everyday experience — largely of accessing these traditional sources, digitally — provides no hint of these threats. Basically, consumers appear to reject the basic premise upon which a case could be made to lend support to traditional news gatherers: that their demise would lead to the demise of news itself and the diminution of democracy. In the same way that many believe that painters will always paint, most Canadians seem to feel that journalists will always find and cover news.

Canadians are also unenthusiastic about direct government or public policy support for the sector. Perversely, it appears that the very thing that the public values most about news is at the foundation of this resistance. What makes news and journalism important to society is providing objective information that arms citizens and holds the mighty to account, and this is what Canadians believe would be threatened by government support for the sector.

Consumers seem to accept that content has value and that workers should be paid for their efforts, but because of the “free” culture of the Internet — including digital news — they just don’t see themselves doing the paying. A plurality are grudgingly prepared to consider innovations such as a regime where digital platforms that carry news would pay royalties (like those paid to songwriters and music publishers) or contribute to a fund (as the cable industry does) to compensate content owners, but even these are not policies that the public would likely champion.

The news industry clearly needs to educate its audiences if it wishes to change this public opinion environment. But it also needs to develop new business models that would preserve those aspects of their operations that the public values most, that would bolster the case that journalists can work only if there is revenue to pay them and that would take consumer preferences into account.

Photo: Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock.com

This article is part of the special feature The Future of Canadian Journalism.


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