Nic, could you tell me who you are and what you do? Sure. I'm a senior research associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. I do a couple of things there. One is, I'm the lead author of the Reuters Institute Digital News report, which is the largest ongoing survey of news consumption. We've been doing this since 2012. I also look more at the industry side. What's going on in newsrooms? What kind of innovation is happening? And I do a Trends and Predictions report, which comes out every year and I have been doing for the last 18 years. That's also based on an industry survey, where we ask industry leaders what they're thinking of doing, where they're investing. Are they doing more on podcasting, visual journalism, and what's the next big thing.
I had no idea you've been doing this for 18 years. Well, I've been doing the digital news report for 12 and the trends stuff for 18 years. When I was at BBC, I used to do it because it was really hard. Everything's happening so fast. It's really hard to sort of separate out the froth and the hype from stuff that's real that you need to, you know, do something about. It really helped me once a year just to distill it into a few pages to say, this is what matters, this is what's froth, these are the underlying trends that you need to take care of.
Nice. And before we go into the questions that we sort of have prepared. Have you seen an acceleration or a difference in the changes and trends between when you started and now? I think things have sped up, but it's a bit patchy. There were periods where a lot happened, you know, like the invention of the iPhone suddenly led to two or three years of intense innovation. When Twitter and Facebook were emerging around 2006-2008, there was a rise of social media. Those things were big changes very quickly. But then things settle down and I think right now we are on the verge of another period of intense change driven by AI. So yeah, it definitely comes in waves. When I look back at those 18 years and you look at different things that have happened, it seems like every year was pretty fast.
Interesting. Although, this year with AI and vision progress... It might seem that way, but these phases come and go. For example I was involved with the start of the BBC News website in 1997, as the world editor running international news. In those years, changes happened extraordinarily fast just in terms of connectivity. We used to connect via a very, very slow modem. The web pages literally took minutes to arrive, and that changed quickly in two or three years.
I mean, 25 years ago, we started the BBC News website. I was on the launch team there. Since then, there have been enormous changes in terms of audience expectations, but also the technological capabilities. We've gone from fixed, wired desktops to mobile devices. There's a rise of platforms and the emergence of social and mobile that have completely transformed expectations in terms of interactivity.
If you think about visual journalism, 20 years ago, we were restricted because of bandwidth. The emergence of HTML5 around 2008 changed that because suddenly it was possible to do things that we previously had thought of, but couldn't. I think that's been a huge part of the changing expectations.
So it's the combination of connectivity, hardware, and internet technologies enabling visual mediums that have changed expectations. Yeah. We had a vision of what digital was going to be, but it was not immediately possible. But the constraints of bandwidth and cost have now largely gone away and, you know, we are able to deliver on the vision.
Going back to the present moment. What changes are you seeing now? In the last year, the changes we're seeing have a lot to do with platforms. People seem quite tired of the old legacy platforms like Facebook and Twitter, for different reasons. There's a decrease in use and a fragmentation of different networks that people use for different purposes. The rise and importance of video and visually led social networks are evident. Instagram has been growing very fast for the last five or six years, and now there's TikTok and YouTube.
YouTube is becoming more popular around the world in general and for news specifically. I don't see text not being important because it gives you a lot of control. But we are seeing more of a shift towards visual and video in a number of different contexts. For instance, even podcasts are becoming visual. Spotify and YouTube are now among the top deliverers of podcasts in many countries. So you have to have video in there.
But this brings us to the next point, which is, what do you think will be the relevance of websites? That's something I've been thinking about. The assumption used to be that the website or the app was everything and other channels were a distraction. Now you have media companies starting with just podcasts or just newsletters, like Axios, and the website is almost secondary or, in some cases, not even considered. You have companies saying they're only going to distribute content via social media. For example, The News Movement does a lot of visual stuff through social media, created by young people, for young people, trying to produce relevant content where people are.
So if you were to start today, would you start with a website? I'm not sure you would, especially because the website model, particularly built on advertising, is really struggling. We've seen the demise of BuzzFeed News and Vice, for example, go into bankruptcy. But the website is not necessarily the answer. The answer is, you have great content and then find the right channels and formats to distribute that content.
But there's very little business model to do it through the platforms. This is the challenge. Even if it was the right thing to do, it's not commercially viable, which is why most media companies still pursue a website-first strategy where they're trying to build loyalty. But on top of that, they've added newsletters and podcasts as a way of building direct connections.
So you build an audience by distributing content where people are and try to give an improved, more custom experience on your own website. I wonder if visual storytelling isn't a good form of an enhanced experience on a platform that a publisher would own? The critical factor in a world of abundant media is you have to stand out, be distinctive, and give people a reason to come to your website and pay for content. Whether it's visual journalism, the quality of the writing, the opinions, or whatever it is, that package has to be better than what's served up by an AI.
Packaging and presentation visual will be a critical part and more defensible in a world where AI can easily scrape the text. Video, audio, and rich media of different kinds are going to be critical, and I think we'll see more of a push in that direction.
Let me ask you this. If I were a citizen journalist or an independent investigative collective and I had a story that is critical to the public, but not very interesting, how would you recommend I approach it? This is a challenge with journalism at the moment, news fatigue and news avoidance. Good journalist organizations need to make important stories relevant and accessible. Visualization is one way of doing it. When I worked in television, we tried to explain important stories by making them human, hooking people in, and then explaining the importance to them.
Then how you get that distributed to the right people is almost as important as creating the story itself. Accessibility and relevance are key. You have to package it in ways that are true to the story, don't dumb down, and make it really easy to understand. The recent stories about the Dam breaking in Ukraine are a good example. The story we're talking about is quite a distance away. It seems it's been caused by the Russians and has resulted in a lot of devastation. This kind of story is easy to empathize with because anyone can imagine it. The pictures really brought it to life. But there were also some great visualizations of the dam and its interiors in 3D, which gave a sense of the complexity of how this catastrophe occurred. The waters spread to the villages below and it was compelling both for web and television when the story came out.
You mentioned news avoidance and news fatigue. I'm wondering how we can counter that. Visualization might help because it feels more immersive and personal but if it's still doom and gloom, it's just going to be more of the same. Yes, it is. We talked about this in last year's report with reference to climate change. There was a fantastic New York Times piece of visual journalism. As you scrolled down, forests would burn and glaciers would melt. Technically it was amazing but also quite depressing. We've seen media companies trying to move away from that approach to give people a sense of hope and agency about what they can do. There was a lot of talk about news avoidance, which showed that in some countries, news avoidance has doubled since 2017. People are turning away because they find the news depressing or anxiety-inducing. It's not everyone but a significant portion of the population.
We need to be aware of that. In some cases, they're turning away because the news doesn't feel relevant or is hard to understand. So it's not accessible enough. This is particularly the case with younger people. That's where visualization really comes in. It makes the story easier to understand. Long words are not very accessible, especially to younger people who often prefer to access news visually or through audio. There are very clear generational differences in the data.
They like things to be explained visually. This is really interesting when you look at TikTok. There are some amazing visual explanations and ways of telling stories quickly.
That's interesting because we're the generation in the middle. We might have had a few years to look at newspapers but quickly started having social media and more visual content. But we did grow up with digital news that was text-based. So, we're used to both. But when we say younger audiences, we're talking about a much younger generation. Yes, we definitely distinguish between Millennials and Gen Z's and we see very sharp differences. Millennials remember newspapers coming through the front door. They sat around and watched evening television. Even if they don't do so today, they have a connection with news brands that younger people don't. Younger people expect it instantly, in the format and platform they prefer, and they're not really prepared to make much effort to do anything different.
So if we want to engage younger audiences in important topics, we really need to focus on visual content or audio content for them? Yes, broadly. There are different behaviors, of course. Some young people, during the Ukraine conflict, turned on the television for a few days. Some people use YouTube all the time, some use Instagram and never use TikTok. Not all young people are using TikTok. Generally, though, they prefer visual content. They're more likely to listen to things because it fits in with their mobile, social environment.
Younger audiences are also a little less likely to trust anything because they've grown up in an environment where they see different perspectives all the time. They kind of expect things to be wrong and take nothing on trust. Older audiences generally still have a sense that, for example, the BBC is trustworthy around certain types of news topics. There's definitely a problem of trust but some of that skepticism is healthy because they're less likely to get fooled than older people."
You mentioned some audio first or newsletter first organizations. Do you have examples of organizations that have adapted well to current audience changes? Or even just new formats of publishers? Yes, there are a lot of amazing examples around the world of media companies that have adapted. It's hard to pick one or two. But I think in the US, Vox Media does an amazing job. Vox Media started by really thinking about how to make news accessible and explainable. But then moving into the video stuff, they've done some brilliant, medium form videos that are both entertaining and accessible, and also podcasts. So, I would say they've done very well.
A lot of the traditional media companies have also done some extraordinary things. The Financial Times, for instance, which you think of as a rather staid organization, has done amazing work around data visualization. They've got into games. So explaining what it's like to be a newspaper delivery driver through visual games was inspired. They've taken a lot of time to learn and iterate how to do that.
Then organizations like The Guardian, which had been one of the first to really adopt and evangelize for visual journalism, have a very strong visual tradition. The BBC has also historically been a leader in visual journalism. I actually helped set up a visual journalism unit for them in 2012, which was really about bringing together the best of TV graphics and online. That critical mass has enabled them to do some fantastic things.
Now, looking at the future, have you noticed any emerging trends or technologies? You mentioned AI earlier that journalists need to be aware of and potentially consider adapting to. A couple years ago, everyone was talking about Web 3 technologies and the Metaverse - they haven't happened yet. But now, Apple just released the mixed reality and Virtual Reality headset combination. I think that's going to be a really slow build and it's not clear how much relevance that will have to journalism. But obviously, everyone's thinking, "What follows the smartphone?" It seems silly, us walking around the streets looking at a small square screen. How much longer is this going to go on for? In the future, it's going to be ambient computing and voice technology.
When voice technology came out, I was very excited about it because it cuts friction. And in a way, it is the future because millions of these devices have been sold for use in homes. But we haven't found all the building blocks yet. AI is making the conversational way of asking questions and getting information work. So, I think voice is going to be an important aspect of the future beyond just screens and touch.
It's often going to be quicker to just say, "What's on television tonight at nine o'clock," than to type it into Google. That's one of the reasons why voice interfaces are going to be important over time.
AI is also going to be transformational in making a lot of processes more efficient, dealing with the relevance challenge, and getting the right piece of content to the right person in the right format. For example, AI can automate the conversion of text stories into voice or visual stories, or into video. Huge developments there can be expected where a lot of content gets made more quickly and more easily, always with some kind of human oversight, of course. This could help with the relevance challenge and I think personalizing tone. Formats will be personalized as well.
Another one I thought of is a personalized weather forecast, delivered by my favorite weather forecaster that is driven by data. The data is changing all the time in the background and the weather forecaster can only do four a day because he gets tired. But you can clone the voice and face, and they are incredibly realistic. You could basically produce a real-time version with your favorite weather forecaster. I am sure we're going to see that kind of thing within a couple of years.
I think people will still have favorite weather forecasters because that's the critical difference. Why would you go to a publisher if you don't have a relationship with somebody? AI isn't going to be able to do the relationship as well as humans.
Thanks so much Nic. This has been very fun. I'm going to think about all this. All right. Thanks for the conversation Tom, goodbye