There has arguably never been more intense competition for audiences’ attention, for advertisers’ budgets and for households’ media spending than there is today.

In this environment, it is more important than ever to ask, “What are the problems that media solve?” If we don’t clearly understand what value media provide for people – and how, it is hard to see how the industry can find sustainable business models that can fund content creation and guarantee their independence from various eager would‑be patrons.

At the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, we are focused specifically on the future of journalism and news media worldwide, so I will focus particularly on the public’s perception of the value of news. The basis is survey data from the 2019 edition of our annual Reuters Institute Digital News Report, a survey of the news media habits and attitudes of online news users across 38 markets on six continents.

The report documents the uncomfortable fact that a large part of the public – in some countries a clear majority – do not feel that the news media delivers in solving the problems that journalism often purports to address.

Take the primary value proposition of most news media: “We keep people up to date with what is going on.” Some 62% of our survey respondents across 38 markets say they agree the news media does that. That leaves more than a third who disagree.

What about higher up the value chain, where many involved in news media might say, “We help people understand the news of the day”? Across 38 markets, just 51% of respondents agree with this statement. Only just over half of internet news users feel the news helps them understand the world around them.

Even more ambitiously, some news media organizations might say, “We monitor powerful people and businesses.” But while journalists may want to be watchdogs, much of the public see lapdogs (or perhaps mad dogs). Just 42% across 38 markets agree news media monitors the powerful.

Whether people are right in their judgement about these things is substantially important. But it is almost irrelevant in terms of their experience of value, where perception is a large part of the reality.

If a third of the public do not feel the news helps them keep up to date, why would they pay attention to the news? If nearly half of the public do not feel that the news helps them understand the world around them, why would they pay for it? If more than half of the public do not feel news media monitors powerful people and businesses, why would they donate to non‑profit media or accept the use of public funds to support private media or public‑service media?

Of course, there are important variations from country to country in terms of how much people value the media, and there are some individual news media brands that stand out against people’s experience of an ocean of disappointment and mediocrity.

But it is clear that many people – and our data suggests especially young people – do not feel we are worth their while. The media industry has to address this fundamental problem and demonstrate to the public that independent news and professional journalism is valuable for them, for their communities and for society. If we do not deliver value to them, why would they value us?

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Professor of Political Communication, University of Oxford

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