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Poles apart: how polarisation is changing the face of global news

OC&C partner Toby Chapman assesses the political climate's impact on news organisations

In 1980, the right-wing of the Democrats and the left-wing of the Republicans in the United States overlapped. Now, a significant shift has meant we see fewer moderates and a clear ideological gap between the two parties. With US politics in 2019 so divided, media organisations can either choose to play into the trend and pursue particular audiences, (eg Fox News) or strike a non-partisan tone and build appeal based around “objectivity” (eg The New York Times). Which approach has been most successful? It’s difficult to judge.

With further political polarisation, more radical political positions are articulated, and though intangible, the “tone” of discourse has changed, particularly in the US. Readers in Britain remain more moderate in their opinions, with most major outlets rated highly for trust and receiving consistent ratings from the left and right. However there are a number of key learnings that can be observed from the US media organisations.

The difference in consumer ratings of UK and US across the political spectrum

One of the biggest challenges now for mainstream news brands is a lack of distinctiveness, both in voice and in visual identity – particularly as they translate a traditional TV brand into the digital space. What’s clear is it’s becoming increasingly difficult to cut through the crowded landscape.

Fake news

In both the UK and US, there is deep cross-generational and cross-political concern about “fake news” and bias in the media. People on both sides of the Atlantic expect social media platforms to do more to take responsibility and combat fake news. But beyond this, US audiences are readier to give individuals responsibility to deal with fake news, while UK audiences focus more on government regulation.

OC&C Strategy Consulting’s 2018 Digital Media Index showed that people in the UK believe Facebook should take the biggest blame for fake news, in contrast to those in the US believing it is mostly due to users creating fake content.

How concerned different age groups across the UK and US are about fake news and its impact

There’s no doubt that news needs to be seen as trustworthy and entertaining for brands to excel in 2019. As the term “clickbait” entered our collective consciousness, there was theory that engagement with the younger generations was about clever social distribution tactics and high entertainment value regardless of content. However, brands that have epitomised this strategy – such as BuzzFeed and Mail Online – are now struggling. In BuzzFeed’s case this has also been reflected in weaker financial performance.

Both entertainment value and perceived trustworthiness are necessary to achieve high ratings from consumers – as seen in TED, NPR, The Rubin Report and others. And this trend is only set to grow.

Younger generations

As new generations come of age, the way news articles are found and consumed continue to shift. It’s well understood that younger generations find their news in very different ways to older generations. After growing up with social media, Gen Z and Millennials are much more likely to use it to find their news compared to Gen X or Baby Boomers; as a result, the importance of social media for online news and magazines will continue to increase. This creates challenges for digital news organisations both in how to package content for social media consumption, and in how to monetise content when they have less control over the context it’s seen in.

However, while younger generations are consuming more news through social media than older generations, what’s surprising is they are actually using it less than in previous years. In 2016, our Digital Media Index showed 36 per cent of under 25s used social media as the primary outlet for finding news, lifestyle and information and content online. In 2018, this decreased by over a quarter to 26 per cent. There is a combination of reasons for this; Facebook’s algorithm changes, a sense of social media fatigue, and worries about trust following numerous privacy scandals have all taken their toll.

Despite this, news publishers are obsessing about social media and neglecting other key areas such as search, building awareness and usage patterns, and leveraging email newsletters. Organisations would do well to check their own traffic trends, and compare this to how much resource and attention they are putting into optimising for social media with how much is going into building their own awareness and trust with younger audiences. The answer might not be what you expect.

Digital native brands

Good retail stores obsess about their storefront and its appeal to consumers. Successful digital news and magazines do the same. Highly rated brands have clean, well-organised homepages, striking a distinctive tone of voice and appearance. Brands like the Financial Times and The New York Times have been deliberate about adapting the look and feel of their print editions. Outside of the mainstream, brands such as The Outline are experimenting with more extreme, fresh graphical approaches, while video site TED mixes a graphic-heavy approach with strong personalisation.

For success in today’s challenging times, some brands will be looking to simply weather the storm. For others, it will be a time to carve their own digital identity. The most successful brands have taught us:

  • Be clear about who the audience is and what you stand for
  • Take inspiration from leading online consumer brands – create a distinctive voice, visual identity and “purposeful” story
  • Build your brand around trustworthy, exclusive content – and distinctive, entertaining delivery to attract younger news consumers
  • Social media is only one avenue for optimising traffic
  • Build avenues for engaging more directly with your audience through personalised content offerings, email, live events, and other media, including podcasts and video
  • It is not sufficient to repackage print content for online delivery – online audiences expect more
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