Public service broadcasters failing public
Public service media are in crisis. They are struggling to reach younger, less educated audiences. A Reuters' Institute report suggests they risk decline and irrelevance.
The audience for public service news is old and educated. Public service media in many countries is failing to provide a universal service. They are struggling to reach younger audiences and people with limited formal education.
These are the findings of a report called Old, Educated, and Politically Diverse: The Audience of Public Service News by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. It’s an alarming read for anyone concerned about news literacy.
“The challenges that face public service [news] media are bigger than is acknowledged," said Prof. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, the report's co-author.
"If they do not find more compelling and engaging ways of delivering online news they will not be able to deliver on their public service mission, or justify the public funding they receive."
The report draws on survey data from the 2019 Digital News Report. It covers eight European countries: Finland, Germany, United Kingdom, Czech Republic, Spain, Italy, France and Greece.
Online versus offline reach
The report finds that public service media struggles to engage with audiences online. Most of the people they reach online are already reached offline.
The BBC is a notable exception. It's the only public service media whose cross-platform reach is significantly (10%) greater. In most cases online adds five per cent or less to the audience reach.
"If the online performance of these news brands does not improve, public service media risk continued decline and irrelevance to much of the public," said Dr. Anna Schulz, lead author of the report.
Reaching younger audiences
The report compares online and offline news consumption by 18- to 25-year-old. It benchmarks against rival commercial online news media, Facebook and YouTube.
Social media platforms are the primary source of news in many European countries. Herein lies a flaw in the research as public service news is also served via these platforms.
Young audiences cite Facebook as a source of news in seven out of eight countries. YouTube ranks higher in six of eight countries covered.
Older and educated audiences
The report documents how public service news audiences skew towards older people. Over 55s account for about half of total weekly reach, ranging from 42% (Czech Republic) to 52% (Germany).
Public service media relies on offline news content to reach younger people. Half or more of the 18- to 24-year-old audience reached offline only in most countries.
Public service news may be exacerbating social inequality rather than closing this gap. The report finds that public service news is less used by those with limited formal education.
In Germany, only 13% of the least-educated group use the ARD and ZDF online services at least once a week. This compares with 17% of the wider population. This number drops to 11% for RAI in Italy, 9% for RTVE in Spain, and 8% for the joint PSMs’ online services in France.
Trust and political balance
The report benchmarks public and private sector broadcasters. It considers whether the audience leans to the left or the right of the political spectrum compared with the population.
It finds that the further from the centre, the more polarised is a news provider’s audience. News providers in the centre tend to have audiences that appeal to those on both the left and the right.
In five of the eight countries covered by the report public service news is trusted more on average than their private competitors. Therein lies a key tenant of its value.