While fake news continues to compete successfully with real journalism in capturing audiences around the world, digital news has emerged as a surprisingly bright spot for traditional journalistic values, with new business models funding better news content.

Some of this simply reflects the old cliché about a rising tide that floats all boats. The hotly contested 2020 elections and impeachment coverage have already produced growing audiences.

In November, CNN’s total-day ratings from Nielsen climbed to their third-highest level in 11 years, while MSNBC grew its total-day viewers audience by 18% from a year earlier.

Digital-first news services like streaming net CBSN (top) and CNN digital series ‘Anderson Cooper Full Circle’ prolilferated in 2019. 

Digital-first news services like streaming net CBSN (top) and CNN digital series ‘Anderson Cooper Full Circle’ prolilferated in 2019. 

For the full year, Fox News Channel notched its highest-rated year in primetime in its 23-year history, with an average of 2.5 million viewers, per Nielsen.

An even bigger surge of viewing can be found on digital platforms. Fox News Digital had 102 million monthly uniques, up 11% from the prior year.

“People are consuming more news than ever before,” Fox News Digital editor-in-chief Porter Berry said. “With channel viewership and all metrics of digital up in 2019, Fox News is proving that growth in one area doesn’t have to come at the expense of another.”

Video — particularly live video — is one of the fastest-growing segments, said CNN Digital VP of global video Wendy Brundige. CNN had 542 million unique multiplatform video starts in September 2019, Brundige said.

“Video has become ubiquitous,” she said. “There is an expectation that if something newsworthy has happened in front of a camera, we will have it for them … So if you open up the CNN app you will see it chock full of video.”

Paul Shanley, global director of video products for the Associated Press, also stressed the importance of multiplatform news coverage and production. “The traditional lines of how we define news organizations are starting to blur,” he said. “All of these news organizations — radio, TV, print, digital — are now competing across platforms with video. We are really seeing a growing demand for multi-form content for multiple platforms and for immediate content, live content.”

Breaking the Bubble

While fake news and propaganda remains a major problem on social media platforms, a rarely noted trend is the increased popularity of nonpartisan news coverage via digital platforms such as CNN, NBC News, CBS News and Newsy.

VIEWER WATCH 2020: After the Fall

CBSN, CBS News’s 24-hour OTT channel, regularly produces more than 1 million streams a day, said Marc DeBevoise, chief digital officer of ViacomCBS and CEO of CBS Interactive. Total 2019 video streams also beat record levels set in 2018, notable in an off-election year.

The rapid growth of CBSN highlights a growing demand for live, unbiased hard news, CBS News Digital executive VP Christy Tanner said. “We are focused on fact, not opinion, and we have a younger audience [median age of 37 that] is choosing facts not opinion,” she said. “Many people are turned off by there being so much opinion on cable and the idea that people are living in filter bubbles.”

NBC News executive VP of digital Chris Berend agreed. A focus on nonpartisan news and facts has fueled both growth and engagement for the division’s NBC News Now app, which launched in June 2019.

Total hours streamed on the app have been growing at an average of 27% a month since launch. “We have an average session time of around 49 minutes on an average day,” with high levels even on special occasions such as the impeachment hearings, Berend said. “That is incredible engagement.”

“It is pretty clear from the research that there are a lot of people who are looking for news that — for the lack of a better term — is very Cronkite-esque, for news that exists outside the hyperpartisan bubble,” said Blake Sabatinelli, CEO of the E.W. Scripps-owned Newsy, which started as an online news service and now offers news via apps and online as well on a 24/7 cable news channel. “There is a gap in the marketplace that has led to rapid growth of this kind of coverage from us and a number of other digital players.”

Most news executives expect digital audiences, already at record levels, to hit new highs as election coverage heats up over the next year.

Fox News Digital’s Berry agreed: “The public’s appetite is insatiable, especially as we are heading into a major election. In terms of video, consumers want the ability to follow impeachment hearings, watch a viral video or view the day’s headlines wherever they are — from a crowded train in New York or on a tractor in Iowa.”

This reflects not only longstanding trends toward consumption of news on digital platforms. It also reflects a growing awareness that consumers can turn to digital news for immediate coverage not found anywhere else.

New Life for Live

“Consumers know that they can go to us for live coverage when other outlets aren’t turned on,” CBS News Digital’s Tanner said. “We’re building that capability to go live for five years and now we are at the place where we can go live on 10 p.m. on a Friday night when there is a mass shooting. That builds an expectation that viewers can come to services like ours soon as they find out something has happened.”

That will translate into much more live coverage in this election cycle. “There is a big push for more live coverage,” CNN’s Brundige said.

“We are in the midst of one of the craziest news cycles that anyone has ever seen,” she added. “One of our biggest challenges is that the news cycle is so relentless. We have to staff up for that and organize ourselves in a way to really leave no minute of the day uncovered.”

“Velocity is key,” Fox News Digital’s Berry added. “People need to be alerted to breaking news as soon as it happens. They may read in on the day’s events in the morning or during downtime, but during the rest of the day, they depend on reliable sites like ours to keep them informed as news happens.”

Fox News Digital, for example, ended the year with 2.5 billion video views, up 39% over 2018. It also saw multiplatform views jump 13% to 18.1 billion and multiplatform minutes includes to 43.1 billion up 38%

Another key development is improved multiplatform coverage of stories. This reflects the fact that traditional news organizations like CBS News, Fox News and NBC News are ramping up their OTT offerings on mobile, connected TVs and other platforms as well as online players like Newsy moving into traditional TV channels and outlets.

For example, Fox News launched the Fox Nation on-demand streaming platform in November of 2018 and over the last year added thousands of hours of content, with lifestyle and sports content more than doubling.

Newsy’s Sabatinelli noted that after its acquisition by Scripps, the platform launched its own 24/7 TV channel and started sharing content with the station group’s local outlets.

“OTT provides a TV-like environment and there are a greater number of people expecting these [OTT apps] to act more and more like regular channels,” Sabatinelli said. “Having the linear channel helps us program more effectively to a broader multiplatform ecosystem.

Multiplatform Politics

Providing better multiplatform storytelling has been a key strategy at AP that will play a major role in the content it provides its clients during the 2020 election. “As a result of the popularity of social media, we are seeing an increase in the need for immediate content,” said Shanley at AP. “News consumers want to see an event as it unfolds, live. So we have focused on structuring ourselves and getting the right tech in place to respond faster than ever before and increasingly our capability for live video.”

This has meant equipping their journalists with LiveU backpacks that allow them to stream video over mobile networks and with apps to live stream from their smartphones. In addition, the AP has moved to a cloud-based editing system, allowing its journalists to edit stories faster from almost any location.

At the same time, AP has revamped how it approaches stories to provide an array of content for multiple platforms for its clients, Shanley said. Often this means providing live coverage while also providing stories for mobile, social, TV and other platforms.

“We’ve been trying to meet those challenges by focusing on speed and getting content out to customers quickly while at the same time following up with stories that have more context and character driven stories,” to show the human impact of the event, he said.

“We have to approach any story as a cohesive comprehensive user experience,” added Brundige at CNN. “We are able to learn from our digital audiences to make sure we are able to get our journalism to them in the most impactful way and iterate that story as the audience changes and the technology changes.”

Mobile-First Is Still First

Among those platforms, mobile is still key. “The growth in our mobile audiences for video has been rapid,” Brundige said. “Five years, we thought of our video for digital really as a desktop audience first. Now video on mobile is a really great experience and we are thinking about mobile first and how to serve that audience with video.”

But that doesn’t mean simply focusing on short-form content. “People are using their phone from the minute they wake up to the minute they go to bed,” Tanner at CBS said. “So it is not surprising that they are comfortable watching news at length on their phones. The idea that people only want short-form content on their phones is a myth. When there is something compelling, they will watch for an hour.”

Rising consumption on connected TVs is also fueling growing demand for longer-form content and for apps that encourage longer viewing times by serving up a wheel of stories. “We and others are really seeing a move towards long engagement experiences,” said NBC’s Berend.

The news organization reports that users accessing the NBC News Now app on Amazon Fire TV averaged 63 minutes of view time per visit in November.

“If news happens in the middle of the day we are seeing audiences turn on an Apple TV or a Roku to find out what is going on,” he added. “We are seeing weekday, middle-of-the-day spikes in audience when by logic people are at work and not watching TVs.”

“There is an amazing amount of traffic on mobile, Berend added. “The vast majority of unique viewers come through a phone, but when it comes to watching live and when it comes to video or live video in particular, it is quickly moving towards the connected TV.”

This is good news for the economics of the news business. “Connected TVs have the advantage of tapping into an ad inventory we are very accustomed to selling,” Berend said.

Always Connected

Another example of the increasingly diverse array of content likely to be hit digital platforms during the 2020 elections is the growing popularity long form content. “We are seeing a growing demand for archival footage as our clients are producing more long-form content,” said Shanley at AP.

“We are now in our fourth year of producing [longer form] originals and they’ve grown every year — first six, then twelve and then 18 the past two years,” said Tanner at CBS.

This allows CBSN to dive deeply into topics and subjects that are often ignored in the frenzied news cycle, a tactic that will become even more important during the election. CBSN recently aired its 50th original documentary.

One of these, A Climate Reckoning in the Heartland, covered the impact of climate change on farmers in the Midwest. “It was our most popular documentary of the year,” Tanner noted. “The numbers were 150% over our typical original.”

Several of the digital news organizations are also expanding their local content, which will allow them to provide better coverage of developments in key states during 2020.

For example, CBS News Digital has already rolled out local streams from their owned stations in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston into its CBSN app.

“We’ll have nine additional local streams in the first part of 2020,” Tanner said. “So much of the 2020 election is going to require intimate knowledge of what is happening in state and local races and in the regional and local nuances as it related to the national election. Having 13 local streams means that we are to be providing much more granular insights not only to those who live in the region but others outside those areas.”

Newsy’s Sabatinelli agreed. “Being acquired by Scripps means that we can tap into a tremendous network of newsgathering operations at 60 stations in 42 markets and share content back and forth,” he said. “Having a station in a large majority of the top 25 markets means that our footprint is better and us being a national news network means that Scripps’ footprint is bigger.”

The growing popularity of these apps also highlights a generally positive trend towards more objective journalism on digital platforms like CBSN, NBC News Now, CNN and Newsy.

Panel discussion and partisan debates “are certainly a staple on cable news outlets,” said Berend at NBC News. “We have purposefully positioned NBC News Now right down the middle and very based it on expertise and field reporting and having people on the ground. It is much more about the newsgathering footprint than about studio chat.”

The fact that many people are taking the trouble to find and use these app. means that the demand for more non-partisan coverage continues to grow, Berend and others believe.

“OTT app users are true superfans,” said Sabatinelli at Newsy. “They made a choice, not just to turn you on but to find the app, download it and to install it.”

These superfans, he said, are hungry for nonpartisan news focusing on the issues. “We have no pundits or opinion commentary or large desks of people arguing with each other,” Sabatinelli, CEO of Newsy, continued. “From the moment you turn us on, you’ll see something that looks very different. From an actual coverage perspective it is really about stripping away surface ideas and digging into real policy positions of the candidates so that the viewer has a better understanding of what they are voting for and make a decision for themselves. That comes down to the core tenets of why we get into journalism in the first place.” 

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