Influential annual news review charts growth of 'weird news'

  • @iburrell

Weird news - from Sainsbury’s including a mannequin in a “slave costume” as part of a promotional display to Fox News accidentally broadcasting a picture of a penis in its coverage of a helicopter crash – is overtaking entertainment and celebrity stories as the key driver of traffic on digital news sites, according to a major report from an Oxford University-based institute.

The Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2014 said that the hunger for “weird news” was especially popular with young men – whereas interest in entertainment and celebrity stories was heavily concentrated among women aged 18-35.

Nic Newman, the report’s author, said: “This weird and fun news is often computer-generated or doctored but there is informational content in there too. Young men are driving a lot of this because what they enjoy is having a laugh and it’s very shareable on social media.”

In the UK, 15 per cent of respondent rated fun/weird news as important to them, compared to 17 per cent who wanted entertainment/celebrity stories. But in numerous other markets – including the US, France, Italy, Spain and Japan – weird news is already considered more valuable. In Japan, 28 per cent of Internet users want weird news.

The study has cast doubt on the idea that Britain is destined to follow the American model when it comes to the way news and information is accessed online. “We may all get to the American model but my sense is we won’t,” said Newman.

Researchers found that UK traditional news brands were in a far stronger position than those in the US, where news aggregation sites and “pure player” internet operations such as the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed have become more influential.

In the UK, 55 per cent of respondents used traditional news brands online in the previous week (compared to 41 per cent of US respondents), whereas 16 per cent in the UK had used internet pure players (compared to 39 per cent in the US).  “Britain is much more about strong national news brands and there has not been as much room for disruption,” said Newman.

Judy Harman, planning director of Newsworks, which represents the UK’s national newspapers, said there were cultural differences at play. “In the US there’s more of a tendency to chuck out the old when you take in the new – in the UK we are more likely to weave in the new with the old and we need to have brands that we can trust.” She said news sites had innovated to offer a range of services beyond “just sticking the newspaper online”.

There are marked differences between British and American web users in terms of how they share content on social media, with Britons being more cautious about aligning themselves with a news story. Whereas 54 per cent of people in Brazil shared news items weekly - compared to 44 per cent of Italians and 35 per cent of Americans - just 16 per cent of the UK sample said they shared such content. Only the Japanese, whose news organisations have been slow to embrace the Internet, shared less online news. “We don’t feel as comfortable about opening up our views online,” said Newman. “And we are more anonymous online than other nations.”

The study detected a marked difference between America and Europe when it came to expectations of objectivity in news. The report stated: “European respondents remain strongly committed to news that tries to be neutral (or impartial) but Americans are more interested in hearing from brands and reporters that are open about their own views and biases.”

Some 85 per cent of the UK sample wanted a reporter on a news story to present them with a range of views. That figure fell to 79 per cent among Americans and 69 per cent among Italians – with the other 31 per cent preferring the author to provide a “particular point of view”.

The UK has lost its position as a leader in smartphone use, despite a rise from 29 per cent in 2013 to 33 per cent in 2014. It trails France, Italy, Spain and, most of all, Denmark (which had the highest penetration of smartphones at 52 per cent). UK tablet use rose from 16 per cent to 23 per cent last year, a take up matched only by Finland and Denmark (both 34 per cent).

The UK, Germany and Denmark all have the highest percentage (24 per cent) of people who cite mobile as their main source of digital news. Denmark (19 per cent) is the only market that beats the UK (16 per cent) for use of news apps.

Sites such as the Huffington Post and Buzzfeed, which are often cited in America as being future models for news and information provision, enjoy very limited traction in Europe. The HuffPo is visited by a hefty19 per cent of users in the US, by 9 per cent in the UK and only 3 per cent in Germany, where it is less-established. The report found that Facebook was the primary social media network for news in all countries surveyed. Twitter is “widely used” as a news source in the UK, the US and Spain – but is “far less influential” elsewhere in Europe.