June is marked every year by the release of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s Digital News Report. The report this year tells a story of news media increasingly challenged by misinformation and falling trust in the news, as well as political attacks and business challenges.

Many other outlets have done an excellent job of covering the findings if you haven’t yet had chance to read it yourself – we’re linking to the best ones we find in our daily newsletter, and this piece on the top 5 trends from journalism.co.uk is a good place to start.

But given our own expertise in podcasting, we were reading with a slightly different perspective; to see how news organisations and audiences are responding to audio. Here are five podcast-related findings from the report:

News podcasting is a bright spot

Podcasts get a couple of mentions in the key findings of the report. Senior Research Associate Nic Newman points out that news podcasting “remains a bright spot for publishers, attracting a younger, well-educated audience.” Podcasting is clearly seen as a growth area by publishers, with The Reuters Institute’s January survey showing that publishers would be prioritising video, podcasts and newsletters as growth areas.

However, the Digital News Report 2024 says that podcasting is still a ‘minority activity’ overall. On average, 35% of people across the surveyed countries access a podcast monthly, with 13% accessing a show related to news and current affairs.

The format is also proving fruitful for start-ups in the space, as well as the established news players. The report notes “strong independent sector” emerging with a range of new launches for politics and economic shows, as well as US spin-offs for shows like the News Agents.

…but growth is slow

Perhaps surprisingly given its popularity among young people and the push from platforms like Spotify to increase accessibility and discoverability of podcasts, the share of podcast listening for news shows is still roughly the same as it was seven years ago.

That’s a surprising result, given the runaway success of even new launches from news publishers. Newman theorises that “many markets have become saturated with content, making it hard for new shows to be discovered, and also for existing shows to grow audiences.”

But it does also point to the growth potential for podcasts as a vehicle for news. Perhaps there are other reasons for the stagnation in growth…such as the lack of shows which appeal to more diverse audiences.

News podcasts are male-dominated

There’s a fascinating chapter in the report dedicated to the rise of alternative voices and news influencers. Podcasts have a part to play in this, particularly as some of the best-known news and politics shows are heavily skewed towards male listeners and are dominated by male hosts and guests.

The report pinpoints the US in particular where these personalities are emerging. They aren’t newsgathering themselves but are seen as news ‘influencers’. “Whatever the politics, the look is remarkably consistent – somewhere between a podcast and a TV broadcast – with mostly male hosts armed with oversized microphones talking to mostly male guests,” it states.

The opportunity for news publishers here is to bring in diverse voices in podcasting. This has been identified by leading researchers as a way not just to bring in more female listeners, but potentially as a way to overcome news avoidance and a lack of interest in news in younger people. 

Audio is seen as a way of reducing reliance on platform algorithms

Podcasts are increasingly being seen as high engagement opportunities for publishers, building habit and loyalty with listeners. Leading organisations like the New York Times and Schibsted “have joined public broadcasters in trying to build their own platforms for distribution to compete with giants like Spotify, using exclusive content or windowing strategies to drive direct traffic,” the report states.

It also points to the strength of podcasts within a product portfolio. Legacy print publishers are ramping up podcast production, “finding the combination of text and audio a good fit for specialist journalistic beats, and relatively low cost compared to video.”

Although video continues to be a high – if not the top priority – for many publishers, the cost of podcasting is low enough for most publishers to be able to recoup investment with even the most primitive of revenue strategies.

Lines continue to blur between podcasts and video

But despite the power and popularity of audio, it’s impossible to ignore the looming spectre of video podcasts. The report notes that many of the most popular podcasts are now filmed and distributed via video platforms like YouTube and TikTok, “further blurring the lines between podcasts and video.”

That is a whole report in itself, and it’s not clear the extent to which audiences themselves are able to define what the difference between a video and a ‘video podcast’ is. Nonetheless, if guests are being booked into publisher studios, recording and distributing the video is seen as an easy win for many, with the New Statesman’s Chris Stone recently describing how podcasts are now the “spine” of their multimedia strategy.

The last word

The report helpfully breaks down the number of people in each country who listen to podcasts each month. Joint at the top are Spain and the US, with 44% of people in those countries listening to at least one podcast monthly (compared to the average of 35%). Portugal is also a high performer with 42%, and more surprisingly is Ireland, where 43% say they listened to a podcast within the last month.

Sweden has had high rates of listening for a while, which is also a reason why Swedish publishers have been investing heavily in audio. 43% of people in Sweden have listened to a podcast in the past month. “Recently, organisations such as Aftonbladet (Schibsted) and Expressen (Bonnier) have expanded into audio formats such as podcasts as well as TV,” the report notes. “Aftonbladet has invested in news personalisation, whereas Svenska Dagbladet (Schibsted) has adopted a ‘podcast-first’ approach.”

But what is very absent from the report is more than a passing mention of newsletters. The Reuters Institute’s Journalism, media, and technology trends and predictions 2024 survey from January showed that the majority of publishers would be focusing on creating more newsletters (+52 net score) and more podcasts (+47). 

Given that just 5% of respondents to the report said email was the main way they came across news, is there a vast gulf here in where publishers are putting their efforts, compared to where audience interest is?

Or, like podcasts, are publishers aware that the smaller number of readers who engage through email are in fact far more valuable? With social media and search traffic under threat, news publishers have little choice but to try to move the needle on that 5%.

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