Ten revelations about how we consume digital news

by Timothy Large | @timothylarge | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 16 June 2015 18:15 GMT

Japanese women in kimonos use smart phones inside a train in Tokyo. REUTERS/Yuya Shino

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Smartphones, online video and “native” advertising are changing the way we devour news, a survey shows

This week, any journalist at the headquarters of The New York Times who tries to access the desktop version of the newspaper's homepage will receive a curt message telling them to look at the site on their cell phone or tablet.

Aside from being clever marketing - the internal memo about the paper's "mobile week" experiment made plenty of headlines - the gimmick underlines the fact that many traditional news outlets are racing to catch up with the smartphone revolution. We long ago elegised the printed page; increasingly, we're saying goodbye to the desktop too.

For proof, look no further than today’s release of the Digital News Report 2015 by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.

"We see the smartphone more clearly as the defining device for digital news with a disruptive impact on consumption, formats, and business models," writes co-author Nic Newman. "Our data suggest it provides an environment dominated by a few successful brands, with others struggling to reach a wider audience, both via apps and browsers."

Based on a poll of more than 20,000 people in 12 countries, the fourth annual study of the changing landscape of digital news consumption examines how people find, share and devour news - and whether they're willing to fork out for it.

Countries surveyed were the United States, Britain, Germany, Spain, Italy, France, Ireland, Denmark, Finland, Brazil, Japan and Australia. The interactive online report makes insightful reading, but here are 10 highlights – perhaps best read on your cell phone or iPad. 

News is in your pocket

Like fast food, people increasingly want their news to go. A quarter say the smartphone is their main means of getting digital news, compared with 20 percent last year. Bigger screens mean people are using tablets less - and shunning laptops and desktops.

People are still news scrooges

Depressingly for publishers, this year's report shows "no discernible trend towards an increase in paid online content - or in willingness to pay". Despite a few successes in turning loyal readers into paying subscribers, news providers are failing to convince casual consumers to reach into their pockets.

Gateways are changing

In the good old days, you fired up your trusted news homepage and started catching up on the day's events there. Now people are more likely to access news via search engines, social networks or emails.

Facebook is the social media gorilla

Many news providers fretted that changes to Facebook's mysterious algorithm would deprive them of clicks. In fact, publishers are reporting more traffic than ever. Over 41 percent of respondents use Facebook to find, read, watch, share or comment on news each week. That’s more than twice the usage of the nearest social media rival.

People aren’t as appy as they seem

While 70 percent of smartphone users have installed a fancy news app on their machines, only a third actually use it, "reinforcing the difficulty many news brands have in cutting through on this crowded and very personal device".

People do watch news videos online

News outfits are pumping out more web video content, motivated by new possibilities for distribution and higher advertising premiums than they can get for text news. The revelation is that more people are actually watching the stuff, especially in Spain, Denmark, Britain, Italy and Japan.

But TV is still king

Even as online news flourishes and gets more mobile – and while print news continues to decline – the goggle box remains the most important and widely trusted source of news in most countries. The United States and Finland are exceptions, where online news is ahead.

People like to be alerted

It's the 21st-century equivalent of the old town crier or "Extra, extra, read all about it". The report shows a big jump in the use of mobile alerts and notifications. The launch of the Apple Watch is likely to increase the trend, it says.

Local news outfits want global eyeballs

Once upon a time, the Guardian served an audience in Manchester. Then it went national. Now it's battling with the Daily Mail, New York Times, BBC and CNN for English-speaking audiences across the globe. Meanwhile, the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and Vice are expanding their international reach. All of which shows the power of the internet to remove barriers around distribution.

"Native" advertising is on the march

As traditional online advertising (think banner ads) has "an existential crisis", we're seeing more "native" advertising, which the Guardian defines as the "practice of using content to build trust and engagement with would-be customers". Many news organisations – including the Guardian, New York Times, Washington Post, Buzzfeed, Vox and Vice – have set up special editorial teams to work with brands on content. "The area is particularly controversial in the industry because it tends to blur the line between editorial and advertising," the report says.

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