Social media is on the rise, but not like you’d expect

Photo: AP The Reuters Institute Digital News Report is co-sponsored by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, and is available online at digitalnewsreport.org. Click here to see a discussion of the report, and here to read Emily Bell’s analysis of Tow research on the close relationship between platforms and publishers.

As readers worldwide increasingly rely on distributed news—found through social media and other aggregators, rather than on a publication’s homepage—their awareness of newspaper brands and individual journalists may be deteriorating.

The decline of print, the growing use of smartphones and social media, and the rise of ad blockers are changing the way we get our news. But a new report this week by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism suggests that the rise of social media as a journalistic platform is also changing the way readers understand what news is and how it is produced.

 

Shift from traditional news

The 2016 Reuters Institute Digital News Report is based on a YouGov survey about several different platforms for news access, including traditional media like TV, radio, and print, as well as digital outlets. Not surprisingly, social media is the big winner. Across the 26 countries and 50,000 online news consumers surveyed, half of respondents say they use social media for news, and 12 percent say it is their main source for news. In the United States, the number of people who use social media for news has almost doubled since 2013, and this number is expected to rise. 

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Social media is not just a new way to access and read news, it is also changing the patterns and culture around news consumption. With alerts about breaking news, we no longer have to go to The New York Times homepage—the stories come to us. Social media and smartphones have also changed how we interact with news throughout the day: 17 percent of those in the US report their first daily point of contact with the news is through their smartphone. Only 6 percent are reading print first thing in the morning.

 

Social media is not just a new way to access and read news, it is also changing the patterns and culture around news consumption.

 

These numbers vary with geography, along with the cultural habits of each country. France and Germany, for instance, have the largest percentage of traditional news consumption of the countries surveyed, despite the rise in social platforms, because of “a strong tradition of sitting down and watching the evening TV bulletins,” Reuters notes. Likewise, in Finland and Japan, where digital literacy is high, “a significant minority still sit down with a printed newspaper in the morning.” And while Facebook is the largest social network for news worldwide, people in other countries also rely on a variety of other news aggregators and messaging apps to share news with friends.

One of the most surprising findings of the Reuters report is that news consumers on social media don’t necessarily watch video. Platforms and publishers alike have been pouring money into video sharing, such as Facebook Live. One Facebook executive even predicted last week that in the next five years video will replace the written word. But the report suggests that many news consumers are resistant to watching video because it is faster to read an article, and because of the ads that often precede videos. While video consumption is highest in the United States at 33 percent, heavy social media users are about 50 percent more likely to access online news videos, making it likely that as social media use continues to increase, so will video consumption.         

 

Is social media the new public sphere?

The Reuters study supports the notion that social media is encouraging discourse and debate around the news. A quarter of news readers on social media share links during the week, and these same people, the report notes, “are people who tend to be passionate about subjects like politics, business, technology, or the environment.” 

But by consuming the news through the medium of a social network, there is a risk that readers only see a selection of news stories personalized to their own past consumption patterns and unique social circle. Social media platforms use algorithms, based on reading habits, to target readers with news the platform thinks will be of interest. The director of research at Reuters, Rasmus Klein Nielsen, writes in the report that readers do like getting news that is personalized for them by algorithms—and that they often prefer this to news that is selected by the editorial process.

 

Platforms and publishers alike have been pouring money into video sharing, such as Facebook Live. But the report suggests that many news consumers are resistant to watching video.

 

The upside is that readers also tend to be worried that they will “miss out on important information and challenging viewpoints.” Nic Newman, the author of the Reuters report, said in a Facebook Live-BBC broadcast that 70 percent of people are concerned with missing out on viewpoints as a result of personalization of news, suggesting that social media users are more informed about changes in their news ecosystem than expected.

This is something to keep an eye on. As personalized news, tailored to our particular identities and interests, becomes more popular, it is important to remain aware that our social circle has an impact on the stories we read and watch—to the exclusion of other stories and viewpoints.

 

Awareness of news brands

As Facebook has become a major source of online news consumption, replacing news organizations’ homepages as a destination, citizens’ relationships to newspaper brands is shifting. When a New York Times article appears on a Facebook feed, are readers paying attention to the source, or focusing mainly on the headline, image, or content with little concern about the news brand and whether they trust it?

In the US, only 52 percent reported that they notice news brands on social media, and only 49 percent on aggregators. In Japan and South Korea, brands are only noticed about a quarter of the time when accessed through aggregators. While these numbers vary in different countries, the Reuters report indicates that in a distributed news environment, consumers care less about news brand. The report also suggests that while people have an idea about which brands they trust for “hard news,” “soft news” is growing in reach, especially on social media. And for “soft news,” people seem less concerned about brand.

 

Because Facebook and other social media platforms have the ability to shape how new stories are presented on their site, they also have the power to change the meaning and resonance of the way citizens relate to the brand at large.

 

Even if readers are tangentially aware of branding when they see a news article on social media, it’s possible that over time the strength of this branding will be diluted by how it is presented in newsfeeds. Because Facebook and other social media platforms have the ability to shape how new stories are presented on their site, they also have the power to change the meaning and resonance of the way citizens relate to the brand at large.

And the erosion of brand loyalty poses a threat to the integrity of journalism. As brands become less visible, there is a danger that the lines between news and information, reporting, and narrative will become blurred.

Of course, the relationships between brands, trust, and social media are complex, and the political and cultural context of those relationships is hugely important. We see this in the example of Greece, where media availability and consumption has been influenced by the economic climate. There, social media is the main source of news, more than TV and print combined—in large part because people don’t trust traditional news organizations.

 

The survival of publishers

The awareness of news organization brands also has implications for the business models of newspapers. Facebook has both provided a new venue for newspapers to reach readers and enabled people to see diverse publications in their newsfeeds. But if people aren’t aware of which outlets their news is coming from, they may be less likely to pay for particular brands. The danger of this is that publishers themselves will become irrelevant.

Journalism is in desperate need of a business model that can support reporting and publishing in the face of decreased revenues from both declining digital ads and subscriptions. (The exception to this rule is the Scandinavian countries. In Sweden, despite a 6 percent decrease in print circulation, there is a 20 percent rate of payment of online news. The report suggests this may be due to language barriers—Swedish language news is not globally available for free in the way that English language news is, for instance.)

“There is a real air of defeatism in the industry about even the possibility of getting readers to pay,” writes Mark Thompson, CEO of The New York Times, in an essay for the report on “The Challenging New Economics of Journalism.” But prospects for advertising are equally grim, he writes. Thompson’s advice? Make every story worth paying for. And charge readers for it. So far, the Times has been seeing success in a strategy of digital subscriptions. But Facebook’s ability to erase the brand visually from the newsfeed puts even this strategy at risk. As CEO of Edelman UK and Ireland Ed Williams adds, “if they can’t trust a source, their view is, why should I pay for this?”

The digital news environment is changing so quickly, it can be hard to keep up. But behind all news is a relationship with readers. The Reuters Institute Digital News Report reminds us that, for a full picture of global digital news, publishers need to pay attention not just to numbers, but to the way news weaves into our lives.

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Smitha Khorana and Nausicaa Renner are the authors of this article. Smitha Khorana is a Tow Center post-doctoral fellow at Columbia Journalism School. Nausicaa Renner is an associate editor at the Columbia Journalism Review and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. She tweets at @nausjcaa.