News publishing on smartphones and social media, a threat or an opportunity?

Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism publishes its fourth annual Digital News Report.

As the smartphone becomes the defining device for online news and the environment is dominated by a few successful brands, publishers will increasingly struggle to reach a wider audience, both via apps and browsers, according to the fourth annual Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ).

Across all countries a quarter of the respondents (25%) now say the smartphone is their main device for accessing digital news – up from 20% last year. That figure rises to two-fifths (41%) of those aged under 35.

Within the growing social space, Facebook is easily the most popular social network for news consumption, enjoying more than twice the audience of its nearest rival, YouTube. The report shows a 42% increase year-on-year in referrals from Facebook to the top 20 global news organisations, showing the increasing importance of social media in driving traffic and revenue. The proportion of all respondents that say they read or shared news on Facebook in the last week grew from 35% to 41% year-on-year.

Debate has stormed across the media industry as to whether partnering with new services from the likes of Facebook will be an invaluable traffic and revenue driver – or whether publishers will eventually find themselves increasingly beholden to third parties such as Google, Apple and Facebook.

“Fragmentation of news provision, which weakens the bargaining power of journalism organisations, has coincided with a concentration of power in platforms,” said Emily Bell, director of the Tow Centre at Columbia University, in a lead commentary for the report.

The report also found that although 70% of smartphone users have downloaded a news app, only a third actually use them on a weekly basis.

“The reality is that only the most loyal users are downloading and using apps,” said Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of research at the RISJ. “For others, social media, messaging apps, email and mobile notifications are becoming an increasingly important route to news”.

Kleis Nielsen speaks about the relative difficulty in monetising content on mobile devices compared to traditional desktop websites, and the rise of ad-blocking technology, means that news brands will find it increasingly hard to make money.

The report also found that the paid-access model is facing issues, with only a small year-on-year increase in the number of people willing to pay.

“A small number of loyal readers have been persuaded to pay for brands they like but it is proving hard to convert casual readers when there is so much free news available from both commercial media companies and public service media,” the report says.

Read the full report here.