Social media growing as a gateway to news

Social platforms in global ‘battle for attention’, finds Reuters Institute

The audience for social media is  fragmenting, with different players dominating in different countries. Photograph: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

The audience for social media is fragmenting, with different players dominating in different countries. Photograph: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Thu, Jun 12, 2014, 01:10

WhatsApp is emerging as “a key network for news” in some countries, while Twitter is influential but not as popular as journalists sometimes assume, a new report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism suggests.

The Digital News Report 2014, published today, finds that after shaking up “the comfortable old world of news” the audience for social media is itself fragmenting, with different players dominating in different countries.

Facebook retains its position as by far the biggest social media platform for news, with more than a third of the 18,859 people surveyed by YouGov across 10 countries saying they accessed news via the network. But though it has established a powerful position across all the markets studied, the “battle for attention” among other social media brands has thrown up a variety of winners.

The rise of messaging network WhatsApp, which was acquired by Facebook in February for $19 billion, has been “particularly striking”, the institute says. In Spain, 60 per cent of the survey respondents had used the network in a given week, while 26 per cent had used it for news following experiments by traditional news providers such as El País.

WhatsApp was also found to have a strong news function in Brazil, where 15 per cent of the urban-located survey sample use it for that purpose, and in Italy, where it is used to access news by 13 per cent. In the UK, however, just 2 per cent had used it for news and only 12 per cent had used it for any purpose.

The institute describes the use of messaging apps for discovering and sharing news as an “intriguing finding” in this year’s study, the third of its kind.

Over the past year, a number of news organisations have also developed specific services for Instagram, also owned by Facebook, as a way of reaching younger audiences, it notes.

Twitter, which has garnered a reputation as a platform for breaking and distributing headlines, is not widely used for accessing news in markets such as Germany and Finland but it is used for this purpose by 8 per cent of US consumers, 12 per cent in the UK and 21 per cent in Spain.

The study attributes Twitter’s relative popularity in these countries to the fact that leading broadcasters (the BBC, CNN) and newspapers (El País, the New York Times and the Guardian) have promoted its use.

Twitter tends to be more valued by heavy news users, or “news lovers”, according to the report’s author, Nic Newman: “Twitter users are actively interested in the news and tend to seek it out. Facebook users tend to bump into the news.”

More detailed YouGov analysis of the UK market shows that 64 per cent of Twitter users in the country get news through one or more type of professional “news account”. On average, the people who followed journalists follow seven journalists.

Although the report warns of the general risk of a “news echo chamber”, it notes that Twitter users may be exposed to accounts they wouldn’t normally see in their timelines. About two-thirds of UK users were found to have interacted (via a reply, favourite or retweet) with a journalist or media group they don’t follow.

“As a result, the influence of journalists and news organisations is probably more significant than the headline numbers suggest,” the report says.

YouTube, meanwhile, is “a vital conduit” in some countries “but almost unused for news in others”. In Italy the video network is used by 23 per cent of news consumers, while in France it is used by 16 per cent.

But it is used by just 6 per cent of people in the UK for news purposes, with media organisations in the country reluctant to put too much video content on to the platform, in the hope of attracting users directly to their own websites. Online video news, however, is “not taking off as fast online as many news organisations would like”, the report concludes.

Although accessing news through direct engagement with news brands or through search engines remains more common overall, the report stresses the growing importance of social media recommendations as a gateway to news for smartphone-armed younger consumers. As Newman puts it, “the digital generation expects the news to come to them”.