Executive Summary and Key Findings of the 2012 Report

This first Reuters Institute Digital News Report provides a fascinating overview of news consumption in the transition to digital across the UK and four other countries. The value of this kind of longitudinal study will build over time as we see changes in the data year on year and we hope to increase the size and scope of our international survey – but already we can identify a number of emerging themes, which will be of interest to anyone concerned about the future of journalism and its role in supporting a civic society.

Key findings

  • There are significant differences in how regularly people keep up with the news across our surveyed countries. Almost 9 in 10 Germans access the news at least once a day compared with only 3 in 4 people in the United Kingdom.
  • The rapid switch from print to digital in the United States is not being replicated exactly in European countries. Germany is showing the strongest allegiance to traditional viewing and reading habits and has the lowest levels of internet news use.
  • Online is the most frequently accessed form of news for young internet users – with television remaining most popular for older groups. In general those who’ve grown up with the internet are showing markedly different consumption habits online. They discover and share more news through social networks and show less loyalty to traditional media platforms.
  • Smartphones are starting to play a significant role in the consumption of news. One-third of Danish internet users access news stories via a connected mobile every week. More than a quarter of those in the US and UK do the same.
  • The tablet is emerging as an important device for news consumers. Of tablet owners, 58% use the device to access news every week in the UK. They are more likely to pay for news content and over 40% say they find the experience better than a PC. In the UK, we find that some newspaper brands with paid apps do significantly better on a tablet than on the open internet – in terms of overall market share.
  • More widely, consumers remain resistant to paying for news in digital form. Propensity to pay for online news is lowest in the UK (4%) compared to the other markets and highest in Denmark (12%).
  • One in five of our UK sample share news stories each week via email or social networks – but in general Europeans are less enthusiastic than Americans about both the sharing of news and other forms of digital participation.
  • In the UK, news about politics is perceived to be less important – and celebrity news more important – compared to the other countries surveyed.
  • There is more interest in business and especially economic news in the UK and the US than in the European countries surveyed.
  • A relatively small number of people are disproportionately important in the creation, consumption, and distribution of news. We’ve identified a small group of news absorbed users in the UK who access significantly more sources of news, are more likely to comment on news, and twice as likely to share news.

Background and market context

This survey comes at a time of continuing and rapid upheaval for the new industry. The internet has disrupted business models, particularly for newspapers and magazines – with each new technical development accelerating the decline in traditional print circulation (see chart below).

UK annual press circulation (m)

Claire Enders - Competitive Pressures on the Press
Source: Presentation by Claire Enders, Leveson Inquiry Seminar, Competitive Pressures on the Press, 6 Oct. 2011.1

In the United States, Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism has predicated a future of shrinking newsrooms, less frequent publication, and more papers closing altogether.2 We are seeing similar if less dramatic trends in several other parts of the developed world, although the impact of the internet on legacy media appears to vary greatly by country.3

At the same time, we have seen a major expansion in the use of the internet for news and information. According to a recent global TNS survey, news now comes second only to email in terms of daily activity4 and the global nature of the internet has opened up the possibility for consumers of a much richer range of sources – available 24 hours a day, at the click of the mouse or the touch of a finger.

Pew - Where People Got News Yesterday
Source: Pew Research Centre, Americans Spending More Time Following the News, 12 Sep. 2010.5

In the United States, the regular Pew surveys have tracked how consumers have taken to internet news over the years – the most recent shows that online has overtaken newspapers as a regular source of news. But these surveys also show that interactive services are not being used as an alternative to traditional broadcast mechanisms such as television but in a complementary way. At the same time, the online picture is getting more complex, with smartphones, tables, and e-readers extending the range of choices of access – and social media joining traditional news sources as a place where the news itself gets created and consumed.

Part of the aim of this Reuters Institute Report is to understand much more about this complex eco-system as it develops and to see how these US and UK trends map to a wider range of countries and cultures.

Change is not equally distributed across countries

One of the most striking findings of this Report is the differences that exist between countries in terms of the transition to digital. In terms of consumption, the US and UK seem to be adopting similar models with heavy adoption of online sources of news, whilst some other European countries are showing a much stronger allegiance to traditional media.

Germany shows a particularly strong loyalty to printed products – with 68% of the survey sample accessing a newspaper or magazine for news each week. Traditional news bulletins on radio (68%) and television (87%) also draw the vast majority of the population to watch or listen each week – whilst only 61% access online sources in an average week.

Weekly access of news by country

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UK USA Germany France Denmark
TV 76% 69% 87% 80% 81%
Online 82% 86% 61% 77% 82%
Print 54% 45% 68% 57% 57%
Radio 45% 33% 68% 43% 40%
Q3 Which of the following news sources have you used in the last week?

Base All UK (n=2173) Denmark (n=1002) France (n=1011) Germany (n=970) USA (n=814)

These differences may be partly attributable to the media environment in many European countries where a predominantly non-English-language press and broadcast environment has reduced the impact of external competition. But we also see other factors at play. In Germany the largely regionally-based printed press appears to have stronger roots and has received a measure of protection through regulation, restricting the extent of broadcasters’ activities on the internet. Newspaper websites dominate across much of Europe as they do in France – where there has also been limited government support for print – whilst in the United Kingdom the websites of TV and radio news providers do best. The BBC invested early in a significant news presence on the internet and has built up a formidable market share of more than double its nearest competitor.

Online news sources by type

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UK USA Germany Denmark France
Broadcaster sites 56% 46% 25% 51% 20%
Newspaper sites 38% 50% 30% 56% 43%
Aggregators 29% 53% 26% 28% 36%
Social media & blogs 18% 36% 18% 23% 17%
Q3 Which of the following news sources have you used in the last week?

Base All UK (n=2173) Denmark (n=1002) France (n=1011) Germany (n=970) USA (n=814)

Overall we see traditional media brands picking up the majority of the digital audience in most countries. The main exception to this rule is in the United States where websites like the Huffington Post and entertainment and technology blogs like Gawker have attracted significant audiences alongside more traditional web portals like Yahoo! and AOL.

Blogs and social media are much more regularly used in the United States than in Europe (36% use these as a news source every week compared with an average of 20% in European countries).

Our survey also reveals differences in the level of interest in different types of news across countries. IN general, people in the UK are more interested in celebrity news an less interested in domestic politics than those in the other countries surveyed. Germans are most interested in regional news (62%) – no doubt influenced by their federal political structure – while people in the US are much more focused on news from their town or city (56%). The British and Germans seem to follow sport more closely whereas the French are the most interested in art and culture. People in Denmark show the strongest interest in international news (65%), with those in the UK and the US showing the least interest (48% and 44%).

Level of interest in types of news by country

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UK USA Germany France Denmark
Domestic news 74% 53% 61% 66% 75%
International 48% 44% 64% 54% 65%
Local (town or city) 50% 56% 50% 36% 41%
Region 42% 28% 62% 46% 32%
Business 19% 22% 17% 11% 28%
Economic 42% 52% 34% 33% 36%
Ents & celebrity 21% 16% 14% 14% 9%
Health & education 27% 27% 26% 27% 24%
Art & culture 10% 11% 8% 19% 12%
Sports 37% 24% 33% 24% 24%
Politics 37% 63% 55% 57% 56%
Science & Tech 23% 27% 28% 21% 24%
Q2 Which of the following types of news is most important to you? Choose up to five.

Base All UK (n=2173) France (n=1011) Germany (n=970) USA (n=814) Denmark (n=1002)

Although the news industry has been disrupted in every country, our survey suggests that the media structures, the geography, and the culture of individual countries seem to have a very significant bearing on both the pace of change and the winners and losers.

The rise of smartphones and tablets for online access to news

A second key theme running through this report is the rapid consumer adoption of more personal and flexible consumer devices which are freeing internet access from the home and the office. Smartphone, tablet, and e-reader sales have all exploded over the last few years. In our UK sample of internet news users, 53% say they use a smartphone and 15% use a tablet – but out survey also shows how extensively some of these devices are being used for news consumption across countries.

News access by device across countries

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UK USA Germany France Denmark
Computer 74% 87% 80% 79% 78%
Mobile 28% 28% 21% 20% 32%
Tablet 8% 11% 5% 6% 13%
E-reader 0% 3% 1% 1% 1%
Smart TV 1% 3% 4% 2% 3%
Q4a Which of the following have you used to access the news in the last week?

Base All UK (n=2173) France (n=1011) Germany (n=970) USA (n=814) Denmark (n=1002)

While computers still dominate online usage across countries, mobiles now stand at over 20% in all the countries surveyed and peaks in Denmark at 32%. Tablets still account for a relatively small percentage of consumption but the sector is set to grow quickly. Our detailed data on tablets and smartphones are only available for the UK, but show that 10% of the 47% who don’t already have smartphones are thinking of buying one – as are 19% of the 85% that don’t already own a tablet.

Our UK data support the recent findings of the latest digital survey from the Pew Research Center in the US, which suggests that these devices are adding to the news experience – rather than replacing other ways of access.6 The vast majority of mobile users in our survey use computers to access the news and also use the news more often throughout the day. The same is true of tablet owners who typically use a rich range of ways of accessing the news.

Our UK survey data show the tablet emerging as a particularly important device for news:

  • 58% of tablet users access news from the device every week (68% in the last month).
  • Tablet owners access a larger number of news sources than other online users.
  • 44% of tablet users say the device provides a better experience for news than a traditional computer.
  • Tablet owners are significantly more likely to pay for news.

Amongst tablet owners

Q4a Which of the following have you used to access the news in the last week?

Base Tablet owners (Boost) (n=314)

Our tablet-boosted sample of users in the UK also shows a very different ranking in terms of the most popular weekly news sources – with newspapers that have charged for ‘apps’ (Guardian, Telegraph, and The Times) doing much better in percentage terms than on the open internet.

Top UK brands online (weekly access)

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BBC News 58%
Sky News 15%
Yahoo! News 15%
Local newspaper 14%
Mail Online 13%
Guardian 10%
Q8a/b Which, if any, of the following brands have you used to access news in the last week?

Base All (n=2173)

Top UK brands tablet (weekly access)

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BBC News 73%
Guardian* 21%
Sky News 20%
Mail 18%
Local Newspaper 17%
Telegraph * 16%
Yahoo! News 14%
Times * 10%
Base Tablet owners (boost) (n=314)* Publications with a paid tablet proposition or paid after free trial. Figures for Times, Telegraph and Mail include Sunday titles.

Tablet users also consume more online news compared with offline equivalents. For the news industry these figures will be very encouraging given that, for many publishers, long-term survival depends on building up cross-platform subscriptions as the move to digital gathers pace. A recent survey showed that within two years only 35% of US Economist readers over 40 plan to continue buying the paper in print.7

Generally, however, there is a still widespread reluctance across all our surveyed countries to pay for online news. In the UK only 1% have paid for online news in the last week and and just 4% say they have ever paid. People in Denmark were most likely to pay for digital news, with the British users most reluctant.

Paying for digital news

UK USA France Germany Denmark
Ever paid for digital news? 4% 9% 8% 6% 12%
Q16a Have you ever paid for digital news content?

Base UK (n=2173) Denmark (n=1002) France (n=1011) Germany (n=970) USA (n=814)

Despite this we continue to see intense activity in this area with a number of general sites now setting up paywalls and experimenting with paid-for news applications on tablets. It will be interesting to watch how attitudes to pay shift in the years to come.

Discovery and sharing of news: the growing importance of social media

A further theme that emerges from this survey is the way in which people discover news is changing – with social media starting to challenge search engines as a primary way of finding news.

Looking at our UK data, we can see that 20% (one in five) now come across a news story through a social network like Facebook and Twitter, with young people much more likely to access news this way (43%).

Search vs social discovery by age

Q18 Thinking about how you FIND news online, which are the main ways that you come across news stories? Choose up to five.

Base: All UK (n=2173) 16-24s (n=342), over 45s (n=1112)

Overall search engines (30%) are still more important than social media (20%) but the fact that young people are almost twice as likely to discover a news story through social media rather than search marks a significant generational change. And across all our age ranges, 57% say they are more likely to click on a news link that comes from someone they know compared with a link from elsewhere.

These developments have been fuelled by a greater focus on news by Facebook in particular, with the development of social plugins for news sites and the launch of social newsreading apps during 2011. These allow the sharing of a news story or video based on what you’ve read – often known as ‘frictionless sharing’. Partly as a result, news organisations like the Washington Post, the Guardian and Yahoo! have reported significant uplifts in traffic – with the Guardian reporting at one stage that referrals from Facebook had outstripped those from Google search.8 The Economist says that almost 10% of its site traffic now comes from social media.9

It is not only that audiences are discovering news through social media, they are also sharing news in larger and larger numbers. Here are some of the headlines emerging from our data:

  • 28% of our US sample share news via social networks every week – twice the proportion of those in the UK.
  • Facebook is the most important network for news. It accounts for over half of all news sharing in the UK (55%) followed by email (33%) and Twitter (23%).
  • Other social networks such as Google+ and LinkedIn are still relatively niche for news.

In addition, our survey indicates that a small number of heavy news users have a disproportionate influence on the sharing of news. We created a segmentation using a mixture of frequency of access and consumption and identified a group of news absorbed (7% of the sample) who share news more than twice as often as the overall internet news population (46% each week compared with 20%). They also proportionately use Twitter far more heavily than any other social networks. This backs up a growing body of evidence around the special importance of Twitter for news.10

Against this background it is not surprising that news organisations have been focusing their social media strategies on Facebook and Twitter in the past 12 months. In particular, online discovery and sharing patterns are playing a growing part in customer acquisition and monetisation. When the New York Times introduced its digital paywall in March 2011, it pioneered an approach that made special concessions for users from key social networks (and search engines) to ensure that content can still be discovered and shared freely. This ‘semi-permeable membrane’ has now become a standard approach for most companies operating paid for digital services.

The continued importance of news brands online

Despite the continued importance of search and the rise of social media, our survey contains a number of clues that show trusted news brands still play a dominant role in news provision. Even in terms of finding news, our UK respondents said they were much more likely to think about a branded news website than anything else.

Gateways to news

Q18 Thinking about how you FIND news online, which are the main ways that you come across news stories?

Base All UK (n=2173)

Although we didn’t ask the question about discovery of news in other countries in this year’s survey, other international studies have drawn similar conclusions. The latest Pew study in the United States finds that ‘the reputation or brand of a news organisation, a very traditional idea, is the most important factor in determining where consumers go for news and this is even truer on mobile devices than on laptops or desktops.’ 11 Our own UK data are not quite as clear on that last point, but they do show that brand is at least as important on a mobile or tablet as on a computer.

Further evidence comes from the market position of leading news brands in the UK. In most cases market share is lower online because of the greater levels of choice and competition, but two publications – the Guardian and the Telegraph – have managed to build a stronger market share online, attracting new younger audiences in the process.

Traditional and online use of selected UK News brands

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Traditional Use Online
BBC News 69% 58%
ITV News 31% 7%
Sky News 22% 15%
Mail 14% 13%
Guardian 4% 10%
Telegraph 4% 6%
Q8a/b Which, if any, of the following have you used to access news in the last week, via traditional (Radio/TV/Print) and via which online means?

Base All UK (n=2173)

Given the problems in converting audiences to revenue online, none of this guarantees the survival of traditional news organisations but it should offer a little encouragement that quality journalism combined with strong brand positioning and effective delivery can provide value in a world of multiple sources, personal, and social media.

It is also striking that the number of sources used online is still relatively modest for most people. Our survey shows that 78% used three or fewer sources of news each week, with only 13% using more than four sources.

Sources of online news accessed per week

Q14 In a typical week how many different ONLINE news providers do you use including traditional and non-traditional sources, specialist digital publications, etc.?

Base All (n=2173)

We find that tablet users and heavy news users do access more sources but even here the majority used fewer than three sources each week. In our news absorbed group, 57% used three sources or fewer and 36% used more than four sources each week. Even with a strong appetite for news and an unlimited range of sources to choose from, it seems that constraints of habit and preference along with the limitations of time are playing a role in focusing access and maintaining the power of news brands.

News as a two-way process

Unlike broadcast technologies, the internet was designed at the outset to facilitate two-way dialogue. It is only in the last few years, however, that powerful and simple software tools have emerged to make that promise real and this has significantly affected the way news is gathered, processed, and distributed.

With the upheavals in the Middle East over the last 18 months, ordinary people have been able to capture events on mobile phones and distribute raw news instantly using global networks like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter – as well as email. Across the world in many other cases, citizens are finding their digital voices – and the speed an power of these networks is putting new pressure on governments, businesses, and traditional institutions.

There is now a huge variety of ways in which people can participate in news coverage, from taking part in online polls or petitions, commenting on news stories, posting pictures or videos, writing blogs, or organising political campaigns. Our survey across five countries provides a rich set of data around how many people are taking part and which activities are most popular.

Weekly digital participation across countries

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UK USA Germany France Denmark
42% 69% 41% 60% 45%
Q21b During an average week in which of the following ways do you share or participate in news coverage? % selecting one of nine options

Base UK (n=2173) Denmark (n=1002) France (n=1011) Germany (n=970) USA (n=814)

At a headline level we can see that each week almost 70% of our US sample participate or engage in the news using at least one of nine options outlined in our survey – compared with less than 50% in most of our surveyed European countries. Of the European countries, France is the most engaged, with 40% taking part in an online poll each week and 21% commenting on news stories in social networks. The French election campaign was underway when our survey was conducted, so this may explain the slightly higher figures there.

Top ways of digital participation across countries

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UK USA France Germany Denmark
Vote (online poll) 19% 41% 40% 18% 22%
Comment via Social Network 14% 27% 21% 12% 17%
One-to-one conversation (e.g. email/IM) 13% 30% 15% 23% 22%
Comment via news website 10% 25% 16% 9% 8%
Post picture/video to Social Network 5% 15% 11% 5% 6%
Q21b During an average week in which of the following ways do you share or participate in news coverage?
Base All UK (n=2173) Denmark (n=1002) France (n=1011) Germany (n=970) USA (n=814) Note: Only five of the original nine options are shown in this table

More widely, however, it is striking how different the behaviour is in the United States. This could be because the social media revolution started earlier there and eventually perhaps all countries will see these levels of participation. On the other hand, there could be cultural factors affecting take-up. Europeans may just be more reticent about sharing their opinions so freely and openly. We’ll find out more as this longitudinal survey takes its course.

In terms of demographics, once again we can see those who have grown up with digital technologies (16-24s) engaging with news in different ways to the rest of the population. They are more likely to comment on a news story via a social network (17%) than on the pages of a traditional news site (7%) and much more likely to talk about a news story using one-to-one digital communication (21%) than older groups.

Overall these data tend to suggest that the new generation is more comfortable creating and commenting on content on its own terms and in its own spaces – rather than within the confines of a mainstream media world.

Our UK survey data also show:

  • People who use a mobile phone as their main way of accessing news online are five times more likely to send a picture to a news organisation than those who mainly use a computer.
  • Heavy news users – our so-called news absorbed group – are far more likely to comment on news stories via social networks (21%) and on news sites (16%) than our mainstream group.
  • Signing a petition was the most common form of political online engagement, with 44% saying they had done so.
  • Nearly 6 out of 10 young people say they used the internet ‘to get more involved in politics or express a political opinion’.


The overall picture painted by the data in this survey is of an increasingly complex media landscape, where digital media are no replacing other forms of media but are layered on top.

Tablet owners are still buying and reading printed news publications and watching TV news in pretty much the same proportions as non-tablet owners – and the same applies to other devices. Young people who are addicted to their mobile phones continue to consume at least some printed newspapers and magazines. People are using traditional media and non-traditional media. They are consuming passively and actively at different times and in different contexts. The balance and media mix may be changing but this is is not a zero sum game.

Against this background, it is not surprising to see more and more news organisations declaring ‘digital first’ strategies, reorganising structure and workflows for a multiplatform world. As distribution fragments and competition becomes more intense it will become more and more important for news brands to provide coherent services that work across platforms – with a closer and deeper understanding of what audiences need at any moment in time.

In that sense we hope that this Reuters Institute Report will help to build a deep understanding of what those changes are and how news organisations can respond most effective to the new opportunities.

  1. http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Presentation-by-Claire-Enders1.pdf.
  2. Project for Excellence in Journalism, The Search for a New Business Model, March 2012: http://www.journalism.org/2012/03/05/search-new-business-model/.
  3. See D. A. Levy and R. K. Nielsen, The Change Business of Journalism and its Implications for Democracy (Oxford: RISJ, 2010).
  4. TNS Global Digital Life (2010): email = 75%, news = 55%, social = 46% daily access for these activities (n=48,804); http://www.tnsdigitallife.com.
  5. http://www.people-press.org/2010/09/12/americans-spending-more-time-following-the-news/.
  6. The role of mobile devices: https://www.journalism.org/2012/03/23/infographic-a-new-era-of-the-digital-revolution/.
  7. http://www.theguardian.com/media/2011/nov/27/andrew-rashbass-economist-group-interview.
  8. Tanya Cordrey, Director of Digital Development, Guardian News and Media, at the Guardian Changing Media Summit, London March 2012: http://www.theguardian.com/gnm-press-office/changing-media-summit-tanya-cordrey.
  9. Eric Baumes, chief technology office for The Economist‘s online edns, at the annual conference sponsored by the Software & Information Industry Association, Feb. 2012: http://adage.com/article/btob/siia-event-dominated-social-media-mobile/285610/?btob=1.
  10. Nic Newman, #UKelection2010, Mainstream Media and the Role of the Internet: How Social and Digital Media Affected the Business of Politics and Journalism (Oxford: RISJ, 2010).
  11. Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, State of the Media (2012): https://www.journalism.org/2012/03/18/mobile-devices-and-news-consumption-some-good-signs-for-journalism/.