Researchers have long been interested in what news people are exposed to – and how this might affect people’s opinions about political and social issues. Newspapers have often claimed, for example, the power to influence the outcome of elections or other big issues of the day. Broadcasters have been subject to strict impartiality rules for news – but that hasn’t stopped output being intensely scrutinised by politicians and regulators because of its perceived influence.
And yet even as Lord Leveson investigates the power and influence of old media, digital media is changing the rules of the game. The internet has dramatically expanded the number of news providers through lowering the costs of entry, but ironically it also seems to have created a small number of powerful new gatekeepers.
Google, for example, has more than 90% of the search engine market in the UK1 and has become the starting point for many internet journeys. Our survey shows that Facebook is also used every month by 63% of the online news population and YouTube by 54%.
News organisations have come to rely on search engines and social networks as a source of traffic and employ search engine optimisation techniques (SEO) and social media marketing to drive more. But there is some disquiet about the power of these new gatekeepers and the lack of transparency of the algorithms used.
In China and other authoritarian countries, certain news stories are routinely removed from search results. Elsewhere, Google stands accused of bias towards its commercial interest by favouring its social network Google+ in search results. Apple’s promotion of a particular ‘news app’ can increase the number of downloads by 10 times or more. Such examples have raised fresh questions about how we discover news and news sources in the digital world.
Overall, the starting point for news tends to be a branded news site across all ages and demographics. Beyond general browsing, search remains the most important mechanism – with the main search engine more important than a specialist news search.
Gateways to news – brand vs search vs social
The other key finding in our survey is that 20% (one in five) now come across a news story through a social network like Facebook and Twitter, with young people and tablet users much more likely to access this way. Young people search less (25%) but use social networks like Facebook and Twitter far more often (43%), where news comes to them in a constant real- time stream of comments, links, pictures, and videos.
Discovery mechanism by brand
As just one example, the Kony 2012 film produced by the charity Invisible Children about the activities of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Central Africa became an instant sensation amongst young people, clocking up over 100 million views on YouTube and Vimeo – after the link was passed around on Facebook and other social networks.
Different news brands rely on various ways of getting their news found. Powerful brands like the BBC can rely on more direct traffic to their website and cross-promotion from offline services.
As a result, their users tend to search for news a little less. Smaller brands like Channel 4 News tend to rely on search, social media, and email – presenter Jon Snow, for example, has a loyal following for his daily updates and Twitter channel. But again the big story here is social – where online users of the Independent newspaper and the Guardian use social media significantly more as a discovery mechanism (46% and 41% respectively). Both newspapers have been active in social media and launched ‘social reader’ applications in Facebook – which automatically share stories that you have read – without having to take any other action. This so-called ‘frictionless sharing’ has ratcheted up social sharing of news for some of the world’s biggest brands in 2012.
More likely to click on news from a friend
Driving this are data showing that people trust content that comes from friends. Trusted news brands are still important but in social networks recommendations from your connections are most valued. This is particularly true amongst people who share news regularly, where 78% say they are more likely to click on news sent by a friend than from elsewhere. The opinion of friends is especially valued around arts news (67%) and celebrity news (61%).
Likelihood to click news link from someone you know
Sharing of news
News organisations are increasingly seeding content in social networks, setting up brand pages and feeds on Facebook and Twitter, but the bulk of sharing is done by individuals.
Sharing news links via email and social networks in last week
Overall, our survey shows 20% of the UK online news population shares news digitally every week by social network, email, or other electronic means – but once again mobile and tablet owners are more active.
Drilling down into the direct mechanisms by which people share news, we can see that Facebook is by far the most important way of sharing news, accounting for more than half of all links (55%), followed by email (33%) and Twitter (23%). We can also see that in the UK none of the other social networks are particularly significant in terms of overall volume. It is still early days for Google+, and this is not yet generating a large volume of news links (6%).
Through which of the following have they shared news links?
Once again we see a marked generational difference in the tools used for sharing news and the propensity to do so. Email is a popular choice for the over 45s, whilst Facebook (71%) and Twitter (24%) are the natural choice for young people. Links shared in social media are also likely to be seen by a number of people, whereas emails tend to be delivered to one person or to a small group – so it is not surprising that social media has overtaken email in terms of total volume of referrals to the websites of most news providers.