Publishers & Platforms “In a Relationship” but “It’s Complicated”

Key Takeaways from Digital News in a Distributed Environment

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I enjoyed Columbia Journalism School’s event last week: Digital News in a Distributed Environment. The half day session was divided into two parts.  In the first, Dr. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen,  director of research for Reuters Institute of Journalism (and Columbia alumnus), shared highlights of their 2016 Digital News Study (which you can download from the link), a massive global survey of consumer news habits, attitudes and preferences. Then Claire Wardle presented preliminary results from Tow Center’s Platforms & Publishers report, which will be coming out later this year.  She provided the idea for title of this post in one of her slides.

The session was a great follow-on to last month’s Daily News Innovation Labs Platforms and Publishers session, which I attended and blogged about. It revealed a lot about how we consume news, the influence of tech, and implications and changing realities for journalism.

In this post I share some of the highlights, especially as they relate to the U.S. market.  Tow Center Director Emily Bell opened the session, and Dr. Nielsen moderated. The panelists included:

You can view a video of the event here.

More People are Getting their News from Social Media

That may not surprise, but the numbers and growth tell an interesting story; according to Rasmus, 51% in U.S. now get their news from social media, a number that has doubled since 2013.  12% cite social as their main source of news.

Consumers say that it is less about the social aspect, and more about user experience: they like getting alerts, easier access, and “one stop shop” aspect.  They also appreciate personalized recommendations, above and beyond stories shared by friends.

Facebook is the number one social news destination here.  Twitter is important too.  Fewer are getting their news from aggregators and apps.

Mobile and Social News are Joined at the Hip

The Reuters study revealed the close linkage between mobile and social news. Those who get news on their phones tend to do so through social media, rather rather than by visiting branded mobile news sites or apps. “The smart phone is the defining device of digital news,” said Rasmus.

Despite Video Hype, “Text is King”

Rasmus said that online video news consumption is not as popular or growing as quickly as some might expect from all the hype.  Again, this gets back to user experience: 78% say it is quicker and more convenient to read news  and scroll through headlines rather than watch videos.  Also, they are turned off by pre-roll ads, and feel that video doesn’t always add value to a news story.  People are more likely to watch video on news sites.

It’s the Media Brand, Stupid

Although it would seem that platforms hold all the cards, due to audience reach and deep pockets, Rasmus said their results confirm that media brands are central to how users navigate the digital news world.  The pecking order is: newspaper, broadcast, and native web brands.  Hard news media brands are trusted over individual journalists.

The platforms value cooperation with publishers, as news draws users and drives conversations.

Despite this, journalism “has a PR problem,” he said.  They need to do a better job of differentiation and branding; and social media adds challenges.  The source of news may not always be obvious, and publications lose control in terms of how (and which) stories are presented.

Publisher Challenges and Opportunities 

If you thought things could not get worse for publishers, you were wrong.  Few want to pay for digital subscriptions, and ad-blocking increases revenue challenges.  Yet digital news consumption is growing as older audiences cling to TV. For media, it is not just about distribution – it is about access to new (younger) audiences and experimenting with storytelling formats.

The session was interesting and informative, and I eagerly await the release of the Tow Center report.

A few things that it would be great to learn about in a follow-up study are:

  • The impact of social network ad dollars on organic reach for news brands
  • How trusted are corporate brands as sources of online news?
  • What about the role of influencers in news distribution?
    • Are they more or less trusted than friends and editors?
    • Do people prefer algorithmic selection over news recommended by influencers?
  • Is native advertising offsetting revenue declines in other areas?

I’ll be writing more in the coming weeks on implications for PR and marketing.



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