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27 percent of Americans get news via mobile devices

New York Times on iPhone
Suzanne Choney /

That fella you bump into on the street with his eyes glued to his smartphone may just as likely be reading a news story as sending a text message. A new report says 27 percent of Americans now get their news using mobile devices, something that's helping to increase news consumption nationally, despite a continuing decline in subscribers to print publications.

The findings are shared in the "2012 State of the News Media report," by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

"More than 80 percent of smartphone and tablet news consumers still get news on laptop or desktop computers. On mobile devices, news consumers also are more likely to go directly to a news site or use an app, rather than to rely on search — strengthening the bond with traditional news brands," Pew said. 

"Rather than gravitating toward one device, a growing number of Americans are becoming multiplatform digital news consumers. These 'digital mavens' get news on all their devices."

"People who acquire mobile devices appear to be using them to get news on all their devices. This also suggests they may be getting more news more often," Pew said.

About a third (34 percent) of desktop/laptop news consumers now also get news on a smartphone. About a quarter (27 percent) of smartphone news consumers also get news on a tablet. While this smartphone/tablet news consumer group is small, just 6 percent of the population over all, it is a large percentage of those who own smartphones and tablets; fully 44 percent of people who own both kinds of devices use both for news. What’s more, most of those individuals (78 percent) still get news on the desktop or laptop as well.

"Our analysis suggests that news is becoming a more important and pervasive part of people’s lives," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "But it remains unclear who will benefit economically from this growing appetite for news."

That's because while digital devices "may be adding to the appeal of traditional news," there's concern that "technology intermediaries are capturing even more of the digital revenue pie" when it comes to advertising, Pew said:

While technology may be adding to the appeal of traditional news, technology intermediaries are capturing even more of the digital revenue pie. In 2011, five technology giants (Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo and AOL) generated 68 percent of all digital ad revenue, according to the market research firm eMarketer — and that does not include Amazon and Apple, which make their money from devices and downloads. By 2015, roughly one out of every five display ad dollars is expected to go to Facebook, according to the same source.

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter "grew substantially over the last year, but still play a limited role in daily news consumption," Pew said. "Only about a third as many news consumers follow stories via Facebook as do so by going directly to news websites or apps or by using search." When it comes to Twitter, "the proportion drops to less than a sixth as many."

“News organizations have a big opportunity in the social and mobile realms,” said Amy Mitchell, PEJ deputy director. "But they will need to do a better job than they did in the desktop realm of understanding audience behavior and developing effective technology and revenue models."

Pew surveyed more than 3,000 U.S. adults about their news consumption habits. Among the findings:

  • Only 9 percent say they follow news recommendations from Facebook or Twitter “very often” on any digital device — compared with 36 percent who say the same about directly going to a news organization’s site or app; 32 percent access news through search; and 29 percent use news organizing sites like Topix or Flipboard.
  • Social media's role is important in the future as a "driver of news." According to Pew's analysis of traffic data from Hitwise, "9 percent of traffic to news sites now comes from Facebook, Twitter and smaller social media sites. That is up by more than half since 2009. The percentage coming from search engines, meanwhile, has dropped to 21 percent of news site traffic, from 23 percent in 2009."
  • 70 percent of Facebook "news consumers get most of their story links from friends and family. Just 13 percent say most links that they follow come from news organizations. On Twitter, however, the mix is more even: 36 percent say most of the links they follow come from friends and family, 27 percent say most come from news organizations, and 18 percent mostly follow links from non-news entities such as think tanks. And most feel that the news they get on either network is news they would have seen elsewhere without that platform."
  • Most media sectors saw their audience grow in 2011 with the exception of print publications. "News websites saw the greatest audience growth (17 percent) for the year. Inaddition, thanks in part to the drama of events overseas, every sector of television news gained in 2011. Network news audiences grew 5 percent, the first uptick in a decade. Local news audiences grew in both morning and late evening, the first growth in five years. Cable news audiences also grew, by 1 percrnt, after falling the year before; in particular, MSNBC and CNN audiences grew in 2011, while Fox declined. Print newspapers, meanwhile, stood out for their continued decline, which nearly matched the previous year’s 5 percent drop. Magazines were flat."
  • Despite audience gains, only Web and cables news saw ad revenue growth last year. "Online advertising increased 23 percent, and cable ads grew 9 percent. Most media sectors, however, saw ad revenues decline — network TV was down 3.7 percent; magazines ad pages, 5.6 percent; local news, 6.7 percent; and newspapers, 7.6 percent."
  • "As many as 100 newspapers are expected in coming months to join the roughly 150 dailies that have already moved to some kind of digital subscription model. In part, newspapers are making this move after witnessing the success of The New York Times, which now has roughly 390,000 online subscribers." It's also driven "by steep drops in ad revenue," Pew said. "Newspaper industry revenue — circulation and advertising combined — has shrunk 43 percrnt since 2000. In 2011, newspapers overall lost roughly $10 in print ad revenue for every new $1 gained online."

Many concerns remain, Pew says.

All this raises the question of whether the technology giants will find it in their interest to acquire major legacy news brands — as part of the 'everything' they offer consumers. Does there come a point, to ensure the much smaller media company’s survival, for instance, where Facebook considers buying a legacy media partner such as The Washington Post?

And, the research group notes, there are "already signs of closer financial ties between technology giants and news. As a part of YouTube’s plans to become a producer of original television content, a direction it took strongly last year, it is funding Reuters to produce original news shows. Yahoo recently signed a content partnership with ABC News for the network to be its near sole provider of news video. AOL, after seeing less than stellar success with its attempts to produce its own original content, purchased The Huffington Post. With the launch of its Social Reader, Facebook has created partnerships with The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian and others. In March 2012 Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes purchased the 98-year-old New Republic magazine."

While the news industry itself "is not much closer to a new revenue model than a year earlier and has lost more ground to rivals in the technology industry ... growing evidence also suggests that news is becoming a more important and pervasive part of people's lives," Pew said. "That, in the end, could prove a saving factor for the future of journalism."

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