UK readers who consume news on desktop tend to go to more established outlets in the early stages of a breaking story, using newer or smaller brands later on to get additional angles or answers to specific questions, shows a report published today (29 August) by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ).

A small number of publishers, such as BBC, the Guardian, and Mail Online largely dominate online news consumption in the UK, the research found, and the trust readers have in them means they are sought out directly and frequently, regardless of story.

Other national and digital-only brands, who get most of their readers through search and social, are able to capture the attention around certain stories due to speed and type of formats used, but they do not keep readers engaged for as long.

The study looks at the discovery and consumption of online news by those who read on desktop, focusing on the news output of the most popular UK brands from RISJ’s Digital News Report. It excludes content accessed via mobile web and social platforms, as well as stories from foreign outlets such as CNN and Al Jazeera.

'Mapping online news discovery for computer users in the UK', by Nic Newman, research associate at RISJ, and Antonis Kalogeropoulos, RISJ research fellow, is based on a passive tracking study of the desktop and laptop web browsing of more than 3,400 online news users in the UK, between mid-March and mid-April 2017.

Screenshot from 'Mapping online news discovery for computer users in the UK'

The study found that some brands tend to dominate the landscape on desktop: BBC, the Guardian and Mail Online. Together, the three brands accounted for 63 per cent of the 179,549 stories read by users during the one-month time period, and for 64 per cent of time spent.

Thirty-nine per cent of all articles read were from the BBC, with an average of 31 stories per unique visitor and 34 minutes spent.

In the UK, only 53 per cent of readers access the news by going directly to a news brand's website, according to RISJ’s Digital News Report, compared to 47 per cent who arrive via other means, such as social media, search and email.

Forty-six per cent of those surveyed in the online news discovery study started by accessing a story directly, from the homepage or another page on the website, whereas social media and search were each used as a first point of contact by 17 per cent of people.

The BBC topped the direct traffic chart at 50 per cent, followed by Mail Online and Guardian (11 per cent each).

By comparison, the BBC's share of search and social media traffic did not exceed 13 per cent for each, while the numbers were higher for the Guardian, The Telegraph and Mail Online.

The authors used two case studies, the Westminster attacks on 22 March and the forced eviction of an United Airlines passenger on 10 April, to highlight the differences in how people consume breaking news versus how they interact with a strong human-interest story. They used keywords to identify all news items their panellists read, related to the two events.

In both situations, most of the traffic came from the BBC, the Guardian and the Mail Online, however there were some differences in how people’s reading habits changed as the story developed, and the formats they preferred.

When the Westminster attack happened, desktop users first went to the Guardian and Mirror Online – who were quick to start running a live politics blog and a live stream respectively – but turned to the BBC website within 30 minutes. In the first hour after the news broke, people were also searching for BBC content specifically, such as 'terror attacks + BBC'.

Screenshot for 'Mapping online news discovery for computer users in the UK'

"This pattern continues, with peaks in the story (e.g. the naming of the attacker) leading to a surge of direct traffic to the BBC," wrote the authors, adding that in the case of a major breaking news story, people are more likely to go directly to the website of a trusted source than normally.

The BBC also accounted for 59 of the time spent with the United Airlines eviction story, and stood out again as a source of direct traffic, while The Independent dominated search and social media. A large share of the latter’s traffic was attributed to different video versions of the story posted on social media, including reactions from other airlines and video round-ups of media coverage.

Screenshot for 'Mapping online news discovery for computer users in the UK'

Both case studies showed that traffic tends to be higher the day after an event breaks, due to further developments in the story, or people searching for additional information. The United Airlines eviction for example also led to people searching for legal rights around overbooking on flights, as well as round-ups of memes and reactions from social media users.

The full report is available online here.

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