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The smartphone is ‘the defining device’ when it comes to digital news and it has a strong impact on consumption, formats and business models, shows the latest study commissioned by the Reuters Institute.

The Digital News Report 2015 found that 46 per cent of people in all twelve countries surveyed now access news weekly on their smartphones, with an increase of 7 per cent in Japan, 9 per cent in the UK and 13 per cent in the US since last year.

Furthermore, the fall in audience for traditional platforms such as television coincides with the rise of online video and new visual formats. 

The research also found that Facebook is the dominant platform in finding and interacting with news, and people increasingly use search and social media to gain access to more varied stories and news sources.

Here are some key takeaways from this year’s report: 

News access on tablet and desktop

Mobile is gaining momentum and 25 per cent of respondents said the smartphone was their main device for accessing digital content, but 45 per cent of consumers still use two or more digital devices for weekly news access.

According to Nic Newman, research associate at the Reuters Institute who worked on the report, publishers are creating content that works across platforms, but they “need to use mobile more as a starting point.”

“We've seen a real change with media organisations properly taking mobile seriously in the last few years, creating different kinds of formats and experimenting with mobile video that really is going to work in that mobile and social context,” Newman said. 

As smartphone screens are getting bigger, news access on tablets and desktop computers or laptops is affected. However, there is a tendency towards multi-device consumption of news, rather than the replacement of one device with others. 

The report found that only 57 per cent of people now see computers as the most important devices for online news consumption. Similarly, the use of tablets fell in most countries with the exception of the UK, where news access was up 8 per cent since 2014, to 31 per cent. 

Value of news sources 

The study showed a decrease in the number of people watching scheduled TV bulletins and programmes both in the US and the UK, particularly in the case of younger people who can now access live-streaming apps like Periscope for behind the scenes content. 

In the US, 31 per cent of people under 45 now watch a scheduled  TV bulletin, down 11 per cent since 2013 – and the UK follows suit with 46 per cent, down 10 per cent since 2013. 

Elsewhere in Europe, such as Germany and Denmark, the report shows that TV viewing figures remain strong even among younger audiences and the rise of online hasn’t significantly affected TV, due to the strong connection between TV news consumption and audiences’ trust. 

However, to better understand the ways in which people value these channels, the report broke down the concept of ‘news values’ into different elements, including speed, serendipity and accuracy. 

Newman explained people tend to appreciate different mediums for different things, such as valuing print more for analysis and less for speed. At the same time, a distrust in social media could mean they don't necessarily trust the information found there in terms of being accurate and reliable.

“They absolutely trust [social media] as a way of finding news stories and they really value it for that. People also value the speed, but to check whether it’s really accurate, they may click on it and check further with the brand or with other sources for themselves.” 

The role of social media 

According to the study, the most popular social network for news consumption is Facebook, used by 41 per cent of people. Twitter is used by 11 per cent of consumers, whereas only 9 percent use WhatsApp and only 1 per cent use Snapchat after it launched its Discover feature last year.

Facebook is the place where people ‘stumble’ into news and only 38 per cent of people said they see the platform as a useful way of getting news, whereas 62 per cent actively look for news on Twitter.

Even though we have seen UK news organisations like the BBC recently experimenting with WhatsApp, when it comes to news the platform is bigger in countries such as Spain, Brazil and Italy. 

Newman pointed out there are more opportunities to distribute news through a platform like WhatsApp when a large amount of people spend considerable time on it.

“WhatsApp is also very much for listening, it’s not really set up to work for distribution and the interesting thing about the BBC experiments is that they used it as more of a newsgathering tool and it’s been increasingly effective,” he added.

The report also addressed concerns that people’s increased usage of search tools and social media could lead to limited access and a ‘filter bubble’.

The people surveyed said they found a variety of news and diverse sources through search and social they might not have known about otherwise, and balanced their access to news by also checking TV, radio or print coverage.

Online news video 

The rise of online news video had been expected, said Newman, but it is “quite surprising that it has now finally taken off and people are increasingly accessing video news content.” 

The report found that an average of 23 per cent of people accessed online news video weekly across all countries, and consumption of news video had seen an increase in Spain, Denmark, UK, Italy and Japan. 

However, 40 per cent of respondents found text more convenient and 29 per cent were put off by pre-roll advertisements and preferred short videos when they added a dramatic element or context to an article. 

Newman said publishers should bear in mind that, to a large extent, people are looking for “control and flexibility” in news consumption and “video takes [the user] back to a place where they’re not in control.”

He pointed to BuzzFeed and Huffington Post, who are “focusing on the kind of video that will sell through social networks.” 

“It’s about making videos that are complementary to the things you’re doing,” Newman continued. 

Publishers also face a challenge with online revenue, particularly in advertising, as the study revealed that 39 per cent of people in the UK and 47 per cent in the US use some sort of ad-blocking software. 

“People who are consuming more news and also young people are more likely to have ad-blockers”, Newman pointed out. 

He said that “some of the people advertisers want to reach most are the ones who are installing the ad-blockers and using them” and for the industry, this is becoming “a real problem”.

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