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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Report: Mobile Devices Boost News Consumption

But that doesn’t necessarily equal profits.

  • March 22, 2012

If you’re anything like me, mobile devices have transformed the way you consume the news. I’ll often fish out my iPhone and pull up New York Times headlines when waiting in line for just about anything. The bulk of the magazine journalism I read, too, I tend to read on my phone. The Instapaper add-on is one of just three I keep handy in my Chrome browser; I’m constantly clicking it, pushing long-form stories to my iPhone, which then becomes a personalized magazine of sorts for trips on the subway.

A new study from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism reveals that more and more Americans are consuming media on their tablets and smartphones. The picture isn’t all rosy, however. “For news, the new era brings mixed blessings,” writes Pew.

Let’s dig down into the data a bit. Pew surveyed 3,016 American adults via phone in January, and found that “a growing number of Americans are becoming multiplatform digital news consumers.” Over 50% of Americans get news through at least one “digital, web-based device”; specifically, 54% get news from a laptop or desktop. But almost a quarter of American adults–23% of them–get news on at least two devices. For nearly a quarter of us, then, our smartphones and tablets are inevitably in the mix.

One interesting tidbit Pew found is that news consumers are booting up with the direct intention of checking a favored site or app: it’s the most common way people get news online. Googling things definitely delivers people to news websites, sometimes, but less frequently than people log on with a specific appetite for checking news from a favored brand. (Plus, people’s search habits are funny, studies have shown. Often people will go to Google and simply write “nytimes.com” in the query field, rather than directing their browser straight to the source.)

Pew also has some interesting findings related to social media and news–namely, that it’s “not nearly the driver of news that many have suggested.” Less than 10% of people reported clicking over to news sites from Facebook or Twitter “very often.” It’s definitely too early to write off the power of sharing, though, when you consider the growth: the percentage of traffic to news sites referred from social sites grew 57% over the past three years. Sites like the revamped BuzzFeed, then, which bills itself as a “social news organization,” is sitting pretty to capitalize on that growth. Furthermore, users who own multiple mobile devices are much more likely to be reliant on Facebook and Twitter for use. Among those who reported using both a smartphone and tablet for news consumption, fully 67% reported following news recommendations on Facebook, while 39% reported doing so on Twitter.

So it’s all good news for the news, right? Not necessarily. Pew says that to capitalize on mobile potential, “the industry will need to do a better job than it did in the desktop realm of quickly coming to understand audience behavior and developing technology and revenue models to adapt to it.” The study further found that tech companies, rather than news organizations, are the ones making the bulk of the loot off of content. The titans of digital ad revenue were Microsoft, Google, Facebook, AOL and Yahoo!–which together generated more than two-thirds of that revenue last year.

Some, like media critic Jeff Jarvis, claim that the iPad revolution is actually causing a kind of complacency among old media folks. “I fear the iPad is a siren call to news organizations, seducing them into thinking they can maintain their old models and old controls, not just maintain but regain them,” he said. Talking to the AP, Roger Filder of the University of Missouri put it more starkly: “there’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” he said. “But it needs to be done very quickly.”

For more details from the Pew study–which actually serves as a nice refresher on the scope of mobile device ownership in the U.S. more generally–click here.

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