Digital News in a Distributed Environment

Watch the full event above.

On June 21, the Tow Center hosted “Digital News in a Distributed Environment” at Columbia Journalism School, which featured the US launch of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s 2016 Digital News Report, as well as the release of preliminary findings from a new research project by the Tow Center examining the relationship between social platforms and publishers.

The Report, which is the largest ongoing international study about news consumption, supports what we know about the growth of smartphones and social media for finding news, but also looks below these macro trends to reveal a number of surprising results about how people consume news worldwide.

Rasmus Klein Nielsen, the Director of Research at the Institute, presented the research, which is drawn from a YouGov survey of 50,000 online users and 26 countries, as well as a series of focus groups. The presentation was then followed by a panel led by Nielsen, with Liz Heron, the executive editor of The Huffington Post; Edward Roussel, Chief Innovation Officer at Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal; Vivian Schiller, the former president and CEO of National Public Radio and now an independent strategist; and Tow’s own director Emily Bell.

The Reuters Institute Digital News Report and Panel

There is a great deal of information in the report, and texture in its geographical range, so we encourage everyone to go and look at the fact-sheets from particular countries. The full report is available here. Many of the numbers challenge industry expectations about consumer behavior—but not necessarily in a bad way. Take the figure that nine percent of English speakers pay for news. On the one hand, this number seems pretty dismal: how can an entire industry survive on nine percent? But on the other hand (as Vivian Schiller pointed out), nine percent approaches the percentage of NPR listeners who are also members—the pinnacle of a successful membership organization.

Nielsen highlighted other surprising findings. Video, in particular, did not grow as much as the industry expected. Just this month, a Facebook executive predicted that in five years, our news feeds will be entirely video. But the Report shows that readers are still resistant; 78 percent of of those sampled say they only read news or watch video occasionally.

news contentmain barriers

The Report suggests that pre-roll advertisements and the fact that it is faster to read than to watch may be contributing to this.

The other major finding in this vein was on reader trust in news and news brands. The Report finds that people like the concept of personalized news. But when they asked how that news should be personalized—through algorithms based on their news habits, through friends, or through editorial judgement of a news organization—, respondents backpedaled a bit. They prefer their own judgment first, then editorial judgment, and then their friends. But all of their approval numbers were less than 40 percent. And many people are worried about missing key information or other viewpoints.


In addition to this, the Report finds that when readers consume news on smartphones and social media, they may simply be unaware of the news organization from which they are reading. At the same time, though, people do have a pretty good idea of which news organizations they trust, but they don’t actually know what they’re reading.

As Nielsen astutely put it, these issues amount to a PR problem for journalists. People aren’t appreciating editorial opinion about what news gets onto our feeds, but at the same time, they do have a real appreciation of brands. How does that translate into business models for news organizations, especially when adblocking is growing, video isn’t as popular as predicted, and publishers aren’t seeing returns from the platforms they are now tied to?

The panel emphasized the amount of variation in the ways in which publishers approach experimentation with social platforms and how they are trying to build a sustainable business in this new environment. The contrast  between The Wall Street Journal’s strategy and The Huffington Post’s strategy is particularly stark.

The Wall Street Journal, which has embraced digital subscriptions since the very beginning, is cultivating its relationships with social media platforms very carefully. Roussel said they see Apple News for instance, as a way to introduce a new audience to WSJ content, which they can then drive back to the WSJ site and convert to digital subscriptions. But The Wall Street Journal is picking and choosing which platforms it feels are a “natural fit” for the brand.

But of course, digital subscription models are difficult to implement, and will only be successful for a small number of brands. The Huffington Post, as a very successful digital-born brand, has embraced a strategy where they work hand in hand with a large number of social media platforms.  Their strategy is to cultivate specific audiences on specific platforms, and to tailor Huffington Post content to those audiences. They have 79 Facebook pages, for instance, about 12 of which are robust with their own specific audiences. To the question of reader trust, Heron sees their social strategy as adapting editorial judgment to the new space: “You can express your editorial judgment in other ways [besides what goes on the front page] and get kind of exciting and abstract about it, and we’re very keen to do that.”

But as Vivian Schiller emphasized, while many publishers have been quick to embrace new technology on platforms, many of these creative ways of presenting stories are experimental, risky, and have yet to pay off in terms of revenue for the publishers. Take Facebook Instant Articles as an example. Many publishers were enthusiastic about jumping into Facebook Instant Articles, but they have not seen the returns: either financial returns or the increased engagement promised for stories that load more quickly.

Or video. Video is expensive to produce, and is hard to produce consistently. If readers aren’t actually flocking to video as expected, is it worth it to put so many resources into it? Again, the panel responses differed greatly by brand. Roussel noted that video shouldn’t be made just for the sake of video: it should be additive or natural to the story being told. Heron was much more optimistic about the future being in video. Huffington Post’s strategy, again, is to know the audience, and to make platform-specific content. But they do try to limit their video production to more enduring pieces and to live coverage. And Schiller pointed out that CPMs—costs per impression—are strong for video, which isn’t true of anything else besides branded content.

The takeaway is that no one strategy will work for every organization, and the current environment requires taking a lot of risks, as new platforms and modes of distributing news keep cropping up, and consistent returns on investment have not been figured out yet.

The Tow Center’s Preliminary Research on Publishers and Platforms

Tow Center’s brand new data on publishers and platforms dovetailed with this discussion, showing the sheer amount that publishers are now relying on platforms to distribute content. Platforms are publishers, whether they like it or not, said Emily Bell.

The research is based on week’s worth of tracking several different news organizations, where they post, and how much they post on each platform. Tow also reached out to a number of social media teams at various news organizations, and a number of platforms, to understand the different experiences they’re having working with each other. The slides from the presentation are embedded below, and the new research is accompanied by analysis by Bell at Columbia Journalism Review: “Who owns the news consumer: Social media platforms or publishers?

The Tow research breaks down which publishers are using what platforms at what rate. Some publishers are posting more on platforms than they are on their own sites. BuzzFeed said 80 percent of their reach is off their own site.


The above chart shows which social platforms a selection of publishers are using.

And they aren’t posting the same story in the same way to every platform; they now tailor their pieces—changing length, art, headline, etc.—to fit each platform. Some publishers are embracing native posts on social media platforms, such as Facebook Instant Articles, and which are driving traffic back to their own site. The Washington Post is now sharing the vast majority of their stories on Instant Articles, but The Wall Street Journal is driving most posts back to their own site.


graph3Each donut above shows what percentage of posts the publisher is making on social platforms are native Facebook posts (such as Instant Articles, videos, Live), as opposed to posts that link back to the publisher’s home site.

Tow also spoke with representatives from the platforms, many of whom felt that
they had a PR problem. Despite their variation, they are grouped together. And every time they change an algorithm, they get bad press.

Publishers are dying to get real metrics about how consumers on social media are interacting with their content. But many platforms are walled gardens: you have to be logged into to see any content on Snapchat, for instance. The biggest thing moving forward, apart from more research, is transparency on all sides. The platforms need to share metrics and be clearer about algorithmic changes with the publishers. But publishers also need to be transparent with each other.  One local publisher Tow spoke to expressed frustration about the uneven way the industry is moving forward:

I think the New York Times and the Washington Post did a disservice for a lot of us by jumping into bed with Facebook on Instant Articles so quickly without really scrutinizing [the deal]. It really ends up hurting us in the long haul.

And of course, readers should be informed about the support—financial or otherwise—they receive from platforms. The research suggested that some publishers were enthusiastic about working more closely  with each other to leverage power with the platforms.

We are facing the same anxieties that we did twenty years ago when news first started moving onto the web, and publishers are taking as varied approaches now as they did then. But as Liz Heron points out, there is an “appetite for collaboration” on both sides.

View the full Tow presentation below. For the full recording of the event, click here. The Reuters Institute 2016 Digital News Report is available here.

The Tow Center research team was lead by research director Claire Wardle, and research was conducted by Tow Fellows Pete Brown, Nushin Rashidian, Priyanjana Bengani, and Alex Gonclaves.

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