What the 2015 Digital News Report Says About The USA’s News Landscape

The 2015 Digital News Report gives readers a comprehensive and dependable picture of the news ecosystem in the USA; what’s happening now, the trends, and comparisons with key global markets.

The Tow Center for Digital Journalism is pleased to be the US partner for the Reuters Institute Digital News Report, a survey of more than 20,000 news consumers across 12 countries, including 2,295 people in the USA. This international, yearly research has produced a valuable resource as the industry continues to navigate a changing world.

We can see year on year data about the brands that audiences value, which devices they’re using, video uptake, social distribution, and – crucially – the behaviors and attitudes towards key revenue sources; subscriptions, display ads and native advertising.

The Reports’ analysts have pulled out their key insights, but interested researchers can also request the full data set, including demographic and regional breakdowns.

This year’s data shows a changing of the guard in the digital news companies’ audience reach, the big national broadcasters roughly holding steady, and a horrible period for local print and broadcast news.

This unique set of insights into audience behaviors and attitudes also exposes the strategic imperatives driving the news industry’s approach to native advertising.

Meanwhile, the social platforms have consolidated their position as global news gatekeepers, the implications of which are analyzed in detail by the Tow Center’s director Emily Bell. These services provide distinct opportunities to access traditionally hard-to-reach audiences.


The big story in digital reach is Yahoo News’ decline and Huffington Post’s rise. Yahoo News has lost almost a third of its reach in two years, according to this survey. By contrast, in just one year Huffington Post increased its reach by almost a third.


The survey showed a stark contrast between the fortunes of prestigious newspaper brands and local brands online. The national newspapers, the New York Times, and The Washington Post increased their digital reach. The local newspapers online plunged two thirds collectively, going from serious players to bit players.

The Papers Digital

BuzzFeed doubled its news reach reflecting aggressive hiring in hard news and investigations. A sizable audience said they used BBC online, specifically named for the first time in this year’s survey.

The Digital News Brands

Although it’s figures haven’t changed much year to year, GoogleNews remains a solid, relevant brand, reaching 14% of online news consumers.

These are the patterns of reach amongst the digital brands which interest The Tow Center, but there are plenty more in the full report, including the online operations of the TV and radio broadcasters.


This survey of US audiences shows why news organizations are risking their brands by publishing native advertising. There’s no easy growth left in subscriptions and payments, and audiences mostly dislike whatever ads they can’t block.

Previous years’ growth in digital subscriptions and payments has leveled off at only 11% of consumers. The vast majority of people say they’ll never pay for news. From those left over, news organizations might expect to get less than $9 per user per year – split over the whole industry.

What is the maximum price you would pay for a subscription to a digital-only news service – including full access to its website, apps and any digital replicas of the newspaper? (N=1942)
$0 (I won’t pay for any digital news service, whatever the price) 66.7%
$2.50 per month ($30 per year) 13.2%
$5 per month ($60 per year) 5.9%
$10 per month ($120 per year) 3.2%
$15 per month ($180 per year) 0.4%
$20 per month ($240 per year) 0.7%
$25 per month ($300 per year) 0.1%
$30 per month ($360 per year) 0.2%
More than $30 per month (more than $360 per year) 0.1%
Don’t know 9.5%
Mean Yearly $8.39

Meanwhile, almost half the audience uses some kind of ad-blocker, large numbers of people ignore ads, or avoid experiences where ads interfere with content.

Do you regularly use Ad Blocking software (software you have installed on your device specifically to remove advertisements from news or other websites)? Please select all that apply. (N=2,295)
Yes, on desktop/ laptop 41%
Yes, on mobile 11%
Yes, on tablet 7%
No 53%
Net: Yes 47%
Which of the following statements best sums up your view of traditional banner advertising on news websites? (N=2,295)
I find advertisements distracting and will actively avoid sites where they interfere with the content too much 29%
I find advertisements distracting but put up with them to get to the content I like 22%
I mainly ignore adverts, so they don’t distract me too much 30%
I don’t mind advertisements and sometimes find them useful 13%
Don’t Know 6%
Net: Distracting 51%
Net: Not distracting 43%

In this environment, we can understand why news organizations produce native advertising, despite these dangers, which are pronounced. More than a quarter of respondents said sponsored content reflects badly on the publisher’s brand, and almost half of the respondents said they’d felt disappointed or deceived having read one of those articles, only to find out they’ve been sponsored. As one focus group member said “I think it’s a dirty way of getting your attention. Which is by lying.” The glimmer of hope is that two thirds of respondents had neutral feelings.

This year’s project includes a special report on native advertising. You can read it here.

Local TV news collectively is still the source with the greatest reach, but the trend line is down. Collectively local or regional newspaper audiences dropped by a third.

In national TV, Fox News held reach above its competitors, CNN was the only brand to record an increase, CBS and ABC fluctuate, NBC/MSNBC is trending down.

The National TV Brands

The survey recorded offline reach jumping for New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, a counter-intuitive result those newspapers’ marketers may want to explore more deeply.

Newspapers' Offline Reach


Few observers will be surprised that smartphone news reach is up, significantly. It jumped a third this year. But at only 44%, there’s still a lot of growth potential, which equates to opportunity for newcomers and danger for incumbents.

For computers the trend line goes the other way; this year news-via-computer reach dropped an eighth to 64%, while tablets’ news growth has been barely perceptible; now at 21%.

Within this device data, however, is a worrying trend for the industry. It concerns the share of news attention on this platform. The vast majority of people using a computer consumed news. In smartphones (the main growth platform), the figure is lower and on tablets (also a growth platform overall) news’ share of attention has dropped a lot over the last three surveys.

So, as audiences spend more time on smartphones and tablets instead of computers, news’ reach reduces relative to other uses.

Device's News Use


The survey showed that news, for most US audiences, is a social experience. When combining news commenting, sharing, liking, uploading, voting and in-person discussion, almost three-quarters of respondents participate in news production or distribution in an average week.

More than a quarter of people comment on news stories: on social media or on the news site. Uploading video or pictures: 10% of people have uploaded something; only 3% have contributed directly to a news website.

There is a small trend away from sharing over email, but other than that these behaviors appear entrenched.


Facebook is the single most significant gatekeeper for digital news in the USA. 40% of the population use it for news, a rise from last year and the year before. That said, Brazilian audiences outstrip even the US. In that country, 70% of the respondents get news from Facebook.

Emily Bell’s essay notes that news reaches vastly different audiences on social platforms. Whereas direct visits to news websites, email signups and news alerts skew male, social news discovery skews female. Social services also get to lower income populations and casual users; populations that most mainstream news organizations have difficulty attracting.

News use within social platforms has developed distinct demographic contours; Facebook and YouTube skew much older than Instagram, Tumblr, and reddit, with Twitter sitting between.

You can download the full Reuters Institute Digital News Report directly.

Audiences of this report may also be interested in The Tow Center report
Post Industrial Journalism, by C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky.
The data about trends in video consumption are well-complemented by Professor Duy Linh Tu’s
Video Now report for the Tow Center on multimedia production in US newsrooms.

The Tow Center is a research and development group within the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. The Center helps the journalism industry navigate in this current era of continuous change, and prepares the next generation of journalists to enter the workforce with relevant and valuable digital skills.