BBC, Guardian, Mail dominate online news

A new report explores how online news content was discovered (and consumed) by computer users in the UK between mid-March and mid-April 2017. Based on a passive tracking study of the desktop and laptop web browsing of more than 3,400 online news users, it identifies the news brands that were most successful in driving social along with search and direct traffic from our sample during that period. Using two case studies (the Westminster terror attacks and the forced eviction of a passenger from a United Airlines flight), it shows the complex ways in which stories are found and consumed online and the role of different news brands and paths of discovery played in the development of each story.

This research, posted by Nic Newman Research Associate, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Antonis Kalogeropoulos Research Fellow, Reuters Institute finds that:

  • Three brands (BBC, Guardian and Mail Online) together accounted for two thirds of stories read (63 per cent) and time spent (64 per cent) amongst our total sample of UK news sites during the month.
  • The BBC News website became even more important during the Westminster attacks as a source of reliable news. Three-quarters (76 per cent) of all those who accessed any news story about the attacks used the BBC site and over half (55 per cent) only used the BBC. Aggressive use of social and search allows some smaller brands to perform better around individual stories than they do on average, as illustrated by the Independent’s strong performance around the UnitedAirlines passenger eviction story.
  • Different formats are effective for different types of stories. Live blogs were by far the most popular online format during the first 12 hours of the Westminster attacks, but a 53-second video was the key driver of the United Airlines coverage.
  • Some brands are much more reliant on side-door traffic than others. Only 22 per cent of visits to BBC news stories come from social media, search, and other links, with 78 per cent coming from a direct path. This contrasts with other outlets like the Sun and the Independent, which generate the majority of their traffic via third-party referrals (e.g. search engines and social media). Many brands in the UK are struggling with low engagement (time spent) and low levels of loyalty (frequency of use), which is likely to make it hard to charge for content.
  • In general, those using social media consume more news brands than those who tend to go directly to a news website or those who tend to search for news. Those who use social media more heavily access an even wider range of brands.
  • Overall, our analysis shows a winner-take-all environment dominated by a few major brands, but also that distributed forms of discovery, such as social media and search, generally point towards more diverse news use than direct discovery.

Overview and Context

The growth of social media and other aggregators over the last few years has changed the nature of online consumption and discovery. This shift towards distributed discovery has been widely documented in our Reuters Institute Digital News Report (Newman et al. 2012–17). In terms of main access points for news in the UK, almost half is now focused on side-door routes (47 per cent) rather than direct (53 per cent), with younger users and mobile users even more likely to access this way of deriving news.

Most news brands have adapted their content for this distributed world, including developing new formats that are optimised for search and social media. At the same time, publishers are looking to nurture more regular usage directly to company website and apps and by developing email newsletters and mobile alerts (Newman 2016). The Digital News Report shows that although side-door access has increased significantly since 2012, the UK has a much higher proportion of direct traffic than most other countries. This is likely to be due to the existence of a highly competitive national media market, where strong newspaper brands vie with broadcasters like Sky and the BBC. Recall-based surveys are useful for understanding these general trends over time and across countries, but are often not the best way to understand more granular online behaviour around brands and specific content. To take a more detailed look at this, we have focused on behavioural data tracking a large sample of news users over four weeks.

Methodology and Limitations

This study is based on tracking the news consumption of desktop and laptop users in the UK from YouGov’s PULSE panel during the four weeks from 13 March until 10 April 2017. This panel is made up of more than 6,000 active computer users (desktop and laptop) who have given YouGov permission to track their online behaviour anonymously. Of these, 3,455 people accessed at least one news story from 21 designated online news brands in the UK and, in turn, this group accessed a total of 179,539 news stories over the month. We focus on the behaviour of these online news users. In the data, the figures have been weighted to national adult online desktop population for gender and age, as suggested by YouGov.

Our news universe was defined by the online news output of the most popular UK brands in the annual digital news report. They include the BBC, BuzzFeed, Channel 4, Daily Mail, Huffington Post, Daily Mirror, Sky News, Daily Telegraph, Sun, The Times, Yahoo News, Independent, ITV News, Lad Bible, Metro, Daily Express, London Evening Standard, Guardian, and MSN. We also added Breitbart and the Canary as we were interested to find out more about the usage profile of these hyper-partisan news sites in the UK.

It is important to note that we do not measure all news content that is consumed in the UK. We have excluded stories by UK consumers from foreign outlets such as CNN, the New York Times, Al-Jazeera, and any foreign language output not included in the list above. Individually, the brands that make up the so-called ‘long tail’ have a small reach with UK users, but together with blogs and other citizen journalism, they account for a significant amount of consumption. We also cannot measure stories consumed within platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, or Snapchat. Our study therefore excludes the consumption of headlines or snippets within distributed environments or native consumption of articles via Facebook Instant Articles,

Google AMP, Apple News, etc. It also excludes short or live video consumption within distributed platforms, such as that produced by Now This or AJ+, as well as by the news brands listed above. In this study, we only look at desktop traffic. This is partly because mobile consumption, which is split between website and apps, is notoriously difficult to track, particularly at an individual story level. It is also hard to identify paths to content correctly on mobile. Our Reuters Digital News Report suggests that at a brand level, there is little difference between desktop/laptop and mobile in terms of weekly reach, with the exception of Sky News and BuzzFeed, which both do much better on mobile, and MSN News, which does better on desktop. In terms of paths to content, however, survey evidence suggests that social media are much more important on mobile than on desktop and laptop. In this respect, the path data shown here are likely to significantly over-represent direct traffic and significantly under-represent social paths when looking at overall news consumption.

In order to test our methodology, we compared our panel-based tracking data with logfile data obtained from both the Guardian and the BBC for traffic to desktop content from the UK for a single day in February. The percentages for traffic from different paths in the YouGov panel – social along with search and direct traffic – was broadly similar in these tests, which gave us confidence in our results. However, the comparative data set obtained from the BBC and the Guardian also confirmed our assumption that there is a radically different discovery pattern for mobile content, with social media being far more important in the mix.

Given these points, it is important to clarify that our sample does not represent the total news universe in the UK. It does cover the most popular news brands in the UK and a significant proportion of online news consumption, but does not include mobile web use, distributed consumption, and apps, or offline news. The distinct advantage of our approach is its granularity, allowing us to analyse digital news use at the story level and across brands and forms of discovery, something that other forms of analysis do not allow.

Key Findings

Top Publishers over the Period

These data show the extent to which desktop news consumption in the UK is dominated by three brands: the BBC, the Guardian, and the Mail Online. Together they accounted for 63 per cent of all the stories read in our news sample and 64 per cent of time spent over the month studied. Other national brands, such as the Daily Telegraph, the Independent, the Daily Mirror, and the Sun, accounted for a very small percentage of the overall number of stories read (between 2 and 4 per cent for each brand) and a similar proportion of the overall time spent.

One surprise is the high ranking of MSN, which aggregates stories from a number of other publishers. MSN comes closely bundled with Microsoft email and browser services, which accounts for its strong performance on desktop. As already noted, it performs less well on mobile, where it does not have these advantages

Loyalty and Engagement Varies Widely between Brands

The next chart presents an overview of how different publishers performed during the four weeks covered, expressed in terms of the percentage of all stories read they account for, the average number of stories each person who visited that brand read over this period, the average time spent per user, and the percentage of all time spent. The percentage of stories read and of time spent gives an indication of the relative share of total news use an individual publisher accounts for, the average number of stories read, and the average time spent, illustrating the depth of engagement amongst those who do use a given brand. The Daily Mirror, for example, accounts for about ten times as many stories read and time spent as Breitbart, but the average Breitbart user reads almost twice as many stories from that site and spends almost twice as much time on that site as the average Mirror user.

If we define engagement as the number of stories per visitor over the month, we see that the BBC tops the list with an average of 31 stories per unique visitor, followed by MSN (24), the Guardian(15), BuzzFeed (14), the Mail Online (13), and The Times (9). No other UK national publisher has an average of more than five stories accessed by each visitor per month. Publishers like the Sun and Mirror, which have managed to build up huge loyal readerships in print, are generating just four and three stories per visitor each, with an average time over the whole month of just over four minutes for each publication.

The Telegraph has an average of five stories per visitor per month, with a total dwell time of five minutes for each visitor – a significantly less loyal readership than its long-time rival, the Guardian. The Independent, which recently shut down its print edition to become a digital only brand, manages just four stories per visitor, with an average visitor time of five minutes. These (low) levels of loyalty and attention, combined with heavy reliance on Facebook and Google for traffic, are likely to make it hard to monetise their readerships over time.

BuzzFeed attracts around three times as much traffic as fellow digital born brand the Huffington Post. During the period, 7 per cent of news stories accessed were from BuzzFeed, with 14 stories per visitor and an average total reading time of 19 minutes. The Huffington Post had a lower share of stories read (2 per cent) and its readers were far less engaged, with just five stories per visitor and an average total reading time of five minutes. However, it is important to note that it is not possible to separate BuzzFeed news stories from lifestyle content, so the greater engagement may be due to strongly performing non-news lists and quizzes.

It should be noted that The Times, which operates a paywall, has a more loyal readership (nine stories per person), which spends around eleven minutes with the publication, though it should be highlighted that a significant proportion access The Times via its mobile and tablet apps (not covered in this study), so total time spent figures are likely to be much higher for this publication along with other engagement metrics.

Paths to Content

These data also allow us to see which routes panellists used to access news stories. Almost half of all engagements with news stories (46 per cent) started with people accessing the story directly (i.e. from a homepage or other page on the website). This was followed by accessing via social media (17 per cent), search (17 per cent), and Google News (1 per cent). Around one in five (19 per cent) of news stories are accessed via other pathways – mostly email domains, links from forums and bulletin boards like Reddit, or links from Wikipedia, among others. We should note that these data refer to first click to any news story on our selected sites and excludes home pages and other index pages. The path profile this desktop traffic is different from mobile, where we know social media are a much more important driver of traffic (Newman et al. 2016, internal data from BBC and Guardian).

Overall conclusions

This study tracking thousands of internet users over a month has provided new insights into the detail of online news consumption in the UK. The study shows how a small number of news brands, the BBC, the Guardian, and the Mail Online, tend to dominate news consumption in the UK, whether they get to those stories directly via search or through social media. The loyal usage these brands are able to generate means that they tend to perform well in general as well as around individual stories like the Westminster attacks and the United Airlines eviction. They
have an entrenched advantage through their brand reputation. Readerships seek them out directly and frequently.

By contrast, we have seen how other national brands, including both important newspapers and digital-born news sites, struggle to attract repeat visits and engage users online. Although the monthly reach of these brands is still significant, they are largely accessed through third-party gateways such as search and social. Speed or ingenuity can enable these brands to capture more attention for a particular story via distributed pathways, as in the case of the Independent in the United Airlines story, but this may not benefit them in the long term if this traffic cannot be effectively monetised.

Our case studies also show how third-party platforms have influenced the type of content being produced and the speed with which it is delivered. Stories were written specifically to answer reader questions from search while social formats (such as texted videos) are being deployed on news websites and distributed through social networks.

Finally, this research raises a question about the quality and range of online sources that are consumed. On the one hand, our study confirms that social media users access a wider range of brands than those who do not. On the other hand, it shows that much of the coverage duplicates; brands often draw on the same sources and follow the same approaches to format and storytelling. Further research would need to be done on a wider range of stories, including political and economic coverage, to understand whether and how digital media are extending or narrowing
choice in particular cases. It would also be useful in any future research to understand more about how discovery and consumption are different on mobile and to compare computer users and smartphone users.

 

 

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