Facebook has been a lot in the news lately, but it appears it’s becoming less important as a source of news for many people worldwide.
According to Reuters Institute’s 2018 Digital News Report, an expansive study of digital media consumption around the world, the declining use of social media as a source of news is almost entirely due to changes in the use of Facebook, consistently the most widely used social network for news in almost every country.
“News consumption via Facebook is down 9 percentage points in the United States and 20 points with younger groups,” says Nic Newman, Research Associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. “In our urban Brazilian sample the use of Facebook for news has fallen to 52% — a 17 point change from 2016.”
According to the report, average Facebook use for any purpose has remained broadly static since 2015, while its use for news has declined.
This is both because of a fall in general engagement, and a reduction in exposure to news by the Facebook algorithm, as the company prioritizes interactions with family and friends.
Rise of the “others”
With reliance on Facebook for news going down, other platforms are coming into play, leading to traffic fragmentation for publishers.
The report states, “we have seen a rise in the usage of alternative platforms such as WhatsApp, Instagram, and Snapchat. Average news usage for Facebook has fallen from 42% in 2016 to 36% today while other networks are stable or have been growing rapidly.”
The Reuters Institute’s polling was conducted mostly before the implementation of the much-publicised Facebook algorithm change earlier this year, reorientating the News Feed towards “meaningful interactions”, with a consequent reduction in news content.
While the decline was already underway, since then, a number of publishers have reported a further substantial decline in referrals, the report says. It also cites the example of one publisher, Little Things, that went out of business in early 2018, citing Facebook’s algorithm changes as a critical factor.
Other networks are taking up the slack, the report notes.
“WhatsApp use for news has almost tripled since 2014 and has overtaken Twitter in importance in many countries,” says Nic Newman. “There have also been substantial increases in the use of other networks in a number of countries.
WhatsApp and Instagram have taken off in Latin America and parts of Asia. Snapchat is making progress in parts of Europe and the United States, particularly with younger users.”
The report postulates that to some extent, these increases have also been driven by publishers changing their strategies, in a bid to become less dependent on Facebook.
Why are consumers relying less on Facebook for news?
“Consumers are being put off by toxic debates and unreliable news, but they are also finding that alternative networks offer more convenience, greater privacy, and less opportunity to be misunderstood,” according to the Digital News Report.
At the same time, a vast majority of our respondents (65%) in the Reuters study said that they prefer to get their news through a “side door”, rather than going directly to a news website or app.
Over half (53%) expressed their preference to access news through search engines, social media, or news aggregators, i.e., interfaces that use ranking algorithms to select stories, rather than interfaces driven by humans.
The fastest growing gateway to news over the last three years has been mobile news alerts, the report found.
Mobile alerts particularly resonate with younger users who often start their day with the lock screen. Noticing this trend, publishers have been sending more alerts on a wider range of subjects. They are even using artificial intelligence (AI) to make them more relevant.
All in all, while news consumption via Facebook is down, there are many players in the market who are vying to fill the vacuum for news consumers. Facebook is also pulling all stops to remain relevant, and it’s turning out to be quite an interesting battle for the consumer mindspace.
But the signal for publishers is clear. They need to diversify and not stay reliant on Facebook as a media distribution powerhouse anymore.
You can download the Digital News Report 2018 by Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism here.