Facebook, Twitter Not Dominating News Landscape Just Yet

BY Murrey Jacobson  March 19, 2012 at 12:39 AM EDT

The importance of using social media to promote a news organization’s journalism is pretty much a given in any newsroom these days, but as popular as Facebook and Twitter are, they do not seem to be driving as much traffic to news websites as one would think.

That’s one of the surprising findings from the Pew Research Center’s annual report on the state of media and journalism, which was released Monday. The report, which includes a survey of 3,000 Americans, makes clear that social media is an important tool for the news industry, even a potentially essential one for its survival. But the influence of Facebook and Twitter is not dominant yet.

Just 9 percent of those who were surveyed earlier this year said they frequently follow news recommendations from either Facebook or Twitter when using computers, smartphones or tablets. More than a third instead said they “very often” find news by going directly to the website of a news organization they like, a brand they follow. Nearly a third say they find news very often by using a search engine. Apps were also a major driver.

“Social media is secondary,” said Amy Mitchell, deputy director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. “Clearly it’s grown, clearly it’s the new player and part of the landscape, but it’s not the overwhelming driver.”

Still, the survey captures the emerging role of those social networks.

Fifty-two percent of digital news consumers said they get at least some news by following recommendations on Facebook and Twitter. The numbers are even higher for those who own a smartphone or tablet.

“There certainly seems to be a strengthening of the relationship between social media and news sites when people come to them through mobile devices,” Mitchell said.

Facebook also garners twice as many news followers as Twitter, mostly through family and friends. But those who found news through Facebook often said they believed they would have read the same news elsewhere. By contrast, more news consumers who found links through Twitter thought they were not likely to have seen them otherwise.

The report also shows that the percentage of traffic that comes to news sites through social media increased 57 percent since 2009.

Overall, the Pew report suggests mobile technology may hold promise for traditional media organizations because smartphones, laptops and tablets are being used to add to the overall amount of news that people read.

“A majority of Americans now find news through at least one web-based digital device,” the report states. “Nearly a quarter of U.S. adults, 23%, now get news on at least two devices.”

Moreover, the report finds that people who read news on a mobile device are more likely to spend time using news apps, visit more pages at one sitting and return to that site more frequently than they do with a desktop computer.

Despite Pew’s findings on social media, the report’s authors offered a bit of optimism for the news industry in the long term:

In sum, the news industry is not much closer to a new revenue model than a year earlier and has lost more ground to rivals in the technology industry. But growing evidence also suggests that news is becoming a more important and pervasive part of people’s lives. That, in the end, could prove a saving factor for the future of journalism.

Other key findings of the annual Pew report:

  • The problems for the daily newspaper continue to grow. Print circulation and ad revenues declined again last year, but part of the newspaper industry is trying to figure out how to earn more money from digital products. “Slightly more than a tenth of surviving U.S. dailies have launched some sort of digital subscription plan or pay wall,” the report states.

  • Audiences for the traditional three network telecasts grew last year by an average of 4.5 percent, the first real uptick in a decade. Cable news grew as well, but just by 1 percent. CNN’s audience grew for the second straight year. Fox’s audience declined, but it remains by far the ratings leader of the major cable news networks, the report said.