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Connecting with local mobile news consumers: New Knight research

by: Amy Gahran |

Today, mobile devices are second only to television for delivering news and information to most U.S. adults. New research from the Knight Foundation hints at some opportunities to connect more effectively with local mobile news consumers: Facebook, Wikipedia, Reddit, and e-mail.

Most research into people's news habits rely on self reporting. But in the new report Mobile-First News: How People Use Smartphones to Access Information, the Knight Foundation teamed with Nielsen's Electronic Mobile Measurement Panel to gather two years' worth of data from a panel of mobile users via a smartphone metering app. This data (which looked at all news, not specifically local) highlighted not just how people are discovering news on their smartphones, but what they are doing with the news they find on their phone.

The Knight/Nielsen data showed that nearly 90% of mobile-using U.S. adults now access news or informational content via smartphones. This ranges from current affairs and breaking news to "soft" news like weather. On average, these people spend nearly 5% of their mobile time (more than 2 hours per month) accessing news and information.

But mobile news consumption is undoubtedly bigger than that, Knight acknowledges. Even more mobile news consumption appears to be happening via social media, rather than news apps or websites. Knight's data showed that mobile users spend over one fourth of their mobile time using social media apps -- and half of mobile social networkers spend time looking at news.

For instance, 70% of Facebook users encounter news on Facebook every day. Also, over 80% of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram users take action to engage with the news they find there -- mostly by liking or sharing news with their contacts. In addition, 59% of Facebook users and 41% of Twitter users reported that they discuss news in person with others.

Such statistics could add significance to recent allegations that some portion of Facebook's Trending Topics headlines are selected by a team of human curators, rather than reflecting the news consumption preferences of Facebook users. But they also indicate that promoting news content via social media can be a remarkably effective and inexpensive way to gain traction with mobile users.

In a sense, social media apps can be considered news apps, or at least news distribution channels. This is especially true since Knight found that, among dedicated news apps, the audience for the news aggregator app Flipboard is the only one that has been steadily increasing. Audiences for other top news apps are flattening.

This trend could end up giving smaller local news publishers an unexpected edge. Major news publishers have often pursued an app-centric news strategy, while smaller independent local news venues have generally focused more on their own websites. True, many of those local websites could be more mobile-friendly -- but in general, web content is more amenable to social media sharing and promotion than in-app content

Thus, promoting news website content via Facebook, or even experimenting with direct distribution via Facebook Instant Articles (now available to any news publisher) could yield proportionately greater visibility and engagement for local news publishers -- for much less effort and investment than what a news app would require. Also, applying the mobile web guidelines of Google's Accelerated Mobile Pages initiative could help create a better experience for mobile users arriving via social media, without having to redesign your entire website.

Surprisingly, Knight found that Wikipedia (on the mobile web, and via its mobile app) is playing a strong role in driving mobile users to news content. Almost one third of all U.S. mobile users access Wikipedia each month. And often, Wikipedia pages link to current news coverage. Wikipedia was one of the top 10 websites people visited just prior to exploring major news sites, so it is driving substantial traffic to news.

The unique thing about Wikipedia is that, for the most part, anyone can edit Wikipedia pages. If your city, town or neighborhood has a Wikipedia page, it might be worthwhile for local news publishers to periodically review and update it with references to coverage of current events. And if there is no Wikipedia page for where you are, why not create one? (Guidelines and instructions to contribute to Wikipedia.)

Similarly, Knight noted that Reddit has become a leading way of bringing young millennials to mobile news site. Reddit is comprised of many discussion forums (called subreddits), sometimes on small niche topics. Many subreddits are dedicated to particular cities, towns or neighborhoods.

So, it may be worth searching Reddit so see if there's one or more subreddits for your coverage area. If so, it could be useful to check it every few days and participate constructively in the local conversations there. And if there is no local subreddit, you could start one. In a local subreddit, when relevant or helpful, post links to your content -- or begin new threads on the topic of news you're covering. This not only might drive more traffic to your local news; it might spur conversation that could support or enhance your local content.

Finally, don't underestimate the mobile news engagement potential of the humble e-mail newsletter -- especially since half or more of all e-mails are read on mobile devices today. Knight noted: "E-mail newsletters that drive audience to news content are often not appreciated as much as social networks, but they are worth highlighting. It seems that news-seekers still value curated content that lasts longer than a feed and that they have chosen to opt into."

Amy Gahran

Amy Gahran is a journalist, editor, trainer, entrepreneur, strategist, and media consultant based in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to writing
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