App wars: Are social networks killing the news industry?

A decade ago, the Economist wrote an article entitled "Who killed the newspaper?" All fingers pointed to the web or, more specifically, online newspapers. Since then, the mobile news app has acted as the online newspaper's accomplice. Now, millennials are increasingly reliant on social media as their source of news content. What does this mean then for the future of online news publishers? Is there anything that can be done now to avoid the same fate as the newspaper? Collaboration, rather than competition, with social networks may be the answer.

News stand
Image credit: Flickr - Robert Wallace

The print newspaper has declined in popularity since the widespread availability of the internet. Navigating crowded public transport with a broadsheet newspaper was relatively impractical and so, in the age of the smart phone, Western society has largely abandoned traditional print press in favour of online news and mobile news apps.

A new source of news

According to Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report, a new trend is emerging: a significant number of consumers are now using social media as a source of news, rather than online news websites or mobile news apps. Across the entire sample of participants surveyed (in 26 countries), over half said that they use social media as a source of news every week, and more than 10% indicated that they use social media as their main source of news, with this rising to 28% for 18-24 year olds.

Facebook was reported as being consumers’ most important network for finding, reading, watching and sharing news. This is no surprise considering Facebook was the most used mobile app in the USA between January and June 2016, according to Survey Monkey Intelligence. YouTube and Facebook Messenger were ranked 2nd and 3rd respectively, and Instagram, 9th. Not a single one of the top 30 most used mobile apps in the USA during this period was a dedicated news app.

What’s trending?

A large volume of news readership traffic on social media platforms emanates from the “trending” functionalities available on apps such as Facebook and Twitter. Consumers are exposed to trending news stories as soon as the search box is clicked, even before the consumer is cognisant of their desire to read the news or has entered any text in the search box. On clicking a trending news story, consumers are directed to a page containing an aggregation of the “top” results for this story. Consumers can then select which news story to access in full.

One consequence of consumers accessing news stories through aggregation feeds on social media platforms is the loss of publisher brand recognition. Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report found that only a third of UK consumers notice the originating news publisher brand if the news story is accessed through a social network. This is concerning for both the goodwill and brand value of news publisher businesses. However, unless social networks reconfigure their news aggregation feeds so that the publisher brands are given more prominence this is largely out of the publishers’ control.

The 15 most used mobile apps in the USA

Dedicated news aggregator apps

A market of dedicate news aggregator apps (such as Apple’s “Apple News” and “Upday” from Samsung and Axel Springer) has emerged in recent years however the popularity and use of such apps by consumers varies from country to country. The Digital News Report found that respondents felt that whilst aggregators do a better job of providing quick and easy access to a variety of news sources, they prefer social networks for interactivity, and for alerts and breaking news.

Levelling the playing field

The European Commission’s draft Directive on copyright in the Digital Single Market (at least theoretically) serves to protect the economic interests of online news publishers’ businesses. If the Directive is implemented as currently drafted, publishers will be entitled to request reimbursement from news aggregators for use of a snippet of the publisher’s news story. However, if we look to the examples set by Spain and Germany, (Spanish publishers were required by law to charge for republication of their news snippets, following which Google News closed down its local edition; German publishers decided not to charge Google for using their news snippets rather than lose the traffic Google News brings them) the model promoted by the draft Directive has, thus far, been unsuccessful in achieving its desired effect, at least on a territorial basis. However, it may be a case of strength in numbers: if top publishers insist on their right to receive the so-called “snippet tax” on implementation of the Directive throughout the EU, they may force the hand of social networks and news aggregators who would otherwise be left with gaps in content on a pan-European scale.


Whether a news story appears in an aggregated feed on a social network is frequently determined by computer algorithms. These algorithms take into account factors such as the popularity of a news article, what stories the consumer is likely to be interested in (based on their previous news consumption) or what their friends (or equivalent followers) have been reading or sharing. However, almost 50% of participants surveyed by Reuters Institute expressed concerns that the use of algorithms affects their privacy; whether this mechanism for determining news aggregator content will continue to be acceptable remains to be seen.

Continued use of algorithms may serve to disrupt the levelling playing field. Traditional UK news publishers which subscribe to IPSO already arguably incur greater compliance costs than unregulated news sources by virtue of their adherence to IPSO’s Editors’ Code of Practice. There have already been a number of reported incidents of algorithms failing to ensure the accuracy of news stories in the content that they promote. Algorithms inevitably promote hoax stories from time to time: hoax stories are likely to be eye-catching and are therefore read by a greater number of readers, therefore affecting the algorithm. IPSO-regulated publishers which report genuine news stories may find themselves losing out to hoax stories created by unregulated news publishers as these are given greater prominence and exposure on aggregator feeds by algorithms.

There is a wider moral and societal argument as to whether readers, particularly those who are more easily influenced by what they read, should be exposed to unregulated and frequently inaccurate news stories, which are selected by algorithms. A social network aggregator news feed saturated with inaccurate or otherwise untrue stories exacerbates the problem of determining what can be believed and trusted by the public.

A brand new era

Perhaps there is scope for a deal to be done between social networks and news publishers? News publishers bring credibility and brand value to the negotiation table. The data which social networks and aggregators collect (such as readership and consumption habits), in addition to social networks’ significant financial resources, are undoubtedly attractive to news publishers. These respective qualities, together with publishers’ new ancillary right to snippet tax under the draft Directive, are likely to encourage publishers and social networks to enter into formal, mutually beneficial, arrangements.

Through this more cohesive and collaborative approach, the opportunity may arise for news publishers to request greater brand prominence alongside their news results in aggregator feeds in order to enhance, or at the very least maintain, the brand’s value. Whilst it remains to be seen exactly how the Directive on copyright in the Digital Single Market will play out, it does appear as though it may act as a catalyst in redressing the balance between publishers and social networks.

In other news…

Since publishing this article, the Guardian has also provided coverage on this topic with particular emphasis on the role of fake news in the US election results. Please find a link to the article “Facebook’s failure: did fake news and polarized politics get Trump elected?” here.

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