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More than half of Internet users now get news from social media platforms, highlighting a major shift in the way publishers find their readers, according to a study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

This shift is picking up speed while a confluence of forces, including a surge in smartphone use, the rise of ad-blocking software and a drastic realignment in the flow of advertising, is reshaping the media landscape.

The fifth instalment of the Digital News Report, which surveyed 50,000 Internet users in 26 countries, including Canada, highlights the predicament that news outlets around the world have been grappling with: The sheer reach and fragmentation of social media promises news publishers the potential to reach vast new audiences, but it could also make it harder for them to “stand out” to “make money,” according to Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of research for the Reuters Institute. “This development will leave some winners and many losers,” he said.

Here are some key findings from the study:

Social fragmentation

About 12 per cent of those surveyed now say social media outlets are their main source of news, and Facebook dominates the field. The company has taken aggressive steps to get more of its users reading news inside the Facebook ecosystem by offering fast-loading Instant Articles that no longer link back to the news publisher’s own site.

Despite trailing in the pack, Twitter “remains important for heavy news users and influencers,” according to the report’s authors, while other prominent platforms, such as Apple News and Snapchat, have yet to claim a significant share of social news reading.

Taken together, these social platforms offer news organizations a tantalizing way to reach new readers, but there remains a stubborn obstacle to building a reliable audience from those clicks: In Canada, only 40 per cent of users who read news through social media say they notice which news brand provided the content.


The struggle to make online news pay

While the study concludes that news is as popular as ever, paying for it is not. The situation is most acute in English-speaking news media, where competition for readers’ attention is fierce. The percentage of readers who have paid for online news in the past year is below 10 per cent in every English-speaking country surveyed.

In contrast, “smaller countries protected by geography or language,” such as Norway, Poland and Sweden, have more than 20 per cent of users paying for online news.


No ads, please, we’re young-ish

Online advertising revenue has remained modest when compared with the rates that traditionally accompany print advertising. But even where publishers have built audiences large enough to make digital advertising pay, a major potential problem looms in the form of ad-blocking software.

The broader use of ad blockers, ranging from 10 per cent of Internet users in Japan to 38 per cent in Poland, masks the fact that they are used much more frequently among those aged 34 and under. And for publishers that are trying to make ads less pesky and avoid giving readers the urge to install ad blockers – through projects such as Google Inc.’s Accelerated Mobile Pages, or AMP – there is an urgent need to nip the instinct to block ads in the bud: About a third of the study’s respondents said they plan to install an ad blocker on their mobile phone in the next year, and once users download the software, “they rarely go back,” the study concludes.


Human versus machine

With the rise of social networks as a primary news source for many consumers, the daily digest of stories that reach a given reader is shaped increasingly by algorithms, and the study shows that readers have mixed feelings about how much human intervention they still want in choosing what’s newsworthy to them.

About 30 per cent of respondents said they were happy to have the judgment of editors and journalists determine their news for them. That’s well ahead of those who said they are comfortable with their news being automatically suggested based on what their friends have read, but trailing the respondents who are content having their news chosen algorithmically based on what they have read before.

Many respondents worry that key information or challenging viewpoints may be lost through algorithmic filters, but the report concludes that one thing is clear: “A generation that prefers the news to be selected by computers rather than humans has emerged with surprising speed.”


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