How the Average American Gets Their News

It’s bad news for publications.

Facebook employees march in the NYC Pride parade on June 26, 2016.  (Brendan McDermid / Reuters)

What has already been a discouraging summer for online news now looks even worse. A new Pew Research study reveals yet another reason for journalists to fret about recent changes to Facebook’s editorial vision.

Last week, a Facebook vice president announced a major modification to how the company’s News Feed algorithm will rank stories. That algorithm chooses which 10 or 15 posts users see first when they log in, often culling this list down from a possible 1,500 statuses. The News Feed will now give pride of place to posts from users’ friends and family, instead of prioritizing content from professional news publishers.

Charlie Warzel, a tech reporter at Buzzfeed, cast the decision as a kind of election. Engineers examined what kind of posts people were clicking on and interacting with, and decided that people wanted to see less news. “Put simply, the users have spoken and news lost,” he wrote.

Except that Facebook wasn’t just running a referendum—it was also altering the rules of its republic. Most Facebook users will simply see less news now, unless they opt into it or are especially likely to engage with it. This weekend, Mike Isaac, a reporter at The New York Times, listed how users can signal to Facebook that they want to see more news. Mostly, those ways just entail engaging with newsy posts—liking, sharing, and commenting on them.

“The more you interact with news articles shared by the publishers you like—be it clicking on them and reading or resharing them in your own feed—the more Facebook will know that you want to see that type of content,” Isaac said. “In a nutshell, if you’re already a news hound, just keep doing what you’re doing.”

That brings us to the new Pew report. According to the research organization, only a sliver of Americans appear to be doing what news hounds are doing. While a decisive majority of Americans appear to get their news through social networks, very few of them actually engage with stories in ways that would signal to Facebook’s algorithms they want to see news.

First, the good news for publishers (as it were). Eighty-one percent of Americans get some of their news though websites, apps, or social platforms. While TV is still the most popular news source for Americans—57 percent of U.S. adults “often” get their news from television—that’s mostly due to its popularity among older people. In essence, the older you are, the more likely you are to like TV. More than 70 percent of Americans older than 50 “often” watch TV news; less than 50 percent of Americans younger than that do. Meanwhile, only about a quarter of 20-somethings and college students are regular TV news watchers—but 50 percent of them are regular online news consumers.

But then the findings look much more unfortunate, especially when read in tandem with the Facebook changes. Even after last week’s modifications, News Feed still prioritizes news in two different scenarios. If your Facebook friends share news stories, it’s “friend-approved content” and you’re more likely to see it. (“Friend-approved content” is not even close to an official phrase.) And if you opt to like, share, or comment on news posts on Facebook, you’ll see more of it.

The Pew finds that neither of those two things happen very often. Only about a quarter of social-media users regularly click through to read a news story on social mediathe most basic form of engagement. Just 16 percent of social-media users often “like” a news story. Only 11 percent of people often share news stories on social media. And eight percent of Americans regularly comment on news articles—which, given the odiousness of this website’s comment threads, may be a good thing.

These numbers didn’t meaningfully correlate to generational divides: Both older and younger people engaged with the news online in roughly equal measure. But all  these numbers do significantly rise when they include people who engage with the news “sometimes.” Eighty percent of Americans often or sometimes click on a news story, for instance, and 49 percent share or repost news stories. Still, a minority of people regularly engage with the news online in most algorithmically-recognizable ways.

Pew researchers conducted the study in two different phases. First, more than 4,600 adults were surveyed by web and mail about their general media habits in January of this year. Two months later, researchers followed up with about 2,000 of them, sending them online studies spaced out through the day that asked them to account for how they had used the web over the previous two hours. Pollsters conducted interviews in English and Spanish.

In some ways, the study frames the last week’s News Feed changes. For some Americans, the old Facebook regime was working well: They saw the news they wanted to see, and they interacted with it. But most people skimmed over that news. If something seemed really interesting, they clicked on it—but, mostly, they learned about the world in other ways.

Dark social”—Alexis Madrigal’s term for low-key, friend-to-friend URL sharing that takes to text and GChat rather than Facebook and Twitter—does not appear to be a widespread activity, at least among all Americans. The Pew found that only 13 percent of Americans share news stories by texting, emailing, or instant messaging them to someone. In contrast, a vast majority—85 percent—share the news by talking about it.

This latter statistic conjures a sweeping, happy vision of a living democracy: hundreds of millions of Americans, discussing the events of the day at home, work, and school. But for web publishers, who require people to load their webpages or download their apps to make money, it is not a particularly remunerative one.