News Goes Mobile: How People Use Smartphones to Access Information

Part 1

The challenge

Rapid advances in technology have left news organizations scrambling to manage how news is created, consumed and delivered. People have shifted towards accessing news first via desktops and laptops, and now through the ubiquitous smartphone.

Since 2011, the rate of adult U.S. smartphone ownership has increased notably from 46 to 82 percent, and is nearing a saturation point among some age groups. In just the past two years, individual mobile news consumption has grown rapidly. In fact, 89 percent of the U.S. mobile population (144 million users) now access news and information via mobile devices. As news organizations seek to better manage this digital transformation across platforms, engage with their audience and stay competitive, what should they understand about their audience’s changing behavior on mobile news? And, how are diverse audiences approaching access to mobile news and information differently?

This two-part series, excerpted from a custom research study conducted with Nielsen and commissioned by Knight Foundation in September 2015, delves first into several key findings, and then dives into how specific groups of people use different mobile platforms for news.

The findings show that:

  • There is a substantial audience for mobile news. Nearly the entire population of adult mobile users consume news on their devices, and more users are spending news time on social platforms.
  • While mobile users only spend 5 percent of mobile time on news, on average, the time they do spend includes “hard” news about current events and global news, as opposed to routine weather reports and other forms of “soft” news.
  • Mobile users who access news through apps spend more time reading the content, but the overall audience for apps is small, so it’s essential to know who those users are.
  • Social media sites and apps are important sources of news for social media users, although television remains their top source. However, social media users also depend on friends, contacts and individuals they follow as trusted news sources as much as or more than they depend on media outlets.
  • Mobile news users active on social networks do not just passively engage with news content but take offline action related to the content.

Other studies on mobile news behavior rely heavily on self-reported survey data but Knight Foundation wanted a clearer picture of genuine behaviors. To obtain actual user data, Knight worked with Nielsen’s Electronic Mobile Measurement Panel to conduct a 24-month mobile news trend analysis. Panel recruits use an “always-on” meter on their mobile devices to monitor user activity, both across apps and on browsers. Nielsen also conducted a supplementary, self-reported survey to account for in-app news consumption on social networking sites (for example, reading an article posted on Twitter or Facebook).

Audience size and time spent reading news on mobile

A substantial mobile news audience exists, and many of those users are spending news time on social platforms.

Eighty-nine percent of the adult U.S. mobile population (144 million people) access news and information via their mobile device. While analysis of the mobile news audience shows that it had grown 9 percent from the previous year (see Figure 3), but the increase has recently slowed, suggesting that the mobile news audience is reaching a plateau.

But the activities people perform on mobile is changing. The metered data from the Nielsen panel show that mobile news-seekers, on average, dedicate nearly 5 percent (or more than 2 hours) of their monthly mobile time to news (see Figure 2). However, an analysis of year-over-year changes (see Figure 3) suggests that time spent directly on mobile apps and sites has declined over the past year. This decline contrasts with substantial news activity taking place on social networking platforms.

Indeed, 27 percent of mobile time (more than 12 hours per month) is spent on social networking sites, and Nielsen’s supplemental survey showed that half of social networkers spend time looking at news; 70 percent of Facebook users, for example, use Facebook for news every day.

Today, mobile news reaches nearly 90 percent of mobile users but reading time may be shifting towards social networks.

While news organizations with national (or international) reach are experimenting with and active on mobile and social media platforms, many local and regional outlets have been slower to migrate toward the capabilities needed to become “digital-first” operations — meaning their workflow (and the content they develop) prioritizes production for mobile and online platforms over print. Even large publishers and online outlets are wrestling with how to distribute digital content via social channels such as Facebook’s Instant Articles to make the most of possible revenue from this large audience.

Why develop a news app

News-seekers spend significant time using apps, but news organizations need to understand the users to maximize the benefits.

The data from the custom Nielsen research study among users of the top 10 mobile news sites and applications show that while the mobile news audience largely uses both app and sites the majority of mobile time is spent within apps (see Figure 5).

The audience, however, is generally much more limited among apps overall. As the Nielsen study illustrates, the audience of Flipboard (a top news aggregator app) is the only one that has been steadily increasing while audiences for other top apps are flattening.

News organizations across the spectrum are grappling with this issue, trying to determine a value proposition for developing a native (or brand) app versus focusing on a mobile responsive site. The audience for apps tends to consist of “power,” or loyal, users, but the audience that uses mobile news sites (versus apps) may be quite different. Figures 6 and 7 highlight the substantial difference between audience size and monthly time spent on top apps versus mobile sites.

An emerging discussion on the value of apps shows that some publishers believe that discussions around mobile strategy are too app-centric, and they question whether building an app is worth the time and expense. Others are betting that if an app is well designed and the audience is targeted, there could be substantial revenue opportunities. While the answer may look different depending on a news organization’s audience and behavior, this area is still wide open for much experimentation.

Time spent on apps high, but audiences much smaller

What types of news content dominate on mobile

The content users access and how they do it varies by platform.

Nearly half the time spent on news is within what Nielsen classifies as “multicategory news” and all current event and global news content areas on sites and apps. However, weather and reference sites and apps (including dominant sites such as Wikipedia) are the most popular areas in terms of total audience size, with current events and global news not far behind. Multicategory news includes mobile news sites containing multiple areas of news content areas, such as BuzzFeed, Mashable or National Geographic. Figure 8 illustrates that mobile news readers’ interests (and a significant amount of monthly mobile news time) extend well beyond reference information or “soft news”-type weather content.

The supplemental survey of social networkers in the panel provides data as to the frequency of news consumption within social apps (see Figure 9). The data around frequency does suggest that the time spent reading news of all kinds on mobile is greater than the 5 percent of what is trackable given the prevalence of in-app usage.

The news content accessed looks different in social media and between social platforms. Nielsen’s survey also provided more granular insights into the types of news consumed across social media platforms. As Figure 10 illustrates, entertainment news dominates social networking news consumption and patterns of news consumption are similar across Facebook, Twitter and Google+. However, consumption patterns diverge on Instagram and LinkedIn. LinkedIn, for example, is highly accessed by news-seekers looking for tech and financial/business news whereas Instagram’s content on lifestyle dominates.


Mobile news-seekers engage both online and off and trust shared content.

The behavioral and survey data illustrate that the audience is immense for news across mobile sites and apps and continues to grow within social platforms. Indeed, social networking apps on mobile compete as a news source with other media forms trailing only TV but pulling ahead of radio, newspapers and magazines among social networkers (see Figure 11).

Moreover, respondents were also asked how they receive their news on select social networking apps. News-seekers depend on friends, contacts and individuals followed as trusted news sources as much as or more than they depend on the media outlets themselves (see Figure 12).

But what happens after a person accesses news, and how does that person engage with content both online and off? The data from Nielsen’s custom commissioned study show that a high number of social network news readers take action after accessing news. More than 80 percent of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram users take action after accessing news, the dominant actions being clicking “like” (in Facebook and Instagram) or “retweeting without comment” (see Figure 13). Typically, the data illustrated that low-intensity forms of engagement are the most common but that rates of higher-intensity forms of engagement were also notable. For example, 59 percent of Facebook users and 41 percent of Twitter users reported that they talk about news somewhere else in person. As publishers think about how they would like audiences to engage with their content, these different platforms offer insights into the opportunities.

59% of Facebook users and 41% of Twitter users talk about news somewhere else in person.


Part one of this series provides a snapshot of mobile news access across sites, apps and social networking platforms. The data show that a fundamental shift has happened toward accessing news via mobile — and that the landscape continues to evolve. Adapting to and leveraging the opportunities in these evolving audience trends in news behavior is critical to any news organization’s survival.


Behavioral Insights Methodology

Nielsen’s Electronic Mobile Measurement 3.0 is an observational, user-centric approach that uses passive metering technology on smartphones to track device and application usage on an opt-in convenience panel. At present there are approximately 9,000 panelists in the U.S. across both iOS and Android smartphone devices. Because the behavior is being tracked without interruption, this method provides a holistic view on all the activity on a smartphone.

A number of steps are taken after the data collection process to ensure that the reported data are representative of the adult mobile population. Weighting controls are applied across five characteristics (gender, age, income, race and ethnicity), while independent enumeration studies are carried out on a continuous basis to provide the most current estimate of the mobile population (aka Universe Estimation). Recruitment is conducted in English.

Survey Insights Methodology

Nielsen Electronic Mobile Measurement (EMM) Panel collects smartphone and tablet users’ behavioral data of application (app) and website usage.

  • A 5-minute online survey, regarding news-seeking behaviors within social networking apps, was conducted among social networking users of EMM Panel in October 2015.
  • The sample of mobile social networking users, including 2176 respondents, was weighted based on EMM Panel’s Q3 2015 benchmark data of smartphone31 social networking users. Weighting variables include age, gender, income and education.*
  • Among the sample of mobile social networking users, 1078 respondents were identified as those who consume news within top five social networking apps (Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram and LinkedIn).
  • To facilitate a better recall, all behavior questions in this survey were asked based on the most recent 30-day time frame.
  • “News” was defined for the survey participants as “current events happening somewhere, which could include a range of topics, such as world, U.S., technology, sports, entertainment, etc.”

*Note: The survey was conducted online, in English, and weighted on age, gender and education. While we can look at attitudinal and behavioral variations among racial/ethnic groups, the data are not necessarily representative of these groups, as it was not weighted using these variables.

To read the full report based on a research study conducted with Nielsen and commissioned by Knight Foundation to explore how people use mobile platforms for news, visit: Mobile-First News: How People Use Smartphones to Access Information



Knight Foundation
Mobile-First News: How People Use Smartphones to Access Information

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