Is Facebook The Next Front Page For Newspapers?

The UK news market will always be skewed by the BBC. It's a free, ad-free resource that Brits have grown up on relying on for information. So it will come as little surprise that eMarketer has again confirmed the public broadcaster is way out ahead as the leading desktop and laptop news source. As such, however, it hides what's really going on in the market.

For example, the BBC accounts for 39% of news articles that are being read in the UK, and nearly three in four of its news readers come direct to its site. If you add up the next two players, The Guardian and Mail Online, which account for nearly a quarter of the market combined, you still don't get too close to the BBC.

However, the BBC makes it appear that just over half of desktop and laptop news reading is direct to the publisher's site. If you actually look a little deeper, the BBC accounts for, rounded up, 4 in 10 stories, and three in four of these are discovered directly. Doing the math on the back of an envelope, that suggests one player is responsible for nearly a third of all direct news traffic in the UK. That that only leaves around 20% of overall visits being direct.

In other words, if you take the BBC out of the equation, direct traffic is probably around, or just over, 20% for everyone else. That means it's rubbing shoulders with the 18% of stories that are discovered through social media and 12% that come from search while being considerably above the 9% that derive from aggregation.

Why is this an important point to make? If you look beyond the seemingly healthy statistic that 53% of news discovery is direct and realise for everyone other than the BBC it's average at a little over on in five, you begin to realise something -- a point that eMarketer actually draws attention to: The print stalwarts of publishing are now getting more articles read via social, search and aggregation.

In other words, news discovery is now indirect. It may not be completely brand agnostic, but brand is clearly not the first consideration, or else traffic would be flowing more directly to a person's trusted news brand of choice. 

What does this mean? Well, it's probably not all as bad as it sounds, once news brands have taken it on the chin that their name alone is not the prime influencer on where someone reads their news. 

With search, I'm afraid it means we will see a lot more SEO journalism. It's a sad but true fact of life that someone will be asked to write about whatever's trending, whether they know anything about it or not. With aggregation, it will depend on the deal a publisher has signed with the aggregator how much they welcome that 9% of traffic.

The real channel here is social, and where social will effectively meet aggregation when Facebook begins aggregating news. The deal so far sounds good. Publishers will keep ad revenue if they sell the ads and if a subscription is earned through aggregation, Facebook has said it will not take a commission.

So, right now, there isn't a price to pay for fickle customers going through a third party, such as whatever Facebook's service will be called. 

Long term, however, there has to be a price there somewhere for brands being secondary to channel. We have known for a long time that indirect traffic was big, but eMarketer is showing that it's now bigger than direct visitors for newspaper sites. People aren't going to a site direct nearly as much as they used to -- they are effectively going to a digital newsstand and snacking on pieces from each title rather than handing over their cash for their usual paper. 

Which brings us to the million-dollar question -- is it too early to say a newspaper's home page is now Facebook, or at least Facebook plus page one of a Google search? If it isn't yet, just wait for Facebook's aggregation service from this Autumn onwards. Surely then it will have to be true.

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