Publishers are using messaging apps for news distribution at least since 2014. Why is their usage still experimental or secondary to other platforms?

By Giuliander Carpes da Silva, ESR at Université de Toulouse III Paul Sabatier

Recently, WhatsApp became the second application in the world to reach 2 billion monthly users, only after its parent company Facebook. Messenger is not so far behind with 1.3 billion monthly users. Telegram is emerging as an important competitor with 400 million users too. And according to the last four editions of the Reuters Institute Digital News Report, messaging applications are becoming increasingly more important for news consumption. In countries like Brazil and Malaysia, they are already used more for news consumption than social media platforms. So why is the adoption of messaging applications for news distribution not a widespread trend for media organizations yet?

I have been monitoring the usage of messaging applications for content distribution in around 40 media companies since May 2019. The organizations are based in 11 different countries – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Mexico, the United States, France, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. Some of the companies already use or experiment with chat apps since 2014, when they started to be widely adopted by users; but only a very small portion of these organizations promote the usage of these applications to their reader base.  So, most readers don’t even know they can consume news from these credible sources in the same chat apps where they already receive a lot of (mis)information from friends and family on a daily basis.

I have spoken with editors and executives from 10 of these news organizations in Latin America and Europe. There’s a common sense that they need to be there because their readers are there, but establishing themselves on messaging applications is extremely complicated, as it requires a whole new form of communication – more conversational, less one-sided. The model of sending bulk messages, similar to what they do on social media, is generally not allowed by the largest platforms where news media want to be on. Automation is limited. Managing the services is demanding: analytics tools are poor or inexistent and, if the users start replying to messages, the work of answering them back may be never-ending. Applications that are friendlier to news media such as Telegram, Viber and Line are not big enough and not completely attractive yet. And they may actually never be.

There are so many obstacles that there is a sense that the largest messaging platforms don’t want or need news media to have an important part on their ecosystems – even if they are, in general, more credible sources of information than everyone else. We still don’t know for sure, because there aren’t effective channels of communication between them; and because we have yet to talk to chat apps’ executives. But, in this scenario, we do question: does it make sense to have an ecosystem in which news plays an important role without the participation of the most trusted news providers?

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This project is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska Curie grant agreement No 765140