Untapped: African-American Mobile Users And The News

By Kiri Lanice Walton
Knight Fellow in Community Journalism, University of Alabama
[Download the research report]

In their search for new revenue and readers, news executives can look to an unexpected emerging market: minorities, and more specifically, African-Americans.  In a new survey of about 1,000 Alabama newspaper readers, 90 percent of whom were white and nearly 10 percent were non-white, minority participants more than whites had favorable views toward online and mobile news delivery.

Minorities reported being more likely than whites to download and use a mobile application if their newspapers offered one.  Minorities also reported that they prefer the Web to read their local newspapers more than the print version, as opposed to whites in the survey who prefer to get their local news from the printed newspaper more than the Web.

The Alabama research, an online survey conducted by Knight Fellows in Community Journalism at the University of Alabama, is imperfect because of the small number of survey responses from non-white newspaper readers. Still, the state findings are in line with the results of national research data.

Minority participants in the survey, mostly African-Americans, also indicated what they want in online and mobile news. Minorities rated interactive mapping tools, traffic updates, weather updates and classified advertising as more important in a digital delivery format than whites did. Also, when it came to breaking local news, minorities, on average, ranked this slightly more important than whites did. However, the difference shown on breaking news importance was not statistically significant. When it came to local sports scores, blogs from reporters or editors, in-depth local news stories or special offers from local businesses, there were no differences in importance for whites and minorities.

The online Alabama newspaper reader survey also indicated that minorities are not yet acting on distinct preferences.  Across different platforms –including the printed newspaper, the newspaper’s website, RSS feeds, mobile application, Twitter and Facebook– whites and minorities did not differ in how often they read their local newspapers or in what format they now receive their news.

What other research says

National studies and first-hand accounts add more information and insight to answer an important question for newspapers’ editors, publishers and advertisers: Are there differences in the way people interact with their local newspapers and in what they want in mobile delivery based on racial and economic divisions in society?

The digital divide, which is the division of those with access to the Internet and its benefits from those without it, seems to be narrowing because of the increase in the use of mobile devices. People from various economic, racial and regional backgrounds have had different levels of access to the Internet and different levels of proficiency in using it.  However, a 2009 study conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project showed that the divide is beginning to close and that African-Americans are the most active group of mobile users right now. The fact that mobile devices have narrowed that chasm more than anything else before is significant, especially for news outlets seeking to attract mobile advertisers and more digitally savvy readers for those advertisers to reach.

The evidence of this trend is shown by the recent increase in Internet access in general. In 2006, the New York Times reported that due to the increased usage of the Internet by African-Americans and Hispanics, the digital divide was narrowing. However, in the same article, it was noted that just because these groups had access did not mean that they were using it in more challenging ways such as community building and business promotion instead of digital game playing. It was also pointed out that although African-Americans and Hispanics may be gaining more access to the Internet, they were using less-advanced hardware and slower connection speeds.

The results of an April 2010 Edison Internet and Multimedia Research study provided more evidence of minorities’ interest in information delivered in new ways. The study showed that the social networking tool, Twitter, is “disproportionately popular among African-Americans.”  Of the 17 million Americans on Twitter, 24 percent of them are African-American. That is nearly double the population of African-Americans in the United States reported by the 2008 U.S. Census.  The study also found that about two-thirds of all Twitter users access the site from mobile phones. This reinforces the 2009 Pew finding that African-Americans are the fastest growing group of mobile users as well as the most active mobile-using group.

Alabama newspapers do not appear to be capitalizing on this information or trying new techniques to bring in more users or readers from these demographic groups including the few news sites in the state which have mobile components, such as The Anniston Star and al.com, which incorporated The Birmingham News, The Mobile Press-Register and The Huntsville Times.

A news executive of a large Alabama newspaper recently lamented that he sometimes stayed awake at night wondering if his newspaper was doing what it could to reach readers from various demographic groups, such as Hispanics, Latinos and African-Americans. He said there is a large market there, but newspapers often lack people in decision-making roles who can successfully reach those markets. He also said newspaper executives are more inclined to reach for “the low-hanging fruit” or the dollars that are easier to get, which many times do not include these minority groups. It can be a challenge to get those readers and to be “genuine” about wanting their readership, the news executive said. He said it is important to be a part of those communities at all times, not just during events that may seem lucrative or newsworthy at the moment only to ignore these communities “five minutes later.”

Despite attempts by a newspaper to cover every segment of its population, the newspaper is still, after all, a business which must make money to stay afloat. For many newspapers, the Internet is simply not profitable right now. Because mobile is still relatively new, the verdict is out still about its profitability.

According to the March 2010 Pew Internet research study, “Understanding the Participatory News Consumer,” 61 percent of news consumers said they get their news online. When this is reflected in online advertising pricing, newspapers may begin to focus on minorities who have become the top users of mobile devices for Internet access. However, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project’s State of the News Media 2010 report, “Signs that advertising, at least in any familiar form, would ever grow to levels sufficient to finance journalism online seemed further in doubt.” The report cited the online research firm, eMarketer, which found that online advertising revenue in the United States declined for the first time in 2009 since 2002. The firm has tracked online advertising since 1996. However, eMarketer predicts that for 2010, online advertising revenue will increase to a level higher than that in 2008.

“There’s not a whole bunch of money there (in Web advertising.) They’re still concerned and holding on to their print revenue because there’s so much more of it,” said Sam Kirkwood, marketing director for the Tuscaloosa News.

He said that a single newspaper ad in the Tuscaloosa News could cost about $3,000 a day, but a digital ad with 100,000 unique impressions could cost only $500 per month.  This is similar to the advertising prices at many newspapers. Despite high numbers of unique visitors to the newspaper’s website, the cost of advertising on the site is still much lower than the cost of print advertising.

According to the Tuscaloosa News Market Source, has 11 counties in its delivery area, but four counties are considered the Greater Tuscaloosa Market: Tuscaloosa, Fayette, Pickens and Hale counties. Of these four counties, minorities make up 36 percent of the total population.

According to a reader summary produced by the Tuscaloosa News and published in January 2009, 70 percent of African-Americans in that market read the Tuscaloosa News in an average week, which is more than the 60 percent of whites who read the T-News in an average week.  It was also noted in the research that while African-Americans were more likely than average to read the weekday newspaper, they are more likely than whites to purchase single-copies and less likely to receive home delivery of the Tuscaloosa News.

In a 2009 Scarborough Research study conducted for the Mobile Press-Register, 51 percent of that market’s minorities read the daily edition of the newspaper. According to the Press-Register’s market information, 413,180 individuals make up the paper’s CSA. Of that number, 71 percent are white, 24 percent are African-Americans and 6 percent are other minorities.

Though the Tuscaloosa News’ and Press-Register’s marketing and advertising departments know that about a third of their readership is made up of minorities, specifically African-Americans, they are not targeting this demographic in online or mobile formats because there do not seem to be immediate profits. However, it is worth noting that according to an NPR story in April 2009, ethnic media outlets were surviving while others were sinking.

It does seem that the Montgomery Advertiser, which has a mobile site, is capitalizing on the economic power of African-Americans, who make up 40 percent of the tri-county (Montgomery, Elmore and Autauga counties) area covered by the newspaper. The paper’s 2008 marketing kit says this about the African-American market: “This force in our market has purchasing power. The Advertiser Media Group array of products reaches 75% of this audience in a week.” The Advertiser also included which products have the greatest reach with African-Americans.

For local publishers and editors, this information about mobile use and mobile preferences may offer a new way to market to certain advertisers or to provide certain content to various groups. The epilogue of the FSU Center for Hispanic Marketing Communication’s study states: “Marketers should take note of the tremendous swell of ownership in the ranks of emerging minorities.” The writers of the epilogue also encourage marketers to remember the applicable cultural differences of the minority groups when launching new campaigns that are culturally appropriate. The application of culturally appropriate marketing can shape or redirect how newspapers are launching their mobile news sites, tools and applications.

Bob Sims, director of content for al.com, said he does think the news outlet needs minority bloggers and contributors but is making headway with its media alliance with Ola Alabama, a news outlet publishing in Spanish.

“How do you provide information that is pertinent, interesting and useful for African-Americans and other groups?” Sims said many media outlets are struggling with the question. “We don’t do it well.”

He hopes media executives will begin to gather around a table to learn and develop ways to tap into the communities that have these active mobile users. Because the media outlets likely lack content that these active minority mobile users find appealing, he said media outlets also need to develop ways to finds talented and skilled reporters and news executives who could effectively reach these communities.

“Internet newspapers and websites are having to reinvent themselves yet again to get to this mobile audience,” Sims said, adding that the biggest hurdle is solving the problem of how to profit once they develop that mobile audience as well as delivering results to this newly developed or targeted audience.

Perhaps Sims said it best, “We don’t have the answers.”


The foundation of this article was built on the original research, an online survey of Alabama newspaper readers, of the University of Alabama Community Journalism Knight Fellows in spring 2010.  Other sources for this article include:

Advertiser Media Group and Thoroughbred Reseach. (2008) MA_MarketKit.

American Opinion Research. (2008) Tuscaloosa News Readership Summary (08-09). PDF retrieved from: http://www.tuscaloosamarketsource.com/the_market/

Horrigan, J. (2008, March) Mobile Access to Data and Information [Data Memo]. Retrieved from: http://www.pewinternet.org/~/media/Files/Reports/2008/PIP_Mobile.Data.Access.pdf.

Korzenny, F. (2008). The brave new world of an emerging diverse online majority. PDF retrieved from Florida State University Center for Hispanic Marketing Communication website: http://hmc.comm.fsu.edu/

Korzenny, F. & Korzenney, B.A. (2008). Online technology ownership 2008. PDF retrieved from Florida State University, Center for Hispanic Marketing Communication website: http://hmc.comm.fsu.edu/

Marriott, M. (2006, March 31) Digital divide closing as blacks turn to Internet. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/31/us/31divide.html.

Matsuda, Craig. (2009, July 7). Among ethnic groups, digital divide narrows. [Web log message from News Leadership 3.0] Retrieved from: http://www.knightdigitalmediacenter.org/leadership_blog/comments/among_ethnic_groups_the_digital_divide_narrows/

Mobile Press-Register. Market Information. Retrieved from http://www.press-register.com/readership.html

Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. (2010) The state of the news media 2010: An annual report on American journalism. Retrieved from http://www.stateofthemedia.org/2010/overview_intro.php

Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. (2008, August 18). Key news audiences now blend online and traditional sources: Audience segments in a changing news environment. Retrieved from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press website: http://people-press.org/report/444/news-media

Presenter, Rainie, L. (2007, December) Internet usage among minorities and low-income communities. Panel presentation at Gretchen Livingston presentations for National Ad  Council, Washington, D.C.

Purcell, K., Rainie, L., Mitchell, A., Rosenstiel, T., & Olmstead, K. (2010, March 1). Understanding the Participatory News Consumer. Retrieved from the Pew Internet and American Life Project website: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/12-Wireless-Internet-Use.aspx?r=1

Scarborough Research. (2009) PRIME NExT Cross-Tab Report Press-Register.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2008) 2008 Population estimates. Retrieved from http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/DTTable?_bm=y&-context=dt&-ds_name=PEP_2008_EST&-mt_name=PEP_2008_EST_G2008_T004_2008&-CONTEXT=dt&-tree_id=808&-all_geo_types=N&-geo_id=05000US01057&-geo_id=05000US01065&-geo_id=05000US01107&-geo_id=05000US01125&-search_results=01000US&-format=&-_lang=en

Walton, K. (2010) Interview with al.com Content Director Bob Sims. May 19.

Walton, K. (2010) Interview with Tuscaloosa News Marketing Director Sam Kirkwood. May 19.

Webster, T. (2010, April) Twitter usage in America: 2010. PDF retrieved from Edison Research website www.edisonresearch.com/twitter_usage_2010.php

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