If you spend much time on Twitter, you already know that one of the things it excels at is breaking news, whether it’s real-time updates on demonstrations in Turkey or early reports from an earthquake or tsunami halfway around the world. New research from the American Press Institute confirms that Twitter
is a real-time news network for many users, and that is both good news and bad news for the company as it tries to re-ignite its flagging share price.
The study, which involved an online survey of more than 4,700 social media users, was a collaboration between the American Press Institute and Twitter, which funded the study and provided access to its database for the institute to use. Research firm DB5 analyzed and compiled the results.
Almost 90% of the users who responded to the survey said they use Twitter for news, and a majority (74%) say they do so every day. About 40% of them said they use Twitter to be alerted to breaking news, and about the same proportion said they use it to keep up with the news generally. About three quarters (73%) of those who use the service for news follow individual journalists, writers and commentators, and about two-thirds (62%) follow institutional or corporate news accounts.
A symbiotic relationship
The survey makes it clear how symbiotic Twitter’s relationship with the news is—and it has been that way almost from the beginning, ever since Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River. Twitter co-founder and current interim CEO Jack Dorsey once mentioned the plane landing as a lightbulb moment, when he realized what the service could become. And Twitter has made a point of reaching out to media companies in a number of ways, including verifying journalists at a much higher rate than other groups.
News entities, meanwhile, have used the network as a source of information during breaking news events—to the point where some news stories consist simply of tweets either embedded or read on the air. And they have also used it as a way of distributing their content, at a time when the attention devoted to news has fragmented, and social has become the new search. In many ways, Twitter is the emodiment of the phrase: “If the news is important, it will find me.”
While the news business might be in trouble from a financial point of view, at least for some traditional newspaper and TV companies, the API study showed that news has probably never been in as much demand as it is now, in the age of social media.
All three of the groups that were studied—including Twitter users, non-Twitter users and social-media users as a whole—said they consume a lot of news, and that thanks to social media they consume more than they used to. About three quarters of all social media users said they keep up with the news at least once a day, and a similar number of non-Twitter users did the same, but more than 80% of Twitter users said that they keep up with the news at least once a day.
Discovery needs work
Twitter has spent a lot of time trying to improve the process of discovery and “on boarding” for new users, but the API survey shows the service still has work to do. More than 90% of Twitter users who use the service mainly for news say they find it by scrolling through their timelines or browsing tweets from people they follow — only 34% of them say they use trending topics, and only 30% use search. Only 15% said that they checked Twitter’s “discover” section (which has since been replaced).
That said, Twitter has been able to broaden its reach beyond just signed-in users, which is a crucial step in growing its overall user base: More than 50% of non-Twitter users who responded to the survey said that they had seen tweets outside of the service’s apps or website. Most of those appeared on television, 27% in news articles that users saw online, and about 8% in a newspaper story.
The survey showed that those who use Twitter regularly for news are also much more active, which is also good for Twitter, because it increases the engagement levels that the company can show to investors. The API study said that 80% of those who have followed a breaking news event in the past month clicked on a story as those events were unfolding—nearly double the 39% of Twitter news users who said they “always or usually” click on news stories. More than half said they retweeted a story, and about the same amount clicked or searched a hashtag, much higher numbers than among average Twitter users.
Lessons for Twitter and the media
For news companies, the lesson they can draw from the survey is obvious: Twitter is a crucial pathway and discovery source for news and information in this social age, and media companies get some of their most engaged and devoted users through it. As the Press Institute noted:
“Social networks are no longer a new door into news. They have become a primary pathway to it — and understanding how people use and create that flow of information is central to survival of news operations in the future.”
For Twitter, meanwhile, the survey contains both good news and bad news. The good news is that it has become a crucial platform for real-time information. The bad news is that it still has a lot of work to do when it comes to discovery, since even some of its most engaged users don’t find it very useful, which is why new ventures such as Project Lightning are so important. The survey also suggests that Twitter might have its work cut out for it if it wants to move beyond its core news-focused user base, since that’s still how many users see the service, despite all of its efforts to expand beyond that.
More than anything, the study shows how important news and news media are to Twitter. That in turn makes it even more important that the company work on its competitive response to Facebook
, which has been aggressively wooing media companies with features like its Instant Articles mobile service. How Twitter plans to respond to such moves remains an open question.
You can follow Mathew Ingram on Twitter at @mathewi, and read all of his posts here or via his RSS feed. And please subscribe to Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily newsletter on the business of technology.