It's old news by now that way more than half of digital traffic comes through the side doors of social media and search rather than a reader selecting from a home page menu.
That's OK, the theory goes, because at least readers are exposed to the content and will take note of the source.
But that brand-building effect may be much weaker than supposed, a new Pew Research study, released this morning, suggests.
Asking several thousand of readers to recall a digital story they had received within the last two hours, Pew found 56 percent of those said they remembered the name of the site it was from.
The flip side is that they could not remember the source of a given story 44 percent of the time.
Pew Research generally likes to report facts and steer clear of extrapolation, but two implications are clear:
— The 44 percent appear not to "consider the source" when weighing a news report's credibility.
— The notion that these article-by-article readers will recognize good work, then read more often or potentially subscribe, appears not to apply almost half the time.
I asked Jeffrey Gottfried, a senior research at Pew and co-author of the study, about the apparent negatives for publishers looking for exposure and monetizing online content. He replied in a phone interview:
It (the study) speaks to the challenges news organizations have in how people are consuming the news now...It certainly has implications of whether people are aware of where their news is coming from, and they seem less aware than you might think.
The study hits as many companies are looking to increase the share of revenue that comes from readers with print advertising falling sharply. Paywall strategies, pricing and trial subscriptions are all improving, but it is hard to begin the process of wooing potential subscribers if they don't even focus on the source of stories.
More detailed analysis of the survey data brought mixed results. Self-described heavy users of news coming from social media, search and newsletters more frequently took note of the source — nearly two-thirds said that remembered a given story's provenance.
On the other hand, younger news consumers, those 18 to 29, were less likely than older ones to pay attention to the source. They could remember the source only 47 percent of the time.
Sources were identified at a higher rate if the story came via a content producer's email newsletter or alert rather than a reference by a friend.
Of those who clicked on a link during the week studied, 14% named CNN as the source of the news they got. (Video and audio clips as well as text were measured). Fox News was second.
But Facebook placed third as a source at 10 percent — ahead of The New York Times or Washington Post — even though it does not originate any content.
The survey was done nearly a year ago, but the findings may seem to bear on the current firestorm over "fake news" and its detection. If a large segment of readers don't pay much attention to where a story comes from, are they especially susceptible to being duped?
I think that conclusion would be a logical leap, and Gottfried agreed. Readers have an assortment of other ways of figuring out whether a given story is of interest and, if so, believable.
In fact a separate Pew Research study in December found that well over half of those surveyed were confident they could figure out on their own when a given story was bogus.
To study the issue, Pew had to make up a new methodology. Source recall, Gottfried said, "would be very difficult to ask in a traditional survey." (e.g. do you know where most stories you read originated?)
So Pew recruited volunteers from a sample for a broader study of news consumption, whose findings were released last summer. Participants agreed, over the course of a week, to be called twice a day and say whether they had read a digital story they could recall in the last two hours, whether it came from a referral, and if so, could they remember the originating organization.
There were more than 2,000 participants, but with the multiple interviews, roughly 13,000 instances of digital news consumption and recall were sampled.
The research released today treats other questions like which topics get the most news attention and under what circumstances readers take further action like seeking out more information or forwarding to a friend.
But the source recall portion is the headline and yet another cause for concern about our increasingly Facebook-centric news consumption system.
Pew's is more like the first word than the last on the matter. It probably points to being proactive about building source recognition as part of every news organization's digital to-do list.