Politics Twitter — Snurb, 21 January 2013
ATNIX: Australian Twitter News Index 2012 Round-Up

My previous post rounded out our weekly observations of the ebbs and flows in Twitter newssharing during the second half of 2012. This means it’s time now to review the overall patterns which our Australian Twitter News Index has shows us since ATNIX began in mid-year. Started in week 25, we now have data for just over half a year – a solid basis to evaluate the overall performance of Australian news and opinion sites on Twitter, and to identify particular moments during this time which captured Twitter users’ attention.

Standard background information: this analysis is based on tracking all tweets which contain links pointing to the URLs of a large selection of leading Australian news and opinion sites. For technical reasons, it does not contain ‘button’ retweets, but manual retweets (“RT @user …”) are included. Datasets for those sites which cover more than just news and opinion (abc.net.au, sbs.com.au, ninemsn.com.au) are filtered to exclude irrelevant sections of those sites (e.g. abc.net.au/tv, catchup.ninemsn.com.au). For our analysis of ‘opinion’ link sharing, we include only those sub-sections of mainstream sites which contain opinion and commentary (e.g. abc.net.au/unleashed, articles on theaustralian.com.au which include ‘/opinion’ in the URL), and compare them with dedicated opinion and commentary sites.

See the posts tagged ‘ATNIX’ on this site for a full collection of previous results.

ATNIX Weeks 25-52/2012: 18 June – 30 Dec. 2012

Over the course of these six months and two weeks, we captured a total of over 3.9 million tweets which included links to Australian news sites – an average of some 140,000 tweets per week. Those numbers would have been slightly higher still in the absence of a number of temporary server outages which led us to miss some data in a number of weeks; at any rate, they constitute a very solid basis for our analysis. Sadly, there’s very little international research to date with which we might be able to compare our figures – we’re unable to say whether Australian Twitter users are especially engaged with or disengaged from the news, therefore.

(We’re working on such comparisons, though – we’ve started tracking Twitter-based newssharing in Germany, where we seem to see some 240,000 shares per week, on average. Given that Germany’s population is close to four times that of Australia, this appears to indicate that Australians have taken to Twitter much more enthusiastically than Germans, and/or that Australian Twitter users are more interested in sharing news items than their German counterparts.)

In Australia, we’ve seen a very stable distribution of attention across the sites we track: the Sydney Morning Herald and the news-related sections of the ABC Website clearly lead the pack, between them accounting for well over a third of all tweeted links. The Age and news.com.au constitute a second tier of sites, each commanding some 10% of the total volume of tweets; in other words, these four sites alone receive nearly 60% of all Australian news links being shared by Twitter users.

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This is symptomatic of a number of well-known factors: first, it demonstrates the considerable concentration of the Australian news industry on a handful of major operators – flagship sites for Fairfax (twice), News Ltd., and the ABC are all represented in this top four. We might expect News Ltd.’s national broadsheet The Australian to figure strongly here as well (and it does appear in fifth place, but closer to the other also-rans than to the top four), but remember that its site has implemented a partial paywall system which is likely to impact on Twitter users’ ability to read and share articles in The Australian.

Second, these patterns also reflect what we understand the demographics of the Australian Twittersphere to be at this point in time. The strong performance of Fairfax’s two metropolitan broadsheets, and of Australia’s leading public service media organisation, suggests that Twitter user demographics remain skewed to the traditional audiences for relatively quality, broadsheet news, rather than for tabloid content as provided, for example, by News Ltd.’s papers Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph. Again, there is a dearth of reliable research into Twitter’s demographics in Australia, but we do believe its overall userbase to be somewhat skewed towards relatively urban, educated, affluent users aged between 25 and 55 – matching the typical audience for quality news content.

The three-tier structure of Twitter news sharing in Australia becomes more evident when we examine its weekly ebbs and flows:

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Here, we see the SMH and ABC News shadowing one another closely throughout the year, trading the lead from time to time. What generally puts the SMH over the top is its stronger weekend performance, driven most likely by the content produced for the paper’s weekend edition; the ABC doesn’t have any similar weekend fare to offer, and drops off more substantially on Saturdays and Sundays.

The Age and news.com.au form another fairly closely-matched duo; news.com.au might even have come out in third place for the year, except for a form slump in the final weeks of 2012. Below them we find the rest of our sites, led by The Australian and the two major tabloids; none of these sites manage to advance well beyond 10,000 tweets per week on a regular basis, and the majority struggle even to reach the 5,000 tweet mark – a far cry from the 25,000 to 30,000 tweets which the Sydney Morning Herald and ABC News regularly command.

While we’ve explored the specific spikes and troughs in news sharing in much more depth on a week-by-week basis in past ATNIX updates, a few overall observations are nonetheless useful. The two major dips on weeks 28 and 46 are due to server maintenance, and should not concern us overly much; the six-week slump in volume between weeks 35 and 40 (27 Aug. to 7 Oct.) is more interesting, however. Weeks 38-40 coincide with the spring school holidays in several states, which may explain the slump for those weeks; I can’t find a particularly convincing explanation for the drop-off during the preceding three weeks, however. We do see a similar drop in the last week of the year, as Christmas apathy takes hold; this seems to be especially pronounced for the Australian Financial Review, incidentally.

Turning to the spikes, week 33 and 34 stand out especially, and are driven by a combination of factors. One of them points to a phenomenon which is familiar to us by now: the international distribution of Australian stories, which we’ve observed this past year especially in the context of the unfolding saga around WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange. In week 33, it’s Assange’s flight to the Ecuadorian embassy in London which is the subject of a range of Australian news articles; these articles are picked up and widely retweeted by the worldwide WikiLeaks support community on Twitter, boosting the numbers especially of the Fairfax broadsheets.

But there are also major domestic events which add to these spikes: in week 33, independent MP Tony Windsor’s scathing attack on federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott in federal parliament is covered in a series of news articles and posts of the full video which receive a substantial number of links from Twitter. In week 34, Leigh Sales’s confrontational 7.30 interview with the Opposition Leader drives major traffic to the ABC site, as links to the full video are shared widely.

After the mysterious spring slump, the pressure on Abbott is renewed in week 41 by Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s now famous ‘misogyny’ speech in parliament, which constitutes a rare case of a domestic political story making major international headlines. Here, it’s the ABC which gains the most additional attention, as its full-length post of the video receives some 6,300 tweets over the course of two days.

Finally, the one notable spike amongst the minnows occurs for nineMSN in week 30, essentially doubling its normal tweet count. This, too, is an example of a domestic story gone viral: it relates to a group of four Australian fans of teen band One Direction who feel the band no longer cares about its fans, and decided to burn their concert tickets. Outrage amongst One Direction’s remaining fans was swift and contagious, resulting in some 4,500 tweets which linked to the story.

In addition to the tweeting of general news reports, ATNIX also specifically tracks the sharing of opinion articles, both from the opinion sections of our major news Websites and from the major Australian opinion and commentary sites. Compiled over the second half of 2012, the distribution of attention to such sites and sections shows a similarly multi-tiered picture for the nearly 580,000 tweets we captured:

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Once again, we find the Sydney Morning Herald in pole position – and a strong response to its commentary on Julian Assange’s Senate bid in week 50 has meant that the opinion section of Fairfax stablemate The Age managed to beat independent academic opinion site The Conversation into second place, by a margin of fewer than 2,000 tweets over the past six months. Another independent, online-only opinion site, Crikey, rounds out the top four.

In this context, it should be noted that numbers for the Fairfax sites will be slightly inflated: we identify Fairfax opinion articles by their URL paths (e.g. smh.com.au/opinion/politics/…), but the sites have a tendency to file fairly straightforward political reporting from their Canberra correspondents under such URLs (and under the on-site imprint National Times) as well; I’ve noted this in several past ATNIX updates. Short of checking each article manually, there’s nothing we can do to remove such non-commentary articles from the count. However, even a reduction of SMH and Age tweet numbers by 50% would still see them in third and fourth place, respectively – so while the total count might be somewhat inflated, the overall importance of these sites as sources of opinion articles for Twitter-based discussion is not.

Again, then, the distribution of attention to opinion and commentary sites and sections shows a considerable focus on the broadsheet content provided by the Fairfax papers, mixed with the major independent commentary sites; the top four sites alone account for over 60% of all shared links. Against this, the ABC and News Ltd. sites are comparatively absent: blogs.news.com.au (home to notable commentators such as Andrew Bolt, Piers Akerman, or Miranda Devine) commands only 7% of the total volume of tweets, and the ABC’s The Drum manages 5%. (Here, however, there will be some systematic undercounting: while we are able to identify general Drum articles by their abc.net.au/unleashed URLs, Drum articles by ABC journalists are not filed under the /unleashed path, and cannot be identified reliably.) The Australian, finally, captures only 4% of the Twitter attention share – it’s here where its paywall has the greatest impact, as it specifically prevents direct access to most opinion articles from Twitter links.

Given the ephemerality of political opinion and commentary, and the substantially lower volume of tweets which link to such content, compared to ‘straight’ news articles, the week-by-week overview necessarily shows much more pronounced fluctuations:

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Overall, we see the Sydney Morning Herald well above the rest, as a consistent leader throughout these six months, while Age and Conversation battle for second spot. There is a notable rise in the number of tweets referring to blogs.news.com.au from week 43 onwards, but News Ltd.’s columnists should not read this as a particularly widespread popular vindication of their views: rather, this rise is due almost entirely to the activities of a single Twitter user who began to tweet links to the blog posts – with a particular focus on Andrew Bolt – with a considerable degree of dedication (or obsession, perhaps). As I noted, for example, in week 44, this user would sometimes tweet the same link several dozen times a week, usually under the #auspol hashtag, resulting in well over 1,000 blogs.news.com.au tweets for the week. And no, I won’t name that user.

Overall, spikes in commentary activity match what we’ve already seen for news: Assange and commentary on Tony Abbott’s performance as Opposition Leader drive the spikes before the spring slump; Gillard’s misogyny speech is responsible for the major spike after it. Otherwise, Julian Assange and his international network of supporters are to blame: in addition to week 34, they drive spikes in weeks 39 and 50 (the latter is founded mainly on National Times-branded Fairfax news articles, however).

What’s more remarkable about the opinion and commentary field, however, is that – contrary to the mainstream of news reporting – it is possible for minor commentary sites to break through with a major story at times. New Matilda and Independent Australia both reached Crikey and even Conversation territory at least for a couple of weeks each during the past six months: in week 34, New Matilda published an interview with Noam Chomsky about Julian Assange which boosted its link total by more than 1,000 tweets; in week 48, Independent Australia published Margo Kingston’s exposé on Tony Abbott’s slush fund “Australians for Honest Politics” and received some 1,750 tweets for its troubles. That piece was republished in New Matilda in turn, two weeks later, where it resulted in another spike, while Independent Australia was using forensic IT analysis to test Abbott’s statements on the James Ashby affair.

In spite of the pronounced underdevelopment of the Australian news market as a result of stifling media ownership concentration, the fact that these and other minor voices in the media landscape can make themselves heard at least from time to time on Twitter is an encouraging sign: new entrants – and we might still count Crikey and The Conversation amongst this list, too – can establish themselves at least in the field of political commentary, if not necessarily in general news.

Last week’s announcement of an Australian edition of British newspaper The Guardian has added another potential challenger, whose introduction we’ll track with interest in 2013’s ATNIX. At least as far as Twitter is concerned, The Guardian’s profile should suit the demographics of the Australian Twittersphere well – it will be interesting to see how this new entrant shifts the distribution of attention which we’ve observed in 2012.

About the Author

Dr Axel Bruns leads the QUT Social Media Research Group. He is an ARC Future Fellow and Professor in the Creative Industries Faculty at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. Bruns is the author of Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and Beyond: From Production to Produsage (2008) and Gatewatching: Collaborative Online News Production (2005), and a co-editor of Twitter and Society, A Companion to New Media Dynamics and Uses of Blogs (2006). He is a Chief Investigator in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation. His research Website is at snurb.info, and he tweets as @snurb_dot_info.

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