Seeing as we’re mostly occupied with tracking the use of Twitter in the Australian federal election campaign, this is an ultra-brief update on our Australian Twitter News Index, but it’s one which deserves to be pushed out in between the election coverage in order to keep us up to date. For the sake of brevity, I’ll only report on the headline numbers here.
Update: Georgia Waters at the SMH has kindly cleared up the reasons for the sudden drop-off in Fairfax opinion links we’ve observed in this ATNIX edition. See below for a full update.
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 (even if those links have been shortened at some point). 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.
ATNIX Weeks 28-32/2013: 1 July – 11 Aug. 2013
This multi-week update takes in the first full month of the renewed Rudd Prime Ministership, and the first week or so of the federal election campaign – as you will recall, the election was formally called on Sunday 4 August (the final day of week 31). In spite of the significant upheavals over that period (with a barrage of new policy announcements from the federal government, including the PNG deal on asylum seekers), the total volume of links to Australian news sites being tweeted over this period remains somewhat restrained; as far as news sharing on Twitter was concerned, July was a comparatively quiet month. This may well be related to the school holidays which fell into this period in several Australian states.
Additionally, we also see that ATNIX seems to have stabilised itself at a new, lower baseline level since mid-May (that is, week 20) – a point at which Twitter transitioned to a new version of its Application Programming Interface (the service through which we receive our data). The API determines which tweets match our search terms, and it appears that the pattern matching rules have changed (though exactly how they have done so must remain a mystery since these processes are not made public); as we have no influence over these rules, we’ll simply have to accept the fact that the average volume of tweets we’ve received since week 21 represents the new normal.
These preliminaries out of the way, the overall pattern for the past few weeks has been one of stability. There isn’t a significant uptick in activity for the major sites even in week 32 – the first week of the election campaign proper –, and the total volume of tweets linking to Australian news sites over the past four weeks has oscillated around the 135,000 tweets mark (rising only slightly to 142,000 tweets in week 32).
But the more interesting story, and the reason why I wanted to get this update out now even though I don’t have the time to present much more than the headline figures, emerges once we single out the opinion and commentary sites and sections. Here, we see a very pronounced slump in the figures for the Fairfax sites Sydney Morning Herald and The Age (and perhaps also for online-only stablemate Brisbane Times, though it’s coming off a low baseline anyway), beginning in week 27.
This slump occurs, incidentally, even though I have switched to a somewhat more inclusive approach to counting opinion and commentary links for these sites. Before, we counted only URLs which followed the patterns smh.com.au/opinion or smh.com.au/comment (and the analogous patterns for theage.com.au and brisbanetimes.com.au), while now we count any link to these sites which contains opinion/ or comment/ anywhere in the URL (e.g. smh.com.au/national/opinion/…).
Yet even under this more generous approach to counting opinion and commentary URLs for these sites, their numbers slump dramatically – for the SMH, for example, from an average of 6,000 tweeted links to its opinion and commentary articles in weeks 1-26 to an average of just over 2,200 links in weeks 28-32. None of the other sites show similar drop-offs: the brief gap for The Conversation in week 28 is due to our temporarily switching back to tracking the old .edu.au rather than .com URL, and the poor performance for ABC Unleashed from week 29 onward is due to a fundamental rewiring of ABC URLs, leaving us unable to distinguish the URLs of news and opinion content on that site. Those technical issues excluded, the slump since week 27 is Fairfax’s, and Fairfax’s alone.
Update: As it turns out, the explanation is a little less dramatic than first thought. As part of the changes associated with the paywall, and with the decommissioning of the National Times, Fairfax’s federal politics opinion articles are now published simply under federal-politics/ URL paths, without opinion/ or comment/ also in the path. As a result, we no longer have any mechanism for picking up such opinion articles for our ATNIX data – similar to a recent rewiring of URL paths at the ABC. Case solved!
The change in URL patterns at Fairfax, alongside that at the ABC, also means that our approach to identifying the opinion content on major Australian news sites is increasingly unsustainable; now that the content paths no longer distinguish between news and opinion, neither can we (at least programmatically, that is). This means that future ATNIX updates will change what opinion figures we report – in future, I think we’ll focus only on dedicated opinion and commentary sites like The Conversation or Crikey for this part of the index.
In the absence of major changes to Fairfax’s reporting, or to the structure of its URLs, I can think of only one obvious explanation for this slump, and it’s a fascinating one. On 2 July (that is, on the Tuesday of week 27), the long-anticipated Fairfax paywall was switched on – and it appears that readers of the Fairfax opinion and commentary sections switched off immediately. This mirrors what we’ve observed, some time ago, with The Australian’s paywall – the volume of tweeted links to its content just about halved when its paywall came into effect, too. Just why this is so in the Fairfax case is puzzling, however – the Fairfax paywall system is a relatively generous one, which allows a fair amount of access from random, casual readers. Contrary to the initial setting of The Australian’s paywall system, too, it doesn’t specifically block would-be readers coming to the site from Twitter. So, just why there is such a strong and evident turn-off remains a mystery to me. Perhaps the most active, most intensive link sharers in the Australian Twittersphere have refused to sign up to the paywall, and the Fairfax site is now missing their amplifier effect – or perhaps the rewiring of the Fairfax publishing system in the wake of the paywall introduction has meant that fewer of its articles are now published under opinion/ or commentary/ site paths (you’ll recall that in the past we’ve seen quite a few comparatively straight news pieces posted under /opinion URLs). Whatever the explanation, the Fairfax slump means that Australia’s genuine opinion and commentary sites now rise to the top of the heap: The Conversation, Crikey, blogs.news.com.au, and even Independent Australia surpassed the Fairfax opinion sections in week 32. (Here, it’s important to repeat the caveat that The Conversation’s numbers are somewhat inflated by its recent international expansion, taking in audiences from Australia, the UK, and elsewhere – we have no way to separate Australian from UK content at this point.) If sustained over coming weeks, that’s a very significant shift in opinion mindshare…