As the 2016 federal election campaign recedes into memory, online engagement with the news in Australia has returned to what passes for normality these days. This is also reflected in the news sharing activities we are able to observe in the Australian Twitter News Index for August: the long-term patterns of how Twitter users’ attention is distributed across the leading news sites in the country continue to hold.
As this month’s data show, ABC News remains by far the most widely shared Australian news site, followed by the Sydney Morning Herald and The Conversation, whose numbers are as always substantially inflated by its large and growing international userbase. Further down the order, news.com.au has moved ahead of The Age again, reflecting perhaps the shift of focus away from sharing political news during the election campaign – an area that might be seen as the natural domain of The Age.
Following the predictably strong focus on narrowly political stories amongst the most shared news articles during the election and its immediate aftermath, this month’s top stories range across a very wide set of themes; perhaps this documents the nation’s mood after the longest election campaign in recent memory.
Emblematic for this is the most widely shared ABC News article, about a 1.9 kg goldfish found in WA’s Vasse River (shared some 3,700 times); other key ABC News stories include a primer on solar cell technology (1,800 shares); coverage of a horrendous new aerial bombardment of Aleppo (1,500 shares); the #IndigenousDads hashtag in response to a Bill Leak cartoon that was widely perceived as racist (1,100 shares); and a feature report on climate change refugees in Bougainville (1,100 shares).
The Sydney Morning Herald’s most shared stories, by contrast, remain considerably more strongly focussed on post-election politics: key articles here address new One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts’s bizarre 2011 letter to then-PM Julia Gillard (1,300 shares); a post mortem on the bungling of the 2016 Census (1,200 shares); the disruption of services at the Gosford Anglican Church by far-right extremists (1,100 shares); commentary on Treasurer Scott Morrison’s plans to cut the Newstart allowance (1,100 shares); and an exclusive on Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s purported links to Chinese political donors (1,100 shares).
And while these two sites contribute a significant majority of the most shared articles for August, a handful of other publications also received a significant boost from tweeting readers: a news.com.au piece on Julian Assange’s latest appeal in his long-running battle with Swedish authorities was shared 2,800 times, and shows that the WikiLeaks effect that we’ve observed for Assange-related stories in the past is alive and well; a Brisbane Times article about new religious vilification laws in the ACT received 1,900 shares; and a Herald Sun report about NASA’s assessment of July 2016 as the hottest month on record clocked up 1,800 shares.
If our Twitter data indicate a shift in engagement and endorsement patterns after the conclusion of the election campaign, our Hitwise data on total visits to Australian news sites show a similar return to longer-term averages. Gone, for the most part, are the big increases in visitor numbers that we observed in July; the total of some 356 million total visits to the Australian news sites we track is still above the average of 329 million visits per month between May 2015 and May 2016, but well down on the all-time peak of 385 million in July.
It is not unsurprising that compared to July, some of the leading sources of political coverage in Australia are losing a particularly significant number of visits – this includes especially ABC News, which experienced a particularly strong boost in numbers around election day, but also the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Guardian and The Australian (but also, somewhat less expected, Nine News). Other sites do better at retaining their audiences; news.com.au, in particular, is barely unchanged at nearly 69.5 million visits in August (down from 69.9 million in July).
There is a longer story to be told here in the long-term development of visit numbers to these sites: the Australian edition of the UK’s Daily Mail, for instance, has been holding steady at around 24 million visits per month since February, which is well down compared to a much stronger performance through 2015 (when it peaked at well over 36 million visits). Other sites, including ABC News and The Guardian, are experiencing relatively steady growth (election-related fluctuation notwithstanding), while Buzzfeed Australia’s number of visits per month has declined notably over the past twelve months.
But the full story of these developments will have to wait for another time – these patterns will become clearer only once election effects wash out of the system.
Standard background information: ATNIX 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 the non-news sections of those sites (e.g. abc.net.au/tv, catchup.ninemsn.com.au). Data on Australian Internet users’ news browsing patterns are provided courtesy of Hitwise, a division of Connexity. This research is supported by the ARC Future Fellowship project “Understanding Intermedia Information Flows in the Australian Online Public Sphere”.