Politics Twitter — Snurb, 6 June 2017
ATNIX: Australian Twitter News Index, May 2017

Between the bombshell announcement of further deep staff cuts at Fairfax publications, subsequent strike action by Fairfax journalists, the handing down of the 2017 federal budget, and the much-publicised return of drug smuggler Schapelle Corby to Australia, the news in May was surprisingly strongly focussed on domestic Australian issues.

But not all of these matters were reflected equally strongly in the Australian Twitter News Index (ATNIX) for the month, which tracks the sharing of articles from Australian news and opinion sites on Twitter.

The major story in the Australian news industry itself during May was the staff strike at Fairfax, triggered by significant job cuts across the editorial offices of the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and other publications. The walkout – which also affected Fairfax’s coverage of the federal budget – clearly received considerable sympathy from Australia’s Twitter users; several well-connected Twitter users in Australia posted calls to boycott Fairfax sites and refrain from sharing their articles during this time.

As a result, during the period of the strike, on 3 to 10 May, sharing rates for articles in the leading Fairfax publications decline precipitously. Both SMH and Age return to standard day-to-day sharing levels only by the middle of the month.

Indeed, the Sydney Morning Herald’s weakness over the course of the strike is so pronounced that it very nearly enables perennially third-placed site news.com.au to catch up. news.com.au’s strong performance is driven in part also by its attention-grabbing coverage of a “mystery monster” washing up on the shore of an Indonesian island, which went viral well beyond the site’s ordinary Australian audience. The article was shared in some 4,600 tweets on 13 May alone, and in almost 5,800 tweets over the course of the entire month.

The other Sydney paper, the tabloid Daily Telegraph, does not usually trouble ATNIX – though popular with readers, few Twitter users appear prepared to publicly share the stories they read on its site. In May, however, it too records a brief but major spike in sharing, for its coverage of Korean boy band BTS’s arrival in Sydney (4,400 shares on 25 May). This constitutes another example of an Australian news story spreading well beyond the national audience.

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Meanwhile, the return of drug smuggler Schapelle Corby from Bali on 27 May barely even rates a mention in the Australian Twittersphere. This is even in spite – or quite possibly because – of the breathless coverage of Corby’s release by the mainstream media. While the leading commercial TV networks even interrupted their scheduled programming to bring us shaky dashcam footage of Corby’s progress from her Balinese residence to the airport, none of the most shared news links on Twitter during this time relate to the story.

ABC News does perform exceptionally well during these final days of the month – but the stories that drive that performance are about U.S. Senator John McCain’s visit to Australia (2,600 shares), and a fisherman’s close encounter with a great white shark (1,100 shares). Clearly, Corby cannot compete against such material; even Nine News and Yahoo! 7 News receive practically no attention from Twitter users for their efforts.

This pattern of disinterest is also reflected in our Hitwise data on the total number of visits to these Australian news sites. Despite the hype, the last few days of May appear utterly ordinary: Nine News and Yahoo! 7 News, along with most other news sites, fail to see any notable influx of visitors as a result of this latest development in the Corby saga.

Perhaps this is due to the saturation coverage of Corby’s return that was provided by commercial television channels, which obliterated any need to seek out further information online – but just perhaps, too, Australian news audiences are now well past caring about Schapelle Corby, and this realisation has simply not yet dawned on commercial TV executives.

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Meanwhile, in spite of the considerable impact on how much its articles were shared on Twitter, the total number of visits to Fairfax sites during the staff strike of 3 to 10 May appears to decline only slightly against the long-term average: readers might not have advertised in tweets that they continued to read the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age during this time, but continue to read they did, for the most part. The 37.8 million site visits to the SMH in May, for instance, are virtually unchanged from previous months.

It is perhaps too harsh to read this entirely as a lack of solidarity with Fairfax’s striking workforce, though; some of these visits might also reflect a certain morbid curiosity about the ability of the non-journalistic skeleton teams at Fairfax publications to cover the news, embarrassing typos included. It is also notable that on budget Tuesday and the following Wednesday (9 and 10 May), it is ABC News that performs well above average: for the coverage of this major event in the Australian political calendar, readers clearly preferred the national broadcaster this year.

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”.

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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