As they face a changing market for journalistic content, Australian news organisations are increasingly forced to experiment with new approaches to telling their stories. The Australian Twitter News Index (ATNIX) for July 2017 shows that some new formats for investigative reports can generate considerable engagement – but old-fashioned commentary and opinion pieces also still manage to attract an audience.
Most notably, on 10 July 2017 ABC News records a significant increase in the number of tweets sharing its articles; this is due entirely to political editor Chris Uhlmann’s strident criticism of the Trump administration (2,700 tweets that day), published from the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg. Given the strong and well-documented international response to Uhlmann’s comments, the article actually receives fewer tweets than we might expect – republished or excerpted in text and video by news outlets around the world, Twitter users did not necessarily need to go searching for the original piece.
Still, over the course of the entire month the story was shared some 5,300 times on Twitter, making it the most widely shared ABC News article in July by a considerable margin. In keeping with a pattern established over past months, by contrast, the other major ABC News stories for the month retain a strong domestic focus: a major report on the sexual abuse of women by evangelical Christians was shared 2,300 times; coverage of Elon Musk’s plans to build the world’s largest lithium ion battery in South Australia received 2,200 tweets; another special report on leaked documents exposing human rights abuses by Australian special forces in Afghanistan was shared 2,100 times; and coverage of a new map of historic massacres of indigenous Australians since 1788 was shared in 1,500 tweets.
The presence of two special reports – long-form investigative reporting that is presented in a format distinct from ordinary ABC News articles – is especially noteworthy here. We’ve seen these appear from time to time, and the inclusion of two such dossiers in ABC News’ most shared articles during July clearly shows the strong public response to this form of content. Amidst considerable staff cuts in the commercial media, the public broadcaster is now one of the last major news organisations in Australia that is still able to conduct complex investigative reporting on key public interest issues – and the response on Twitter indicates that the national news audience is rewarding such efforts with its engagement.
News coverage by the second-placed outlet, the Sydney Morning Herald, does not manage to attract quite as much attention this month. Its top story for July is an opinion piece decrying conservative media outlets’ sustained ad feminam attacks on Yassmin Abdel-Magied (1,700 tweets); other key articles include a report on UN claims that the Australian government reneged on a refugee resettlement agreement (1,500 tweets), on the failure of Philip Morris’s court case against plain tobacco packaging laws (1,400 tweets), and on federal MPs’ refusal to sign up to the ‘Fitzgerald Principles’ for ethical conduct (1,300 tweets). Another opinion piece rounds out the top five: Ross Gittins’s criticism of the federal government’s new homeland security regime is shared in 1,200 tweets.
We should not read too much into short-term snapshots of public attention to the content offered by different news outlets, but here, too, it is striking that two of the top five SMH articles in July were opinion pieces. In light of their well-publicised economic difficulties, it would not be surprising if Fairfax outlets focussed increasingly on comparatively inexpensive-to-produce commentary, while ceding yet more of the business of investigative journalism to ABC News and other publications. Longer-term trends in content production and audience engagement will see such strategies emerge more clearly.
Meanwhile, overall trends in news readership – as opposed to active engagement through tweeting – show a picture of stability during July. Our Hitwise data on the total number of visits to each news site by Australian Internet users see ABC News well ahead of nearest rivals Nine News and The Age for the second month in a row; this extends an unexpected decline especially in Nine News’ numbers since the end of May. news.com.au and the Sydney Morning Herald still remain well ahead of the pack, however, and their comparative market dominance seems unlikely to change any time soon.
It is also notable that at a domestic level, ABC News does not record a major increase in visits as a result of Chris Uhlmann’s G20 piece on 10 July; this points clearly to the fact that most of the additional attention to that article came from overseas. Twitter may have played its role in the viral dissemination of Uhlmann’s criticism; but, as we now know from subsequent coverage, mainstream reporting and republishing of Uhlmann’s views by major U.S. and U.K. outlets soon followed.
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”.