Audience engagement on social media is an enormously powerful tool for boosting the circulation of news stories, as this month’s Australian Twitter News Index (ATNIX) shows: a number of Australian news stories go viral well beyond their intended target audience. But away from these momentary successes, a quieter shift is underway, too: ABC News is now firmly establishing itself as the nation’s third most visited online news source.
The most immediately obvious feature in our observations for August is the substantial spike in shares for ABC News articles on 24 August: the 18,700 tweets linking to its content that day amount to nearly twice the volume of audience engagement that ABC News can expect on an ordinary day.
This increase is related mainly to a single article, which receives some 9,000 shares that day and nearly 16,000 for the entire month, but the piece in question is an ABC News republication of a Conversation article exploring what the bible really has to say about same-sex marriage. (In the version published by The Conversation itself, written by an Irish-based bible scholar, the article received some 300 shares on Twitter.)
But the story doesn’t end here: in turn, some 15,200 of the tweets linking to the ABC News piece are due to a single message that shared the ABC News link in a post written in Korean, and ended up being retweeted widely. From an Irish university via the Australian marriage equality survey to going viral in Korea, news on Twitter can sometimes travel in mysterious, roundabout ways.
Sharing patterns for The Australian are similarly unusual in August. Because of its paywall, the site’s articles are not usually widely shared on Twitter; from mid-August onwards, however, a story on the role of Donald Trump’s alleged mafia links in the rejection of his 1987 Sydney casino bid was shared some 17,500 times. This amounts to 21% of all the tweets linking to The Australian throughout the month.
Here, too, we can observe several steps in the redistribution of the story: from its local origins Australian users are actively forwarding it to a variety of U.S.-based political commentators, who eventually share the article in their own right. It’s a clear indication of how symbiotic the relationship between journalism and social media has now become: news outlets publish their stories, but social media users boost their visibility by circulating them through their own networks.
Other leading stories in Australia’s major news outlets diverge notably. In addition to its repost from The Conversation, ABC News receives a substantial number of shares on Twitter for original content addressing topics as diverse as former Liberal minister Bruce Billson’s failure to disclose a lobby group salary during his time in parliament (3,200 tweets); a Radio National Background Briefing on the role of the Pine Gap installation in U.S. battlefield operations (2,000 tweets); medical findings suggesting that vitamin B3 supplements can prevent miscarriages (1,400 tweets); and the belated disclosure of their free Foxtel subscriptions by senior federal politicians (1,400 tweets).
At the Sydney Morning Herald, meanwhile, the focus of the most tweeted stories is a great deal more narrow, and revolves largely around refugee policy and the same-sex marriage survey: here, the prominent stories include early reporting on the government’s cancellation of income support for asylum seekers (3,600 tweets); the federal immigration minister’s labelling of asylum seekers’ lawyers as “un-Australian” (2,500 tweets); the Catholic church’s threat to dismiss staff entering into same-sex marriages (1,800 tweets); former Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs’s attack on the “post-truths” peddled by the government (1,700 tweets); and the lack of regulations against malicious campaign material in the lead-up to the marriage equality postal survey (1,600 tweets).
Whether deliberately driven by news editors or determined by social media users voting with their tweets, we see here a gradual diversification of these outlets’ roles in the social media news landscape: ABC News remains the news generalist, while the Sydney Morning Herald becomes a specialist for the coverage of federal politics. Whether this arrangement is permanent, or persists only while specific issues and debates are prominent, remains to be seen.
Overall online news readership trends – beyond social media – do not mirror these patterns, however. Here, news.com.au continues to reign supreme, and the Sydney Morning Herald leads the best of the rest. But ABC News has now firmly established itself as the third most visited Australian news site: in the Hitwise data on total site visits per month, it pulled ahead of Nine News for the first time in June this year, and has remained in a solid third place since.
This shift is unrelated to any short-term viral news trends: these data count only site visits from Australian users, so the unexpected Korean audience for ABC News’ bible story would not figure here, and even major viral stories would account only for a small subset of the total number of visits to a news site.
This makes ABC News’ upward trajectory all the more remarkable, in fact: even though the online news market in Australia is relatively stable, what we see here instead is a genuine flow of online audiences towards the ABC in recent months. Time will tell whether this is as high as ABC News can go – or whether eventually even the Sydney Morning Herald might come into reach.
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”.