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Covering the pandemic's next stage: Learning from reader data

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World News Publishing Focus
Your Guide to the Changing Media Landscape

Covering the pandemic's next stage: Learning from reader data

Caption: Jill Nicholson, Senior Director of Customer Education at analytics firm Chartbeat during the Asian Media Leaders eSummit.

By Chloe Lim

Journalists need to find new and innovative ways to keep people engaged and informed about the COVID-19 pandemic, analytics firm Chartbeat said, after its analysis found readership traffic had declined after a peak in mid-March.

Jill Nicholson discussed the pandemic’s impact on global and regional media across coverage, traffic and referral sources at WAN-IFRA’s recent Asian Media Leaders eSummit.

Chartbeat is an analytics company that helps news publishers to improve their audience engagement, inform editorial decisions and increase their readership. It works with publishers in more than 70 countries, including The New York Times, The Atlantic, Le Monde and UOL Press.

“Since the beginning of the year, we’ve looked at all the coverage across our network, and then specifically looked at articles that are about the coronavirus,” Nicholson said. 

“Over the course of this year, we’ve analyzed over a 175 billion page views, and of those page views, that traffic was going to about 6.7 million articles that were specifically about the virus,” she added.

The analysis showed COVID-19 coverage peaked in the week of 18 March as the pandemic spread globally and lockdowns were ordered in parts of the United States, United Kingdom and other countries. The number of articles published has steadily declined since then.

Graph shows number of COVID-19 related articles published per day.Graph shows number of COVID-19 related articles published per day.

“What we want to understand now is, are journalists meeting the appetite of their readers? Are we producing the amount of coverage that people really have the bandwidth and the need to consume?” she said.

The analysis showed that by April the amount of traffic had started to decline much faster than the rate of coverage. “So, we were still producing a lot of stories about the virus, but fewer and fewer people were coming back and reading those stories,” she said.

Since the peak in March, the share of traffic going to coronavirus content has declined from about 19 percent to about 14 percent, she said.

“There's a tendency to think, 'Well, if readers aren't interested in this content, then maybe we shouldn't be producing as much of it,' ” – Jill Nicholson, Chartbeat

“I think, however, that this decline in traffic really is a call to the journalistic community to find new and innovative ways to keep people informed to help them live their lives better, and to keep them engaged with content around this incredibly important topic,” she added.

Coronavirus reader response in Asia

Looking at readership statistics in Asia, Nicholson noted that Singapore, Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines were among a few countries that had the largest overall traffic totals in terms of coronavirus content.

Multiple cycles of reader interest.Multiple cycles of reader interest.

“Asian communities were much more hungry for information, because the epicentres [of the virus] at the time were much closer to where they were located,” she said.

“Different spikes in different regions [within Asia] did produce corresponding spikes in certain countries.”

However, like many other parts of the world, Asia too saw a decline to almost zero traffic in coronavirus coverage after an initial surge in traffic. Malaysia has dropped almost back to where it was in early February.

The unstable growth patterns suggested it was important for Chartbeat partners to keep track of their own metrics, Nicholson said.

“As readership starts to flag, as we start to see some of these downward trends, that's not a time to pull back. It's a time to adjust,” – Jill Nicholson

Think about engagement

When considering referred readers and referral trends, Nicholson emphasized the importance of considering the value of this particular group of readers, and knowing where to zero-in on platforms that work for your news business in the long run.

“Referred visitors can often be flybys-- the type of reader that you might see once a month when there's big news, but they're not really going to provide a significant amount of value, whether you monetize on reader revenue, like subscriptions or ad impressions,” she said.

“The lens that Chartbeat always brings to these conversations is engagement. There's a direct correlation between how long someone reads and whether or not they will come back within the next month,” – Jill Nicholson 

Key TakeawaysKey Takeaways

So far in the pandemic, Nicholson observed that reader referrals have trended rather consistently, with Google readers spending 40 seconds on each individual page, and Facebook users spending around 35 seconds.

Although other news sharing sites such as Twitter and Google News have also seen the largest increases in traffic during the pandemic, Nicholson said traffic can still be very unpredictable.

“As you think about how much effort you're putting in on social media sites like Twitter to try to promote your coronavirus content, make sure that you're not just looking at a small span of time, because the patterns can jump from day to day,” she said.

“Make sure you're looking at weeks or even months to understand the overall trends within your audience.”

Nicholson also commented on the type of COVID-19 stories preferred by social media readers and those that trend well with "search" audiences.

“When it comes to pleasing ‘search’ readers, it's very important to choose related content that is very closely related. Those readers are here for a particular topic. They're not here to follow you down a rabbit hole,” – Jill Nicholson

“Social readers tend to prefer those human and emotional stories, the type of story that you weren't seeking out, but you were scrolling through Facebook, and it made you have an emotional response.”

“That is because that emotional response drives sharing behaviours, which also drives how much that content is surfaced and is shared on social platforms,” she said. 

Questions to consider when shaping news content

Nicholson ended her session with some questions for news business leaders to consider when shaping news content on the coronavirus moving forward.

“As you continue to create this content, think about what are the types of updates that people need from us day to day, or even hour by hour. What are the factual questions that people need reliable answers to?”

“How can we foster those conversations and build that sharing engagement?  How are we bringing human stories in the mix to help us connect to each other a little bit more, when we can't necessarily be in the same physical space?”

About the author: Chloe Lim is a student journalist from Yale-NUS College in Singapore, and also serves as an editorial production assistant at Forkast.News



2020-08-13 06:47

The Asian Media Leaders eSummit takes place from 20-23 July, featuring some of the most prominent news publishers and experts from the region, but also all over the world.

The World Editors Forum is the organisation within the World Association of Newspapers devoted to newspaper editors worldwide. The Editors Weblog (, launched in January 2004, is a WEF initiative designed to facilitate the diffusion of information relevant to newspapers and their editors.

© 2020 WAN-IFRA - World Association of News Publishers

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