Media Briefings

CLICKS MEAN COVERAGE: How popularity drives the news

  • Published Date: March 2015

Readers’ interest in online news is driving the hard news agenda – but not by dumbing it down. That is the conclusion of new research into the editorial choices of a leading Indian newspaper, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society’s 2015 annual conference. The study by Ananya Sen of the Toulouse School of Economics concludes that a 10% increase in the number of clicks on the first article about a news story increases its coverage, in terms of the number of future articles, by 3%.

The study analyses the number of clicks received by every article published by the Indian newspaper in 2012 to estimate the impact of popularity on the number of follow-up articles for ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ news stories, based on the section in which they were published.

To establish a causal link, the author analyses traffic during two events that affect readership independently of editorial decisions: rainstorms, which mean that more people are indoors reading the newspaper online, increasing popularity; and power cuts, meaning that fewer people can go online, reducing popularity.

As editors now have real-time data on the popularity of their stories, and as newspapers increase their revenues through online traffic, there is clearly an incentive to expand news coverage of popular subjects, independent of any other measure of their newsworthiness, leading to the potential ‘crowding out’ of some categories of news. This has led the publications The Verge and Vox.com, for instance, to prevent journalists from accessing real time data so that they focus on what is ‘important’.

The results of the new study show that:

• Popularity matters: the newspaper gives additional coverage to popular hard news.
• But it’s not ‘dumbing down’: soft news stories do not get expanded coverage when they are popular.
• Editors follow the numbers: analysis of the popularity of follow-up articles, when the original was published during a rainstorm or power cut, shows that editors have limited ability to separate the effects of outside events from genuine reader interest.

The author concludes:

‘My analysis shows that the newspaper gives additional coverage only to the clicks received by hard news and not to those received by soft news.

‘Hence, in the short run at least, if there is any crowding out due to clicks-based coverage then it is ‘hard’ news crowding out ‘soft’ news and not vice-versa.’

More…

Do newspapers have a popularity bias? If so, what are its consequences? Using online data of a leading Indian national daily, this study provides evidence that editors expand coverage of stories that receive more clicks. But this additional coverage is only in response to the clicks received by hard news and not to those received by soft news.

To ensure that these are not mere correlations, the research focuses on rainfall and power outages that affect readers’ attention independent of editorial decisions. Moreover, there is suggestive evidence that the editors misinterpret the additional clicks on rainy days for ‘true’ reader interest.

The availability of news online provides editors with the ability to track and respond to observable traits of reader preferences at the level of URL, in real time, such as the number of clicks. This allows newspapers to respond to clicks and increase readership required for greater advertising revenue.

This has important consequences as it has been shown theoretically that selective coverage of stories by the newspaper distorts the beliefs of readers who in turn demand different policies than if they were perfectly informed. News outlets, however, show conflicting practices in the degree to which they make use of such data. The Verge and Vox.com, for instance, adopted policies to prevent journalists from accessing any real time demand data so that they focus on what is ‘important’ rather than what is ‘trendy’.

To address these issues, the study builds a unique data set based on proprietary information on the number of clicks received by every article published in 2012 provided by a leading Indian national daily. It identifies similarities between news articles using text analysis and classifies them into stories, which become the unit of observation.

To establish a causal link between popularity and coverage, the study focuses on two exogenous shocks to reader clicks. On rainy days, readers may choose to remain indoors, which can increase the time online. On days with power shortages, individuals’ ability to connect to the internet is limited, and so is their ability to visit the news site.

The study provides three key insights about the impact of digital data on editorial policy. First, it shows that stories whose first articles are published on rainy days (or days with electricity shortages) receive a significantly larger (smaller) number of clicks. A 10% increase in the clicks of the first article of a story increases its coverage, in terms of the number of articles, by 3%.

The study then analyses the impact of clicks-based editorial coverage on the ‘quality’ of information provided to readers. It groups stories into ‘hard’ news and ‘soft’ news based on the section in which they are slotted. The analysis shows that the newspaper gives additional coverage only to the clicks received by hard news and not to those received by soft news. Hence, in the short run, if there is any crowding out due to clicks based coverage, then it is ‘hard’ news crowding out ‘soft’ news and not vice-versa.

Finally, there is a real concern about newspapers being unable to handle and interpret ‘big data’. The study quantifies the extent of editorial misinterpretation due to the additional clicks on rainy days. It finds that the clicks received by the second article of a story whose first article was published on a rainy day are lower by 4-6% relative to the clicks received by the second article of a story whose first article was not published on a rainy day.

Overall, the research has implications for both media policy and firm strategy.

ENDS


Contact:
Ananya Sen, Toulouse School of Economics
+33660034588
ananyasen100@hotmail.com