The gradual decline of engagements for news

We just published last month’s news attention rankings and found some very interesting trends.

First, we’re seeing an increasingly steep power law curve or Long Tail for article engagements. Half of all the articles published in September that we tracked earned 26 engagements or less.

Articles published in September 2017. Source: Kaleida Data, October 2017

My first thought was that we must be tracking more articles. While that happens to be true (152,658 articles in September vs 148,391 in August) the performance across the board was down vs the previous month.

The top 1% of articles in September earned 24,236 engagements or higher vs 27,998 in August, a decline of 13% month-to-month. And when you look closer to the mean average or the mid-range at the 90th percentile, the September figure was 1,717 engagements vs August’s 2,085 engagements.

In other words, the top 10% of articles declined nearly 18% month-to-month.

The declining engagement trend may or may not affect all subjects and content types the same way, as we found in a mini case study we conducted recently. And the trend does not necessarily reflect declines in overall referral traffic, though it would obviously suggest Facebook is driving fewer visits to news media from month-to-month.

Publishers knew this already — they have to work harder to generate their own traffic.

That then leads to the question of efficiency.

Publishing efficiency is something everyone is looking at across the news media.

There are many dials for determining what publishing efficiency means. It might mean contributor vs staff output. It might mean optimising for average visits per article per desk.

Sometimes publishers struggle to know what their own internal activity looks like, so we can use Kaleida’s data to look at efficiency in terms of output vs engagements on Facebook.

Source: Kaleida Data, 2017

Looking at efficiency through this lens shows that CNN leads the pack. Though ProPublica is remarkably efficient given their output volume.

Clearly, more is not always better. And web sites employing some sort of paid content strategy are going to see different engagement behaviours than those that publish content openly and for free.

Regardless, it is surprising to see the difference in output volume from publisher to publisher. The Daily Mail is publishing over 20,000 articles every month. The other UK newspapers are publishing between 6,000 and 10,000 articles.

Finding differences between publishers with similar levels of output can tease out some interesting strategies.

The Guardian published about 8,500 articles in September. The Telegraph published 7,400 articles. Both are producing between 250 and 300 stories per day, on average, so their output is at similar levels. But The Guardian is performing above average on Facebook. They had six stories earning over 100,000 engagements, while The Telegraph had just two. The Guardian’s median engagement level is strong at over 100. The Telegraph’s is mediocre at 26.

Both publishers had strong engagement performance on breaking news such as the Mexico earthquake, but The Guardian appears to get a lot of traction from stories about scientific or academic reports. Seven of their stories that made it to the top 5% of all articles in September were about mental health research, climate studies or something similar.

Now, not all articles are alike. And that makes it hard to count them sometimes.

In a recent blog post by Newswhip the company reported that Fox News published 50,000 articles in September! We’re not seeing numbers like that at Kaleida. It seems inconceivable any publisher could produce that many pieces even if they published a full news feed from Reuters and AP. The Washington Post publishes entire wire feeds and releases about 25,000 articles a month in total.

To be fair, publishers may not even know how many articles they released last month. And sometimes a story will have duplicate URLs, or a component of a story such as a video will appear in multiple places making it difficult to track.

But publishers do need to know these things. The whole market needs to know what efficiency looks like. Those kinds of benchmarks are going to help everyone in the business, as the news media may not always be able to rely on distribution channels like Facebook to find readers.

If the decline in engagements continues at this rate it won’t be long before half of all output gets no engagements at all.