February 2015 has been a tumultuous month in Australian news, not least because of the continuing leadership debate (and defeated spill motion) in the federal Liberal Party following the LNP’s unexpected defeat in the Queensland state election on 31 January. As expected, these and other events also affect the patterns observed in our Australian Twitter News Index (ATNIX) and in the overall Australian online news readership patterns tracked by Experian Hitwise.
That said, the unsuccessful motion for a leadership spill on 9 February fails to generate any truly exceptional spikes in the patterns of newssharing on Twitter: we can identify some slightly elevated levels of activity around a number of news sites (chiefly, ABC News, the Sydney Morning Herald, and news.com.au), but for most sites that Monday does not even constitute their most active day of the week, let alone the month.
A likely reason for this is the blanket media coverage of Liberal leadership speculation since the Queensland state election (or even since the Australia Day news of a knighthood for Prince Philip). The Liberal spill motion was nowhere near as unexpected as the first Rudd/Gillard spill, for example – and as we have seen time and again, Twitter users are less likely to share news items when they can reasonably assume that these are widely known already.
(Abbott loyalists might also want to construe this lack of significant additional activity as an indication that Australians have no interest in all of these “Canberra insider” machinations – but that argument is undermined by the fact that we do see a very substantial amount of day-to-day sharing of articles that discuss the Abbott government and its troubles. It’s just that on 9 February there was no significantly further elevated level of sharing than on other days.)
This view is also supported by the fact that a number of the more dramatic spikes in sharing activity are directly related to continuing controversies over Abbott’s leadership and government policy: in other words, in sharing links to news articles Twitter users focussed more on the underlying troubles than on the spill motion which resulted from them.
One of the most surprising boosts from such activity is received by The Australian, which – partly due to its paywall – usually struggles to gain more than 2,000 Twitter shares per day: it is linked to in 4,900 tweets on 21 February, largely as a result of its coordinated attack on Abbott that Saturday, consisting of stories about Abbott’s supposed idea of launching a unilateral military intervention in Iraq, about his subsequent denial of such rumours, and about the extent of his chief of staff Peta Credlin’s power over government decisions.
Similarly, SBS draws on its growing stable of news satirists to record a spike well above average on 4 February, with a comedy piece reporting that Julia Gillard had been rushed to hospital with an acute case of Schadenfreude. Meanwhile, The Age gains particular prominence on 26 February with its coverage of the government attacks on Gillian Triggs and the Human Rights Commission, and opinion articles reflecting on the broader implications for evidence-based policy-making and for the status of women in political leadership roles.
Amidst such domestic controversies, other news stories remain somewhat less prominent. The increasing desperation over the impending executions of convicted Australian drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in Indonesia is manifested in only two widely shared articles: a Herald-Sun story about Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s resistance to calls for clemency on 12 February, and The Age’s coverage of protests and boycotts against Indonesia on 16 February. It is likely that we will see more such articles being shared as the legal and diplomatic efforts to avert the death penalty continue in March, however.
As always, Experian Hitwise data on the total visits to Australian news sites during February paints a somewhat different picture, compared to our ATNIX data on what articles are eventually shared on Twitter. Here, the Liberal leadership spill on 9 February results in small but pronounced increases in visits for most leading news sites – news.com.au, Sydney Morning Herald, nineMSN, The Age, and ABC News all receive clear boosts to their numbers.
More notable, however, is the substantial spike in visits to the Courier-Mail site on the following day, which is almost certainly related to the final stages of the transition of government in the state, as signalled by Labor leader Annastacia Palaszczuk’s visit to the Queensland governor that afternoon. A simultaneous spike in visits to the Herald-Sun site does not have any similarly obvious explanation.
Overall, however, what is more obvious here is the relative stability of overall trends – there are few major spikes in activity, suggesting that following the holidays readers have now settled back into their daily routines of reading news online. This is also reflected in the volume of total visits across the sites, which is almost identical to last month’s patterns – news.com.au, Sydney Morning Herald, and Daily Mail Australia retain their overall leadership positions, and their gaps from each other.
The only significant movement is amongst the opinion sites: The New Daily’s strong run over recent months is fading, and it falls further behind The Conversation (but remains a clear second); New Matilda surpasses The Morning Bulletin to claim fourth place on the leaderboard; and Independent Australia considerably increases its share of visits (from 86,000 in January to 400,000 this month), catching up to the leadership group.
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 Experian Marketing Services Australia. This research is supported by the ARC Future Fellowship project “Understanding Intermedia Information Flows in the Australian Online Public Sphere”.