Ordinarily, January is a relatively slow news month in Australia. That’s far from true for January 2015, however: first, the Queensland premier Campbell Newman surprised journalists, the opposition, and quite a few of his own colleagues by calling an almost unprecedentedly early state election. Then, Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s “captain’s call” of awarding a knighthood to Prince Philip as part of the Australia Day honours generated first disbelief, then significant criticism of Abbott’s leadership style. Finally, the Queensland Liberal/National Party lost what almost everybody had considered an unloseable election on 31 January – resulting in further recriminations and finally an unsuccessful leadership spill motion in the federal Liberal Party (but that’s a matter for next month’s article).
Time, then, to examine how any of these events affected news sharing and news reading patterns in Australia, as tracked by our Australian Twitter News Index (ATNIX) and Experian Hitwise. We begin as usual with the day-to-day patterns of news sharing on Twitter, across the 36 major Australian news and opinion sites we are tracking (as always, click to enlarge the graphs).
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the major spike in tweets sharing links to Brisbane’s Courier-Mail on 4 January relates to an early scoop foreshadowing Campbell Newman’s decision to call an election – but you’d be wrong: as is so often the case with such major spikes in sharing activity, this one relates instead to a story which has gone viral well beyond the usual online readership of the Courier-Mail. In this particular case, the paper’s article inviting viewers to vote for “the biggest sports jerk of the week” also included Saudi Arabian footballer Nasser Al-Shamrani as one of the options, and tweets flagging this were widely retweeted within the Saudi Twittersphere (where Twitter is particularly popular at present). Even a smaller, secondary spike on 7 January is still related to this article – by contrast, the Courier-Mail’s articles about the coming election are not shared particularly widely during the same week.
This is not necessarily a surprise, however: the Courier-Mail is traditionally not a strong performer when it comes to readers sharing its content on Twitter, and in spite of the surprise at the early election date, it is very common to see only limited user engagement with election coverage during the early weeks of a campaign. As we approach the tail end of the Queensland election period, there’s a significant increase in sharing activity – especially as it relates to ABC News, which records its strongest performance on 30 January, the Friday before election day. Although no one single article emerges as the major driver of this increase, many of the most widely shared ABC articles that day relate to the Queensland election.
In between these dates, we find the inevitable spike in shared links that occurred on Australia Day, 26 January, as the Prime Minister’s knighthood decision was made public. Here, the Sydney Morning Herald and (to a lesser extent) its stablemate The Age win the contest to provide the most salient and shareable content, as they receive the greatest number of additional tweets. A quick look at what exactly is being shared also reveals an interesting transformation of the story over the course of the day, from a simple news report about the knighthood decision through articles pointing out Prince Philip’s many gaffes, reports about Abbott having to defend his choice, and furious reactions from his Coalition colleagues, finally to coverage of the social media reaction to the knighthood.
Experian Hitwise’s overall patterns of access to these Australian news sites, beyond the sharing of their links, also point to the substantial controversy which Abbott’s knighthood decision caused: again, we see a pronounced spike in site visits across multiple news sites on Australia Day, with the Sydney Morning Herald receiving a particularly above-average number of visitors. This is especially unusual in the context of a public holiday and long weekend, during which we would usually expect a significant drop in attention to the news. As news.com.au, Daily Mail Australia, The Age, ABC News, and Guardian Australia also show patterns of heightened activity on Australia Day, it also becomes obvious that the response to the knighthood was not merely a Twitter storm (or an outbreak of “electronic graffiti”, as the PM described it), but reflects considerably more broad-based disapproval.
By contrast, the early Twitter spike for the Courier-Mail’s “sports jerk” article is not replicated in the Hitwise data: this spike clearly was a phenomenon related directly to social media activities, and driven by users outside of Australia. As our Experian Hitwise data show general site visits by Australian users only, such international activities are unlikely to register here.
Finally, the small but notable uptick in site visits on 31 January, the Queensland election day, which the Hitwise data also reveal, points to a very select distribution of user attention on the day. While most of the news sites experience their usual weekend slump, ABC News and the Brisbane Times actually gain visitors on the Saturday, most likely because of their rolling coverage of the emerging election result and its implications. Left out from this trend, however, is the major Queensland newspaper, the Courier-Mail, which does not see any gains. The available data do not provide sufficient basis for a conclusive judgment on this point, but we may speculate whether the disconnect between the paper’s strong opposition to Annastacia Palaszczuk and the very evident voter backlash against Campbell Newman may be a reason for this comparatively weak performance on election day.
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”.