After the political upheavals in September, which saw Australia’s fourth change of Prime Minister since 2010 with the return of Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal leader, it feels as if things have slowed down a little as the country settles gradually into the post-Abbott era. Certainly we’ve not seen any major new political controversies or scandals, and this is reflected in the activity patterns captured in the Australian Twitter News Index (ATNIX) for October.
There are very few departures from the long-term averages for this month: ABC News is in a stable position of leadership as the most widely shared Australian news site on Twitter, ahead of the Sydney Morning Herald in second place, and both are well ahead of the rest of the field. Similarly, The Conversation’s growing international audience means that it remains by far the most widely shared Australian-based opinion site on Twitter.
Even the most widely shared individual articles reveal that after the almost predictably repetitive cycles of singular attention to specific controversial decisions by the Abbott government, in this new environment interests are much more widely dispersed again: the most widely shared ABC News links in October related variously to its “Mental As” mental health awareness campaign (1,300 tweets), Rio Tinto’s use of driverless trucks in its Pilbara mine (1,200 tweets), and a special report on gun violence in the U.S. (1,200 tweets), while those for the SMH covered the new Canadian government’s change of policy in relation to a purchase of stealth fighters (1,100 tweets) and Japan’s rejection of the International Court of Justice’s jurisdiction over Antarctic whaling (1,100 tweets). We’ve not seen such even distribution of tweeting activity across so many unrelated stories for some months.
There are a handful of unusual patterns, but they are generally less remarkable than what we have seen in the past. There is an unusual dip in shares for ABC News articles on 29 October (which we will also see repeated in the Experian Hitwise data below); this was due to a technical outage at the ABC.
By contrast, news.com.au records a substantial boost to its numbers on 15 October, with almost 2,000 more links being shared than on comparable days – much of this spike is due to a controversial post by blogger Andrew Bolt, highlighting what he describes as “close to all-out war” between Pope Francis and Cardinal George Pell and receiving some 1,400 shares in the process. It’s quite likely that this post would have also drawn more international users than news.com.au content usually receives. Finally, The Age proves that the controversies of Prime Ministers past have not yet completely receded into the distance, with its report that Melbourne Royal Children’s Hospital doctors have refused to return refugee children to detention gaining almost 1,600 shares on 11 October alone. The fact that this spike occurred on a Sunday – normally a very quiet day for newssharing in Australia – is especially notable here.
It is tempting to suggest that the patterns we see in the Experian Hitwise data on total visits to Australian news and opinion sites are similarly reflecting a nation collectively exhaling after a prolonged period of political tension, but other factors may also be at play here. Objectively, there is a certain slowdown in news readership during the final two weeks of October, especially in relation to leading sites news.com.au and Sydney Morning Herald; in the week starting Monday 5 October we saw more than 76.8 million visits to the sites covered here, for instance, while two weeks later we only reach the 71.7 million mark.
But there may be some other explanations as well. The AFL and NRL Grand Finals on 3 and 4 October, and subsequent coverage of the victory celebrations, may have boosted readership numbers over the first week of the month, but those effects wash out of the system as the seasons end. School holiday periods across various Australian states and territories may also have affected visitor numbers – but those holidays had well and truly wrapped up by mid-month, so we would expect to see an increase rather than decrease in activity during the second half of October.
Overall, then, it does seem likely that the slowdown in visits to Australian news and opinion sites during these past weeks does at least partly reflect the change in political style in the country. Politics in Australia has become a little less of a spectator sport with the demise of the Abbott government, it appears.
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”.