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ATNIX: Australian Twitter News Index, March 2015

Compared to the excitement of January and February, March 2015 has turned out to be a comparatively quiet month in Australian public life, even in spite of the New South Wales state election campaign which culminated in the re-election of Mike Baird’s Coalition government on 28 March. The immediate heat has dissipated from the leadership debate around PM Tony Abbott: contenders Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop are resorting to playing the long game and as any potential new leadership challenge looks increasingly unlikely to happen before the May budget.

For the purposes of our Australian Twitter News Index (ATNIX), which tracks the sharing of links to Australian news and opinion sites on Twitter, this period of relative calm manifests in comparatively stable, regular link sharing patterns. ABC News and the Sydney Morning Herald continue to track neck-and-neck with some 315,000 to 320,000 links shared throughout the month, and are firmly established as Twitter news market leaders in Australia, with third-placed The Age reaching only some 135,000 tweets over the same period.

The major point of heightened activity during the month occurs in the week of 16 March, especially for ABC News, as the full aftermath of tropical cyclones Nathan (off far north Queensland), Olwyn (northwestern Australia), and – most devastatingly – Pam (which caused severe destruction in Vanuatu) became known. A report that several elderly indigenous residents in Carnarvon were denied access to a cyclone shelter ahead of Olwyn’s arrival was especially widely retweeted. Meanwhile, a particularly spectacular Aurora Australis event which was visible even from the mainland generated additional shares for the ABC.

Australian Twitter News Index, Feb. 2015 Axel Bruns / QUT Social Media Research Group

Meanwhile, major political stories fail to emerge beyond general day-to-day sharing. The Australian records a brief spike in shares on 2 March with an article suggesting that a major ally of Indonesian President Joko Widodo had come out against the death penalty for Bali Nine drug smugglers Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, and PM Tony Abbott’s swiftly withdrawn comparison of Bill Shorten with Joseph Goebbels in parliament causes a brief flurry of outrage on 19 and 20 March, but there is little sustained engagement with either of these stories, beyond average levels.

And finally, the comparatively uneventful end to the NSW election campaign (at least by contrast to the surprising outcome of the Queensland poll, one month earlier) similarly fails to significantly affect the sharing of links to Australian news and opinion sites – indeed, 28 and 29 March are the days which see the fewest links to the Sydney Morning Herald shared during March, even compared to the already lower weekend averages for the paper.

Total visits to Australian news and opinion sites, Feb. 2015. Data courtesy of Experian Marketing Services Australia.

Such a lack of sharing does not represent a lack of interest in the results of the New South Wales election, however. Turning to our Experian Hitwise data, which show the total number of user visits to the leading Australian news and opinion sites, we can see that the Sydney Morning Herald and – especially – ABC News record comparatively strong results on 28 and 29 March; with almost 770,000 visits to its site, ABC News in particular receives as many visitors on the Sunday as it usually does on weekdays. This points strongly to the ABC’s continuing role as the nation’s premier source of information on election results – similar to the patterns we observed in the previous Queensland election.

However, especially in the absence of any major election surprises, it is also evident that Twitter and (presumably) other social media users did not feel the need to specifically share the NSW election results with their followers and friends: the elevated levels of access to the ABC and other news sites on and after election day did not result in significant additional shares. Had there been any unforeseen developments, the picture would likely have been very different.

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”.

Disclosure

This research is supported by the ARC Future Fellowship project “Understanding Intermedia Information Flows in the Australian Online Public Sphere”.

ATNIX: Australian Twitter News Index, February 2015

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.)

Australian Twitter News Index, Feb. 2015 Axel Bruns / QUT Social Media Research Group

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.

Total visits to Australian news and opinion sites, Feb. 2015. Data courtesy of Experian Marketing Services Australia.

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”.

ATNIX: Australian Twitter News Index, January 2015

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).

Australian Twitter News Index, Jan. 2015 Axel Bruns / QUT Social Media Research Group

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.

Total visits to Australian news and opinion sites, Jan. 2015. Data courtesy of Experian Marketing Services Australia.

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”.