Audience Engagement Digital Publishing Top Stories
6 mins read

330,000 regional headlines analysed: Key takeaways for publishers

Newsrooms are already struggling with the threats of infobesity, the news averse, and the challenge of converting browsers to subscribers; so every resource has to yield results. We analysed 330,000 regional daily headlines to see what part they played, and could play, in that drive.

Digital technology is inevitably leading media to rethink the nature of their content. Regional dailies must evolve in terms of organisation and skills if it going to survive and succeed this digital transformation and the quest for success on social networks has become a top priority. While Facebook and Twitter are not the only approaches, they are key ones, familiar to most media, and ones that are possible to scrutinise closely. That analysis lays bare the results of engagement, enables comparisons between approaches, and presents lessons to learn. I don’t claim the study is exhaustive, but it does involve 37 regional dailies, and 330,000 headlines.

Are you doing a good job of engaging your readers, or are you underperforming? Do you even have a way of assessing the benefits of your efforts? Social networks are often presented as a low-cost way to turn low-engagement browsers into loyal readers and pave the way to convert those readers to paid subscribers. Let’s take a look at the data, and see how that works out.

First of all, let’s be clear about what the 3 graphs measure, based on that data set of 330,000 titles of shared, commented, or liked content on Facebook and Twitter from 37 daily regional media outlets. The articles were published from July 2021 to July 2022, and I have identified 7 key subjects (local news, sport, news, politics, health, the Ukraine war, and finally, climate change).

  • The first graph measures the evolution of the editorial mix by media and by week. It shows the total weekly engagements per topic, with all topics combined. In the end, this metric gives the percentage of engagements represented by each topic, and for a given week.
  • The second graph measures the evolution of the attractiveness of topics by media. That’s based on the ratio of engagements, broken down by topic, and in relation to the total number of articles published that same week. This metric allows us to identify the most attractive weeks in absolute value and not in relative value (as previously) and in the process to understand the contribution of each topic to this weekly success. In fact, by weighting the total engagement score of a topic by the number of articles produced during the week, we can distinguish the topics that engage readers, their evolution over time, and the level to which they contribute to the success of the week’s engagement.
  • Finally, the third graph measures the evolution of each topic’s performance. It does that by looking at the ratio between the total weekly engagements per topic, divided by the number of articles published on this topic alone during the same week. This metric allows us to compare, over the weeks, the respective performance of topics based on the weekly average of engagements.

These three graphs are vital for making fine analysis of the data and distinguishing between topics that perform well thanks to a large number of articles published (quantitative performance) and those that perform well thanks to the high quality of reader engagement (qualitative performance).

Mobile users; sorry but for the best view of these graphs you’re going to need a laptop or desktop.
As you can see, it is possible to select the regional daily media of your choice from the list displayed at the top right of the interactive graph.
By default, the graph displayed is always the total result of all regional daily media.

So what do the graphs tell us?

  • First, I suggest we keep to the “Total” histogram of the first graph on the mix-éditorial , which is also the default choice for the other two graphs.

    Let’s look at the Santé (Health) in blue. We can see that just before the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Santé (Health) occupied a significant place in the editorial mix with two peaks of engagement in the weeks of 9 August 2021 and 3 January 2022. Then, as soon as the war broke out, in the week of 21 February 2022, the share of commitments on the topic of Santé collapsed.
    What should we conclude from this? Did the French suddenly turned the page on Covid? Spoiler alert: no.

    Important note. If you explore the data by regional daily brand, you will see that there are great disparities in the results. For example L’Indépendant of Perpignan has made the Covid crisis something of a specialty, and although the subject Santé (Health) in its editorial mix has been reduced, it has not been relegated to a marginal place.
  • Now, let’s look at the second graph, entitled évolution de l’attractivité des sujets (the evolution of interest in each subject).

    This graph, although similar to the previous one at first glance, does not measure the same thing. In the first graph, we measured a subject’s share of engagement as a percentage (i.e. in relative terms). Here, we are interested in absolute values, which will allow us to distinguish between weeks that work, and those that work less well, or not at all.

    Let’s go back to the treatment of the Health topic (Santé). As in the first graph, this topic performs much less well from the week of 21 February 2022 onward (by hovering over the histogram you will find the first Monday of each week). This graph shows that readers on Facebook/Twitter will engage less strongly with Health (Santé) overall, but will give a more consistent place to Politique (Politics in purple) or Climat (Climate in green) more gradually. The impact of the Health topic (Santé) in relation to the other topics diminishes each week.
  • Let’s go to the third graph entitled évolution de la performance des sujets (evolution of the subjects’ performance).

    Now we’re going to look at the average topic performance, which is the number of engagements versus the number of articles published. This is where things really change.

    The first thing to note is that readers’ commitment to Santé (Health-related topics) never waned, and they never moved on from Covid.

    Secondly interest in the subjects of Climat (Climate) or Ukraine remained present, throughout the year, but it was not immediately observable on the previous graphs.

    Thirdly: Politique (Politics), like other subjects, is obviously of interest, but not in the proportions indicated in the first two charts.

So what does this mean?

Simply, but importantly there is a mismatch on numerous occasions between the volume of articles published, the angles proposed and the expectations of the readers on the seven subjects studied. Addressing this mismatch is key to improving engagement, and eventual subscriptions.

What lessons can be learned?

This exercise demonstrates the extent to which editorial mix control should be a core concern for newsrooms, and one that is as much a matter for data analysis as the gut judgement that once defined it. If you do not master your editorial mix, there is little chance that you will be able to achieve your objectives in terms of audience, social shares and comments and, of course, conversion to pay.

This study focuses on social networks only, and can be beefed up with other metrics such as engagement via homepages, newsletters, and search engines to get a much more detailed understanding of what your audiences and target readership care about.

In the context of information overload and the development of digital subscriptions each newsroom should be supplied with the relevant knowledge to help it understand the impact of its content choices, and to shape its strategy accordingly.

These are the questions that every newsroom should ask, and have the answers to:

  • Beyond clicks and visits, who are your target audience(s) and what are their concerns? Do you really know them?
  • How well is your editorial mix under control? Resources are finite, so do you know where your publishing output under-performs, and what you under-publish and under-engage. Do you have that data for every day, every week and every month?
  • Do you master the life cycle of information? Have you integrated it into your editorial work?
  • Data and dashboards are not enough on their own. You have to know how to translate those figures into usable knowledge that helps journalists adapt to a very competitive environment. Are you analysing your data and leveraging it to really shape your practices?

David Sallinen
CEO and Founder of Upgrade Media & New World Encounters

David is CEO and Founder of New World Encounters, and its sister organisation Upgrade Media. He has over 15 years of experience as a digital strategies coach and consultant for organisations such as WAN-IFRA as well as his own individual ventures with media companies.

David’s professional hallmark is his passion for media. He is convinced that expertise sharing is the way forward for the media community. In particular, he believes that a better understanding of data can enable today’s hard-pressed media professionals to better allocate resources to optimise audience engagement and secure the financial return essential for a sustainable future.