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April 29, 2017

Did The Media Win The Election?

While the post-election press is awash in self-doubt, self-criticism, righteous recrimination and some rightful acceptance of blame, the news media have to be counted as big winners in one respect.

2016 rewarded them with huge audiences, intense readership – and the proving out of coverage and interactive features only the digital age could have made possible. Those features, and coverage, will now be tested in a thoroughly unforecastable 2017, as a combination of political shock and ungainly downturn in print advertising cloud any ability to see deeply into the year ahead [POLITICO: “The news media and Trump”].

Let’s start with the Big Numbers.

Comscore just released its overall digital audiences through October. Those numbers blow out the doors of an incredible year.

As we can see in the chart below, this year has made a big winner out of CNN. It grew 34% in monthly unique visitors, from the start of the Presidential campaign to its conclusion. It can claim 117 million monthly unique visitors in its U.S. audience.

 

TOP U.S. SITES SEE GREAT 2016 GROWTH
(Comscore: U.S. Multiplatform Study, in Millions)

For more than a year, here at POLITICO Media, we’ve been tracking the stunning rise of both The New York Times and The Washington Post. Both benefited from hyper interest in the campaign. As importantly, I believe both found their voices, emerging as aggressive, take-no-prisoners reporters on the unorthodox campaign. Now, as 2017 looms as a new test of their staying power, both reached the 100-million-unique-visitor plateau for the first time. The Times could count 101 million, while the Post could round up to 100 million with its 99.5 million total. The two are charted together below:
THE 2016 RISE OF THE NEW YORK TIMES AND WASHINGTON POST
(Comscore: U.S. Multiplatform Study, in Millions)

As close observers will recall, the Post could – and did – make a lot of noise about its passing of the Times in this gross audience stat last fall. For all of this year, though, the Times has stayed atop the Post, with this the most important takeaway: Both have re-emerged as go-to national news suppliers in the smartphone age. The Times grew 55% year over year; the Post 50%.

As I noted in September [“Revenge of the legacy sector”], the emergence of the Times and Post this year especially stands out when their performance is compared to the Huffington Post and Buzzfeed, which they both surpassed in 2016. Both HuffPost and Buzzfeed essentially saw flat overall audience in this tumultuous year.

Fox grew 33% for the year, as it – along with competitors CNN and MSNBC – benefited from the campaign, even if all three cable news stations’ overall aging demographics continue to dog them [“Newsonomics: What really ails Fox News, the leader in its shrinking category”].

Out of this fray, and as we look forward, the way The New York Times engaged its political audience this year may show the most promise.

If Donald Trump’s flaming head is now burned, seemingly permanently, into our consciousnesses, that blue-backgrounded New York Times election tracker finally recedes from our brains, ignomiously. One of the many poll of polls that got so much so wrong so prominently, the election tracker proved something else to the new smartphone-forward Times. It was addictive. What’s the key to news media’s very survivability? Building a new daily (plus) digital habit that will build paid digital subscription. The tracker did that, with its Clinton/Trump percentages and gateway into more numbers and some analysis. However it fared on the actual night, it has served as a learning experience at the Times.

 

The Rise of Interactive Features

The Times won’t reveal a lot about that feature, but its final tallies for pre-election days is indicative. Nearly two-thirds (65%) either watched a video or interacted with some of the non-text coverage, says the Times. “Over one-quarter (28%) interacted with our coverage only by watching a video or interacting with some of our graphics.” We can take the whole abstract debate about news video – how, when, who – and apply a lesson here. While the Times has mightily struggled with it, it found that contextual campaign video hit new records. Make the video journalistic, telling the stories of the day and of the time, and the readers (viewers) will eat it up.

Among those top videos, “Unfiltered Voices From Donald Trump’s Crowds”,” and “Video: Becoming Hillary Clinton”.

Among the interactives: “The 282 People, Places and Things Donald Trump Has Insulted on Twitter: A Complete List and “More Than 160 Republican Leaders Don’t Support Donald Trump. Here’s When They Reached Their Breaking Point”, both of which now seem quaint, of course.

Then, there’s the Times’ pop-up podcast, “The Run-Up.” Put it altogether, and it’s a new toolbox for coverage that the Times has manufactured.

While the Post, given owner Jeff Bezos’ aversion to sharing any business performance data publicly, won’t share, two other news companies shared a few. Instructively, both found interactives a key to engagement.

The Wall Street Journal told me that the election produced its highest trafficked standalone graphic ever. Its Red Feed Blue Feed: Liberal Facebook vs. Conservative Facebook feature. It launched in May.

The Financial Times found that its election poll tracker became the second most popular piece of content it has ever produced. Its No. 1: the Brexit poll tracker, which has produced three million page views to the poll tracker’s two million. One other intriguing factoid that the FT shared: “Our post-election traffic today was almost evenly split in thirds, with one from US, one Asia, and one UK/Europe. This is a much bigger slice than Asia had been counting for up to this point.” Indeed, the whole world was watching, and is now waiting.

Trump drew the most page views

So how much did Donald Trump drive that engagement?

I asked Parsely, a leading analytics company, for its data-driven view. Parsely used data from 300 media organizations – major companies, mostly centered in the U.S. It began its count on Nov. 2, 2015. All totaled, the analysis included 2.8 billion page views.

Consistently, since mid-May on, stories on Donald Trump won more readers than those on Hillary Clinton.

 

That red line shows the number of page views each tracked Donald Trump article generated. On average, a Trump story produced 12,878 page views. On average, a Hillary Clinton story (blue line) produced 10,287. In the page view election, Trump won 56-44.

Yet, consider the calendar. As Parsely reports, “Initially, data indicated that readers were more interested in stories about Clinton. Between November 2015 and May 2016, an article on Hillary Clinton received six percent more page views than an article on Donald Trump. Starting in June however, articles featuring Trump quickly took over both in volume and views per article. This held up through election day.”

So, add that data to the big question: How much did the media create, or magnify, Donald Trump?

Clearly, the ramped-up reading interest in Trump articles doesn’t necessarily translate to Trump support. Negative coverage can draw as big an audience, or bigger, than positive. In fact, that October spike was driven heavily by the rat-a-tat-tat of Trump sexual harassment stories. Still, the numbers may be a proxy for some of the electorate shift we saw from midsummer on.

If you’ll remember the long history of this race, consider that all those who fell by the wayside – including Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz and John Kasich – generated fewer page views per article numbers than either Trump or Clinton.

Into 2017

Apart from the biggest news players, we’ve got storylines to watch into the new year.

Whither Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight now?

Silver endured a last-minute Twitter war with Huffington Post (which proved even wronger than the Times in its prognostications). FiveThirtyEight grew, as we might expect, 43% year over year.

And, of course, Stephen Bannon’s alt-right site, Breitbart. It reached a pinnacle of 19 million uniques in October, after varying through the year from 13 million to 18 million.

Will White House-broadcast/tweeted Trump TV, with Stephen Bannon exec producing as Trump’s senior strategist, win away viewers and readers? Where will that leave Fox, as it now must pivot on multiple fronts, perhaps recasting its anchor crew, and finding Trump the biggest frenemy it could imagine. (TrumpTVis itself a URL to be bought by the incoming President. Google it and you find “FabulousTV™ the latest in Hollywood Red carpets, World movie premieres, Celebrity interviews and Press junkets!”)

The biggest question of the year ahead, though, is in the audience.

Will the majority of millions who lost the election keenly watch the expected daily run of outrages? Wlll anyone know or care about the return of John Bolton, or will much of the public just confuse him with Michael Bolton, only four years younger than the much-mustachioed neocon? Will the oldies act that the Trump is apparently assembling just put the nation to sleep?

Or do such events as the day-after-Inauguration Million Women March portend a fermenting of the unexpected?

Those directing news media businesses had expected a fair amount of political fatigue – and audience loss – with an expected Clinton White House producing as many ho-hums as huzzahs. Now, all bets may be off.

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