Friday, 25 March 2011

Social media versus intuition

Ask any newspaper editor about reader appetites for long-running stories. Many intuitively feel that public interest begins to wane far sooner than coverage tails off. It’s a tough call. When does war stop being interesting?

The movement of print to online offers journalists a far better idea of reader engagement. Although an online front page is hardly the most democratic of content aggregators: important stories, as decided by editors, go at the top and are replaced hours, and in some cases minutes, later.

With certain stories, social media can provide a more accurate depiction of public mood. The magazine Fast Company employs data supplied by Crimson Hexagon, which uses a statistical human-assisted approach to monitoring tweets, to measure how conversations change once a new event happens. “On March 23, conversations about Elizabeth Taylor dominated some 500,000 tweets. Japan? Just 119,397. And Libya? Around 97,499.”

Tweets in general have an incredibly short shelf life. According to a report by Sysomos, only six per cent of tweets are retweeted, and nearly all of those retweets occur in the first hour. Just 1.63 per cent of tweets are retweeted in the second hour, and only 0.94 per cent in the third. Of course, the combined immediacy and brevity of Twitter make it an ideal medium for transient information. But it’s interesting to note that stories of all sizes are prone to reader fatigue.

Editors are paid for their judgment. In the US, during the first 10 weeks of 2007, stories about the Iraq war accounted for 23 per cent of TV network news. In the first 10 weeks of 2008, that share had fallen to 3 per cent. On cable networks coverage fell from 24 per cent to one per cent, according to a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

A daily tracking of 65 newspapers by the Associated Press confirms the trend. In September 2007, the AP found 457 Iraq-related stories on front pages. Over the following months, that number fell as low as 49. The cost of foreign correspondents, allied with falling ad revenues, is a key determinant, but editors intuitively understand the shelf-life of their biggest stories. Social media measurement provides the ability to back up those assertions.

pic credit: mknobil


  1. That's a good point that reader interest wains quite significantly. Especially you can see this happening on Twitter as the same story seems quite popular when it first breaks, but as time goes on in that same day, the interest really falls off because everyone has tweeted about it hours ago. Very rarely does a tweet that goes out in the morning get a second life later in the day.

    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos (

  2. Agreed. Question is: does SM help speed up the decaying of a story or does it merely highlight it?