Every day, the New York Times chooses to post a number of their articles to their Facebook page. These posts may be broadcast to the feeds of the nearly 10 million Facebook users who have “liked” the New York Times. A major factor in whether a post appears in a user’s feed is the number of their friends who “liked” or “shared” that post. The traffic generated through this process translates into advertising dollars, allowing the New York Times to create more content and remain profitable.
Increasingly, social media and apps are at the center of news consumption. As reported in the New York Times Innovation Report, visits to the New York Times home page are declining precipitously. In contrast, traffic from social media continues to be on the rise, with nearly 20% of views for some news sites coming from Facebook alone.
Sam Kirland, Poynter; Source: New York Times Innovation Report
As more of news media’s traffic and revenues come from social media, we were curious about just what kind of news drives likes and shares. Exactly what kinds of articles are successful on Facebook?
In order to answer that question, we used a publicly available dataset that includes the number of shares and likes for nearly 33,000 New York Times Facebook posts going back to March of 2009. This dataset only includes the likes and shares for the original New York Times posting. If a Facebook user independently posted the article to their own wall, the likes and shares it received were not included. For stories from 2015, we crawled the web to add data like the author and section of the story. This data is accurate as of July 19th 2015.
In the entire dataset, the average number of "likes + shares" for a story is 1,615 and the median is 470. This average has been growing steadily since 2009, and the mean for 2015 has reached nearly 3,000, and the median is over 1,000.
Dan Kopf, Priceonomics; Data: Facebook
The following table lists the 10 articles that received the most likes + shares on Facebook in since 2009. Notice that all of the top articles are from 2014 and 2015.
Six of the top 10 articles are related to Indian politics or pop culture. This is likely because India is second only to the United States in number of Facebook users. Articles concerning Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and Game of Thrones are also in the top 10. No investigative journalism comes close to making this list.
For articles shared in 2015, the following chart displays which sections’ posts tend to receive the most likes + shares:
Dan Kopf, Priceonomics; Data: Facebook
Articles that fall under Cooking, Parenting, and Style received the most shares and likes. New York Regional, Technology and the News Blog received the least. The general trend is that lifestyle and culture issues are most popular and current events reporting is less popular. There are exceptions: Science reporting is relatively popular, and sports coverage is towards the bottom. Perhaps sports fans are less likely to look to the New York Times for sports coverage, given the particularly local nature of sports interest.
Another interesting cut of the data shows which writers have been most popular in 2015 based on how their articles fared on social media. The following table displays the top 40 writers’ stats, along with their most popular article. All writers included here had 10 or more articles posted to the New York Times Facebook page.
Most of the writers with the most popular stories on Facebook write primarily about entertainment. Only one of the top ten writers in terms of likes + shares, education reporter Elizabeth Harris, is on a hard news beat.
Many of the most popular posts are from the newspaper’s pioneering Opinion Page. New York Times columnists David Brooks, Maureen Dowd and Thomas Friedman are among the United States’s most ubiquitous public intellectuals. Does their work translate to Facebook popularity? This next table ranks the Facebook popularity of the ten columnists who have had five or more of their articles posted to the New York Times Facebook page.
By the measure of the median Facebook shares plus likes, the human rights focused columnist Nicholas Kristof comes out on top. Kristof has discussed his goal of finding the most heartwrenching narratives that might make his readers want to take action. Whether he is succeeding at his goal of getting people to donate or volunteer is unclear, but he does seems to be quite good at provoking Facebook statements.
Posts from the New York Times technology section actually fair quite poorly in terms of Facebook shares and likes. This might be because tech savvy folks are more likely to use other social media, particularly Twitter, to share links. The table below shows the Facebook popularity of the eight technology writers with five or more articles posted articles.
Vindu Goel is by far the top tech writer in terms of median shares and likes. It probably not a coincidence that he mainly covers social networks, including Facebook.
As Facebook becomes more central to the news, some observers are concerned the reliance on traffic from Facebook will lead to less coverage of “serious” news. And it is is true that if Facebook popularity alone shaped the New York Times’ coverage, they would write a whole heck of a lot more about TV and parenting, and less about China’s increasing influence in Africa.
But these concerns might be overdone. As Facebook becomes more of a news hub, the types of things we like and share on Facebook may change. Also, newspapers have always had to balance popularity against more lofty journalistic ideals: In the past, sports coverage, comics and classifieds were used to sell papers, and cross-subsidize investigative journalism. The future of funding “serious” news is not yet clear, but it seems there is still an appetite for this coverage, so there will be certainly be attempts to figure it out.
We conclude with a look at the most shared and liked stories by month since the beginning of 2013. This is the news of the last several year as seen from Facebook.
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