Twitter  Quartz found an unlikely inspiration for its relaunched homepage: The email newsletter.  
Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Why so serious? Maybe because data shows news stories can get shared just as often as lighter fare

An NPR Digital Services analysis of news stories at public radio stations found that fun and serious stories were shared on Facebook at roughly the same rate.

Editor’s note: Our friends at NPR Digital Services, Eric Athas and Teresa Gorman, crunched the numbers on how public radio stories were shared on Facebook and found some encouraging results.

We’ve heard this a lot lately: Fun stories, not serious stories, work on social media.

But we’ve found otherwise. You can shape serious stories to make them shareable and more informative for the public. We’re not talking about watering down serious journalism — we’re talking about crafting stories for the digital audience.

This happens every day in the Local Stories Project, which curates the most shareable member station content and distributes it through the NPR Facebook page. We’ve seen that people have an appetite for interacting with important stories that affect their lives. We found similar results in our research into the types of local stories that foster engagement.

Still, we wanted to be sure. Can serious stories actually get as much attention as fun ones on social media? And how can reporters and editors shape serious stories so that the audience will like, share, comment, retweet, etc.?

To help answer these questions, we reviewed 809 stories from the Local Stories Project that we then classified as either fun or serious. These were station stories that were posted to the NPR Facebook page and geotargeted — only people in each station’s local region could see them.

The surprising results offer insight into how serious stories can be shareable.


First, let’s be clear about what we mean by “fun” and “serious” — as you’ll see, we’re not saying one is better than the other — a healthy mixture of all kinds of stories is good for your audience.

Fun stories

These stories probably won’t change policy or dramatically alter the way people go about their lives, but they can still be thought-provoking or offer your audience a lighthearted break in the day. These stories usually highlight something unusual, something quirky, or something funny.

Serious stories

These stories have real-life implications. They can be about something we encounter everyday, like transportation or housing costs. Or they can uncover something the public didn’t already know, like an investigation into natural gas. Serious stories help people stay aware of the news that matters to them.

One-by-one, we examined all 809 stories and labeled them either fun or serious. Then, using Facebook data attached to each story, we measured success using this metric: Of the unique people who see each post, what percentage like it, share it, or comment on it?

Here’s what we found:

Stations are creating as many fun stories as serious stories: Of the 809 stories, 53 percent were serious and 47 percent were fun.

Serious stories were just as shareable as fun stories: The percentage of people who liked, shared, or commented was the same for both serious and fun stories – about 1 percent of those who saw the posts interacted with them. In the Local Stories Project, we’ve found that any post over 0.7 percent leads to dozens or hundreds of likes, shares, and comments.

Top serious stories were shared just as much as top fun stories: You’d think that fun stories would garner far more engagement, but that wasn’t the case. When looking at the top 50 stories, the percentage of people who liked, shared, or commented was 3 percent — the same for both serious and fun stories.

5 questions for making serious-but-shareable stories

So how exactly can you make serious content shareable? What you don’t want to do is wait until after the story’s already on your site. Consider your approach from the beginning. Here’s how:

What’s the headline?

Write a headline first — before you begin crafting your story. The headline should be a simple, straightforward, specific promise about what the story’s about. You might discover a different headline through your reporting, but starting with something precise will help focus the story.

What is your approach to telling the story?

What’s the best way to convey the story? Whatever you decide, get to the point right away and make the piece easy to understand. Charts, images, videos or other visuals can be helpful, but only incorporate them if it’s useful to the audience.

How will this be different from what others have already done?

Cut through the noise. A lot of media might be covering the story, but how can you differentiate yourself? What can you add to the story? Try creating an explainer, where you take the complex issue and make sense of it for people.

Why will people share it?

Imagine someone coming across your story online — what will make them take the next step to share it? Will it make them happy, sad, enraged, informed or intrigued? If it leaves your audience with no reason to interact, you’ve missed something.

What’s next?

Don’t ignore the story after it’s published. Compile the metrics, and ask: Did the story’s traffic and engagement fall flat? What would you do differently? Take a look at the comments and shares to learn how people felt about the story. This should inform future coverage.

Want to print the 5 questions? Go here for a printable version.

Serious case studies

It wasn’t an accident that so many people liked, shared, and commented on serious stories. The station editors and reporters behind the content were thoughtful in their approach, just as they were with the fun stories. Here’s what they did to make serious stories shareable:

  • Why More Idaho Moms Breastfeed Than Anywhere In The U.S. (Boise State Public Radio)

    When the CDC released a report on breastfeeding, Boise State Public Radio’s Emilie Ritter Saunders noticed that her home state was at the top of the list. But rather than just publishing the findings, Emilie explained why Idaho’s rate was so high and crafted a headline that promised such an explanation. Idahoans responded with 221 likes and 70 shares on the NPR Facebook page.

  • 5 things to know about Michigan’s education gap (Michigan Radio)

    Michigan Radio has dedicated a special project to cover “the barriers children of low income families in Michigan face in achieving success.” It’s a heavy topic, but they’ve been able to report on it in a clear way that informs locals. This piece by reporter Jennifer Guerra was shared 125 times and liked 133 times on the NPR Facebook page.

  • How Much Does It Cost to Live Comfortably in the Bay Area? (KQED)

    Housing affordability affects almost everyone in the communities that KQED is trying to reach. By consistently covering the topic with digestible stories and great headlines, the station’s reporters have spurred engaging conversations, leading to hundreds of likes, shares, and comments. Now, KQED’s applying that same principle to a series on the housing crisis.

Image by Russ Gossett.

What to read next
Mark Coddington    Aug. 22, 2014
Plus: Controversy at Time Inc., more plagiarism allegations, and the rest of the week’s journalism and tech news.
  • Liam Corcoran

    Interesting analysis. The Local Stories Project sounds like a brilliant initiative.
    The comment about the importance of ‘crafting the story for the digital audience’ is very important here I feel.

    At NewsWhip, we tracked the spread of the English-speaking world’s most shared content for the month of September, using data from our content discovery tool Spike. Spike tracks the spread of over 200,000 stories a day, so it’s fairly thorough.

    Our analysis found that a two-tier system quickly emerges around the sharing patterns of different stories. The share life of listicles, once-off content and especially hilarious articles can reach well past their publication date, while news, comment and other time-sensitive material usually has to make do with being popular for a day or two.

    For instance, the most shared story of the month was a Gawker repost of a video advertisement. It got 1.57m social interactions on Facebook and Twitter. The closest news equivalent would be Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in the New York Times that month, which managed 583,000 social interactions.

    For these reasons, it’s often difficult to directly compare the sharing patterns of the two categories. News stories might be at a disadvantage in the long-term, but of course people are going to share big, serious news events like crazy when they happen.

    For more analysis, feel free to visit our blog:

  • Lisa Williams

    Data that we have access to from INN members (a network of 92 nonprofit investigative and community newsrooms) shows the same thing. When I ran the data for the top 10 most shared stories across a particular (and I should point out, small) sample of members, there wasn’t a single cat slideshow. Though many of our members are on the Serious News side of the spectrum, people were choosing to share the most serious stuff from serious outlets.

    Even more interesting was what people chose to click on out of what was shared (that is, what links that were shared on Twitter were the most effective in terms of the number of people clicking on them?) 3 out of the top 10 most-clicked were what I think of as “affiliation opportunities” — opportunities to support a nonprofit news organization by attending an event, contributing to a Kickstarter, etc. So even though those were not shared as often (those weren’t in the top 10 most shared) people were choosing to click on them often (they were in the top 10 most clicked on).

  • Eric Athas

    Interesting, Lisa. Can you share an example or two of your “affiliation opportunities” tweets that got clicks?

  • Lisa Williams

    Hi, Eric — I’m tapping this out on my phone, but an example of an “affiliation opportunity” that ended up in the top 10 most clicked was IowaWatch’s Kickstarter campaign to fund a documentary about the impact of meth on families in Iowa, despite the fact that it was not in the Top 10 most shared. I’d have to get on something larger than a phone to tool around and find the precise tweets that yielded those outsize results.

  • Eric Athas

    Thanks for sharing, Lisa. That’s interesting. And your phone-typing skills are impressive.