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March 18, 2020, 3:34 p.m.

At least coronavirus has been good for online news traffic (we’re trying to be optimistic)

The traffic surge really took off on March 12, the day after Trump’s address, the suspension of the NBA, and Tom Hanks’ announcement he had tested positive.

Los Angeles Times reporter Matt Pearce summed up the last few weeks quite nicely.

Indeed, once we hit publish on this one, 8 of our last 12 stories here at Nieman Lab have been about coronavirus and its effects on the news media industry in one way or another.

We now have data on what everyone was already probably thinking but didn’t want to say in the middle of a pandemic: Coronavirus has been great for traffic!

Parse.ly — the content analytics service used by lots of major news publishers — found that up to 15 percent of all daily traffic to their clients’ sites last week was to content about coronavirus.

March 12 was the day that several publishers saw a spike in online pageviews. That was the day after Donald Trump’s Oval Office address, the NBA suspending its season, and Tom Hanks coming down with the virus — all in about an hour’s time. It was also the day the NCAA canceled March Madness and the Dow had its biggest point loss ever (at least until an even deeper drop four days later).

“Not only is March 12 around 44 percent higher than the prior week, but it’s also 96 million content viewers higher (~98% higher) than the average of the prior six Thursdays,” said Andrew Montalenti, Parse.ly’s co-founder and chief product officer. “In other words, what we’re seeing is the growth since the start of the crisis, but compared to the baseline of ‘relatively normal’ content and news habits in Jan./Feb. 2020, we’re at a significant multiple — unlike pretty much anything Parse.ly has seen before, especially for how long the effect has lasted.”

Parse.ly’s data also found that these were the most popular subjects for stories that directly mentioned coronavirus:

1. Social distancing (especially as recommended by experts)

2. Analyses and explainers on topics like “flattening the curve,” self-quarantine, social distancing & the economy

3. Local and international travel restrictions

Chartbeat, another analytics service popular among newsrooms, aggregated its data from 4,000 news sites around the world (though it does skew toward the United States). It looked at the overall change in coverage, traffic, and engagement of its client sites by comparing the week of March 9, 2020 with the same week in 2019.

  • Coverage, or the number of articles published, slightly decreased by 3 percent.
  • The number of pageviews went up significantly, with a 33 percent increase.
  • Reader attention, measured through engaged time [number of minutes readers are scrolling, clicking, reading in an active browser window], increased significantly by 30 percent.

With all that, one might forget that we’re still in an election year in the United States — a more traditional reason for traffic to rise in years divisible by four. Montalenti told Axios yesterday that views on coronavirus content were 15 times higher than on 2020 U.S. election content from March 6-12, as the virus spread around the country and delivered an economic blow to every major industry. (It was also a relatively quiet time in the Democratic primaries; Elizabeth Warren dropped out on March 5, and the group of primaries March 10 didn’t do much to change the race.)

So as you continue to receive unprecedented traffic on your stories from new readers, remember to consult the Asian American Journalists’ Association’s guide to exercising care in your coronavirus coverage. Find the guide here.

POSTED     March 18, 2020, 3:34 p.m.
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