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March 24, 2020, 2:54 p.m.
LINK: www.nytimes.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   March 24, 2020

There’s an interesting story in The New York Times by Kevin Roose and Gabe Dance, based on an internal Facebook document, that shows the impact the coronavirus outbreak has had on news consumption on the social network:

Until recently, Facebook could feel at times like the virtual equivalent of a sleepy bingo parlor — an outmoded gathering place populated mainly by retirees looking for conversation and cheap fun.

That was before the coronavirus.

Now, stuck inside their homes and isolated from their families and friends, millions of Americans are rediscovering the social network’s virtues. That has lifted usage of Facebook features like messaging and video calls to record levels and powered a surge in traffic for publishers of virus-related news.

As of Thursday, more than half the articles being consumed on Facebook in the United States were related to the coronavirus, according to an internal report obtained by The New York Times. Overall U.S. traffic from Facebook to other websites also increased by more than 50 percent last week from the week before, “almost entirely” owing to intense interest in the virus, the report said.

The report, which was posted to Facebook’s internal network by Ranjan Subramanian, a data scientist at the company, was a lengthy analysis of what it called an “unprecedented increase in the consumption of news articles on Facebook” over the past several weeks.

The piece has lots of interesting detail and internal stats about Facebook traffic to news sites, how it labels some of its users (“Power News Consumers,” “Power News Discussers”), and the “news ecosystem quality” or NEQ rating it assigns internally to publishers and which influences how far a site’s stories spread within Facebook. (Though the Times story says the document listed Facebook’s actual scores “for 100 of its top publishers.” Sure would be curious to see those!) There’s good stuff in there.

But I do have to push back against the idea that this surge of coronavirus-based news consumption in any way signals some fundamental change in Facebook’s role in news — that it “revives Facebook as a news powerhouse” or that its “revival as a dominant news hub is a striking shift.” I don’t see anything in here that doesn’t fit the Occam’s Razor of this data: Coronavirus is a really really really really big story, and Facebook is riding the same wave of interest that everybody else is.

The piece is full of stats that show traffic to news outlets is up — U.S. traffic to external sites was up 50 percent in a week, Facebook traffic to specific news sites was up by 180 percent, 160 percent, or some other large number. But there are lots and lots of news sites whose total web traffic is up that much or more.

The Times itself reported four days ago that major sites including “The Atlantic, Business Insider, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and Wired” had all “doubled or nearly doubled the number of visits” to their sites. Just yesterday, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate — ironically, while announcing staff cuts — reported that web traffic “is running three to four times above normal.”

One convenient way to check this is Parse.ly’s Referrer Dashboard, which tracks the incoming sources of traffic to the sites in Parse.ly’s network, which includes a pretty representative sample of major news sites. Here is a measure of external sources of traffic over the past 12 months. The blue line is Google Search; the green one is Facebook. (As you can see, everyone else is a rounding error compared to the duopoly.)

As you can see, the share of news sites’ external traffic that comes from Facebook has been pretty consistent over the past year; Facebook’s significant shifts away from news traffic happened before that cutoff. (If you looked at this chart two or three years ago, both Facebook and Google would have been roughly even around a 40 percent share.) There’s a visible increase over the last month or so, but that followed a slightly larger drop before that. It’s about where it was last May or last November.

Here’s that same data, but for just the past 30 days:

This covers the period since February 23 — a period in which U.S. confirmed coronavirus infections went from 36 to 49,619. If coronavirus has meaningfully changed Facebook’s role in driving traffic to news sites, it would be captured on this chart. And it’s kind of a nothingburger.

Again, there’s lots of interesting stuff in the article, but I wanted to point this out because publishers are always making decisions about how many resources and how much emphasis to put on various social platforms or audience development efforts. I could imagine some editor or publisher seeing this story and thinking they need to reinvest in Facebook — after having spent the past year or two cutting back and spreading their audience energies around. I don’t that’s justified from this document — it’s less a “striking shift” than a rising tide lifting all boats.

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