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April 14, 2020, 10:07 a.m.

The coronavirus traffic bump to news sites is pretty much over already

Audience numbers now look more like a standard busy news week than a global pandemic that’s captured the world’s attention. Coronavirus news fatigue has set in.

Some parts of America seem to be having — early, tentative, potential — success flattening the curve of COVID-19 infections. But there’s one place where the curve has already gone flat: traffic to news sites. Last month’s striking surge in audience attention has ebbed week by week and has now largely washed away. Here’s what that looks like:

As the coronavirus grew into a global pandemic — and as its impact on most people’ lives moved from theoretical to very real — news organizations benefited from a swell of interest and traffic. Readers turned to established news outlets more than partisan sites of any type. It was strong evidence of the news industry’s true status as an “essential” business.

Let’s march down the timeline.

A boom in mid-March

By March 9, 1 of every 4 pageviews on a U.S. news site was on a coronavirus story, and the topic was generating the sort of attention in a week that the impeachment of Donald Trump did in a month. That’s according to data from Taboola’s Newsroom network of sites.

Traffic seemed to peak around March 12 and 13; that’s the period immediately following Donald Trump’s Oval Office address, Tom Hanks’ diagnosis, and the suspension of the NBA. The analytics firm Parse.ly noted that total traffic to news sites on March 12, a Thursday, was nearly double the average of the previous six Thursdays.

Audience attention then stayed pretty steady through March 23, as noted in this data from Chartbeat:

But then the air began leaking out of that balloon. Attention to coronavirus news had already begun to ebb by the end of March — again, data from Chartbeat (in a post warning of “coronavirus fatigue”):

And Taboola:

April showers

Attention dipped further in the first week of April:

And as of right now, news traffic to news sites, both in the U.S. and around the world, is pretty much back to pre-coronavirus levels in Taboola’s data. Last week was a “good normal” week, audience-wise, not a “wow” week. Here’s the key chart:

If you add together articles referencing both “coronavirus” and “covid” (to reflect the shift in usage toward COVID-19) in Taboola’s data, you get something roughly like this:

March 9: 300 million
March 16: 1.13 billion
March 23: 1.68 billion
March 30: 1.67 billion
April 6: 1.478 billion
April 13: 980 million

Here’s some Parse.ly data pulled together by the company’s data insights lead, Kelsey Arendt; check out the decline in traffic specifically to coronavirus content (first chart) and to news sites overall (second chart).

Arendt notes that, while there has been a substantial decline in attention, “overall traffic is still quite high, relatively speaking.” Which certainly seems true in Parse.ly’s universe of sites.

(Side note: Each of these content-analytics companies works with somewhat different sets of publishers and uses somewhat different methodologies and metrics, so it’s not surprising there are differences. For example, coronavirus traffic makes up a notably smaller portion of total news traffic the way Parse.ly measures it than does for Chartbeat or Taboola. Coronavirus traffic peaked at 15 percent of total news traffic for Parse.ly, 35 percent for Chartbeat, and 54 percent for Taboola — and again, each is measuring a slightly different thing.)

But the trend line is consistent across the board: The explosion of traffic to news sites in mid-March was a spike, not a leveling-up to a new baseline. Interest in coronavirus news has fallen substantially. The “new normal” has indeed become, well, kinda normal.

This could all change tomorrow, of course. At any moment, some giant new COVID-19 shock could refocus the world’s attention.

But this is a pattern we’ve seen before, on subjects as different as Donald Trump’s various violations of presidential norms and climate change: Sustained attention is hard to maintain over time, no matter how objectively important a topic might be. The lives of nearly every American (and, of course, billions elsewhere) are now starkly different than they were a couple months ago — but their interest in news has rapidly regressed toward the mean.

Figuring out how to maintain that interest — and to spark more of it when necessary — will be an important challenge not only for the news business, but for society at large.

POSTED     April 14, 2020, 10:07 a.m.
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