How breaking news explainers and evergreen articles attract audiences

By Savannah Parsons

Publishing quick explainers about events in the news are valuable to reach new audiences, but evergreen, timeless articles foster greater engagement, according to a new study for The Conversation Canada in association with the Global Journalism Innovation Lab.

The study of the most-read articles on The Conversation Canada found that its type of explanatory journalism draws in new audiences when the articles are about events in the headlines.

But more timeless explanatory articles not tied to a specific news event perform better in terms of retaining loyal readers and encouraging audiences to go deeper into a topic.

The one topic that resonated with both new and loyal readers was politics. Explanatory articles on issues from war to colonialism to activism did well across the board.

The results suggest that prioritizing timely explanations of political news can serve to engage new and regular readers with content that is both new and nuanced.

Testing engagement

The Conversation Canada is an explanatory news organization publishing breaking and non-breaking news explainers.

The articles are written by academics and edited by journalists. Writing a piece of explanatory journalism in a timely way on a breaking news story can be at odds with the pace of scholarly writing. TCC is a useful case study for understanding how timely explainers impact audience engagement.

For this study, TCC’s top 100 most-read stories from January to June 2023 were labelled as “breaking” or “non-breaking” news. This was based on whether headlines matched front page stories on CBC News and The Globe and Mail, up to one week after the initial publication date.

Statistical tests were carried out to compare the differences in audience engagement metrics between breaking versus non-breaking stories. The measures included reads, comments, exposure, engagement and loyalty.

There is an important caveat to add. TCC only began using an analytics system called SmartOcto in May. That means exposure, engagement, and loyalty differences may appear larger than they actually are.

Bearing this in mind, the analysis provided some valuable insights on audience engagement.

New audiences

Breaking news explainers increase discussion and draw in new audiences more than nonbreaking news explainers, according to an analysis using SmartOcto’s Exposure Content Performance Indicator (CPI).

Exposure measures page views, unique visitors and social reach. The highest score an article can receive is a CPI of 1000. Breaking news explainers had a score of 789. Non-breaking news articles scored less than half that, at 362.

Breaking news explainers sparked more debate with an average of 28 comments compared to an average of five comments on non-breaking news explainers.

Findings suggest that breaking news explainers are a valuable way to draw in new audiences and spark discussions. 

Loyalty and timeliness

On the flip side, more timeless and evergreen explainers performed better with loyal readers, based on an analysis using SmartOcto’s Loyalty and Engagement CPIs.

Loyalty measures audiences who are regular and frequent readers, while engagement measures readers’ interest in articles.

Non-breaking news articles had a nearly perfect loyalty score of 949, while breaking news articles scored 780.

Similarly, nonbreaking news articles scored 891 for engagement, versus 773 for breaking news explainers.

These findings suggest evergreen explainers are valuable to retaining loyal readers and encouraging people to spend more time on an article.

The study was funded through a MITACS Accelerate internship.

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