Talking about Trump: Is anyone still listening?
Guest column: Allie VanNest, head of communications at Parse.ly, shares the company’s data on media coverage of Donald Trump which finds that the coverage doesn’t actually drive revenue for publishers
If the old adage — “any press is good press” — is true, it would seem that even negative media coverage is preferable to no media coverage at all. Driving the point home during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election is an over-abundance of media coverage focusing on the quirky GOP Presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
Major news sources seem to either quietly respect or outwardly despise “The Donald,” cultivating an epic love-hate relationship. But don’t mistake the middle-ground for apathy. The good-press-only model has provided Trump with more than $1.9 billion in free advertising and a pulpit from which to propagate “outrageous statements that [draw] ever more cameras — without facing enough skeptical follow-up questions.”
Love him or hate him, media outlets can’t stop talking about Trump. But is the American public still interested in reading about him?
Trump: A Celebrity Without a Following
In an analysis of more than 1 billion page views across 100,000 unique posts from our network of digital publishers, Conrad Lee, chief data analyst at Parse.ly, explored which candidates have received the most coverage in the media compared to which candidates readers are expressing the most interest in learning more about.
Despite the common belief that articles about Donald Trump drive the most page views (and therefore revenue) for newsrooms, Lee found that publishing more media coverage of Trump neither maximized revenue nor the “social virality” of election-related articles. In other words, despite the media’s presumption that Trump articles might be interesting enough to revive readers from their political apathy, data shows that they aren’t.
Trump articles receive a similar number of page views as articles about other Presidential candidates, but slightly lag behind those on Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. An average article on Clinton, for example, received six percent more page views than an article on Donald Trump. And this trend holds over time. Over the past six months, there was no single month where Trump-related articles consistently out-performed articles on other candidates in page views, despite some peaks in the popularity of posts surrounding Trump-induced controversial statements or changes in the race.
“I think the latent cause for Trump’s popularity as a topic is rational in the economic sense of the term: given the current incentives facing journalists to produce a lot of content, the return on investment of a Trump article is the highest,” Lee says. In part, this comes from the journalistic ease associated with writing about a buzz-generating candidate, regardless of whether the candidate is buzz-worthy. Sites like The Huffington Post that operate similarly to a news aggregator — sifting through huge amounts of content and highlighting what they believe will be the most interesting, impassioned, or engaging pieces of content. In a way, this falsely perpetuates the media’s interest in writing about Trump, creating a sort of editorial echo-chamber in which opinion journalists excitedly and iteratively sound off on the latest sexist remark or racist comment.
The phenomenon is the natural byproduct of a 24-7 news cycle, where reporters are expected to produce more digestible content at a faster rate than ever. The result: hyper-sensationalist, recap journalism entering our feeds more often than deep-dive, investigative pieces. After all, writing about the Trump U Judge scandal takes a fraction of the effort of a piece researching and analyzing the feasibility of candidate tax reform proposals. Donald Trump is an easy topic, enhanced by controversy of his own creation. It’s an odd and potentially dangerous foray of personality-driven celebrity journalism into the realm of politics.
Searching for Sanders
Despite this popularity approach to editorial decision-making, social networks have all but stalled out on driving an audience to Trump. Although social referrals are an increasingly important source of audience growth, making up for 45 percent of all site traffic across Parse.ly’s network of digital publishers, Trump news is not bringing in the socially- and search-referred traffic that it should be for the amount of content being produced about him.
Though Trump content puts up a fight on social networks, Bernie Sanders holds a tight grip on the top spot for socially-driven page views. In search engine traffic, the race is much closer, with the senator from Vermont still beating out Trump as a source of site traffic and page views. This is because articles on Bernie Sanders typically receive far more organic traffic than the typical article on another candidate. Even with this immense social popularity, articles on Sanders bring in 13 percent less traffic, on average, than those on Donald Trump. It’s likely that this disconnect comes from a media “favorites” game; articles on Trump, believed to bring in interest and revenue, are featured more prominently in headline placements on front pages, section pages, and recommendation widgets.
Despite the pull of quotable, click-bait pieces on Trump, they’re neither financially nor editorially worth the temptingly minimal amount of time and resources required to produce them. If mere journalistic integrity is not enough of a reason to stop passing flimsy Trump updates as news, let the data speak for itself and the old adage die: this is not good press.
(For complete, real-time updates on election coverage data, visit Parse.ly’s interactive Election Dashboard. )
Allie VanNest works with Parse.ly’s marketing team. She spends her days telling stories about what content draws in website visitors, and why.