One publisher’s gain doesn’t have to be another publisher’s loss.
With politics — and specifically President Donald Trump — commanding so much attention, it is reasonable to expect that publishers who don’t focus on hard news would see a drop in traffic. But data indicates that non-hard news publishers haven’t suffered from the public’s intensified interest in political news. Sources told Digiday that soft news has maintained user attention as the line between entertainment and politics continues to blur, new platforms have extended publisher reach, and people need a respite from depressing or stressful news.
“People are moving forward with their lives,” said Bustle CEO Bryan Goldberg. “Young people are incredibly aware politically, but they are not going to let this administration come between them and their daily lives.”
For better or for worse, Donald Trump became a must-watch phenomenon during the presidential election. As Trump rose to power, news-driven publishers saw a boom in traffic and subscriptions, which led some of them to create politics-themed verticals.
Data from Keywee shows that hard-news publishers had higher click-through rates on their Facebook articles than soft-news publishers around the time of the election. But since the election, the click-through rates for soft-news publishers have climbed back up. Netta Kivilis, vp of marketing at Keywee, speculated that soft news may have had higher click-through rates in December and January due to a “combination of holidays and [people] being tired of Trump.”
Newswhip data also showed a lack of engagement drop-off for lifestyle pubs. And comScore numbers show that gains among top hard-news publishers are in line with gains in other sectors.
According to comScore, on average, the 10 most-visited hard-news publishers of December 2016 had about 2 percent more visitors than the 10 most-visited news publishers of December 2015. Similarly, the top lifestyle publishers, on average, had a 3 percent audience growth. Top entertainment pubs had higher growth, at 11 percent year-over-year on average, but their overall audiences are much smaller than top news and lifestyles publishers.
In past elections, a growth in entertainment traffic could be seen as people distracting themselves from the political news cycle. But traffic by category has become trickier to calculate as the lines between hard and soft news continue to blur. After all, a reality TV star is now the American president. As the lines between categories blur, publishers outside the traditional hard-news realm have found a bigger role in commenting on the news.
“Celebrities, artists, fashion designers, they are very much part of the conversation about the election and the changes upon which the world is embarking,” Goldberg said. According to Goldberg, Bustle had between 40 million to 45 million unique monthly visitors from September through December, and January will be the most-trafficked month in the website’s history, bringing in roughly 55 million uniques. ComScore data also shows that Bustle traffic grew incrementally from September through December.
A publishing analyst who requested anonymity said that people are unusually attuned to media right now. So a rise in political coverage doesn’t necessarily negate attention that’s being driven to other categories.
Although Refinery29 has seen a big uptick in its political coverage, the political traffic has been additive to its lifestyle traffic, said Neha Gandhi, svp of content strategy and innovation.
“It’s not that our audience is less interested in style content, beauty tips, personal finance pieces or health and wellness coverage,” Gandhi said. “It’s that they are spending more aggregate time online consuming more content on our site, and that uptick is largely driven by political coverage.”
Cory Haik, chief strategy officer at Mic, said that within the last four to six months, Mic’s art vertical doubled its traffic and the tech vertical tripled its traffic. Haik said that part of the reason non-hard-news verticals have been able to maintain their growth is because Mic has continued to grow its overall audience by adopting new platforms. Aside from platform traffic stalwarts like Facebook and Twitter, Mic has expanded its reach through Instagram and Apple News, she said.
Sources speculated that media and marketing professionals in major metro areas might consume less entertainment and lifestyle content as they obsess over the current news cycle. But outside this bubble, user behavior might not change as much as insiders suspect. If the election has taught us anything, it is that the mainstream mass media is out of touch with how a large section of America lives and behaves. As one publishing exec noted, “It seems like every single person I know is covering a protest or at a protest in the last two weeks. But if you look at where our audiences are, it is very urban. Is there that much interest outside the cities for this political content? I don’t know.”
Unlike Mic, Bustle and Refinery29, LittleThings doesn’t cover politics at all. But the website has still maintained steady traffic, pulling in over 50 million visitors in December, according to comScore data. Maia McCann, LittleThings editor-in-chief, said that rather than competing with politics publishers for users, LittleThings can actually benefit from an unstable political climate since the website can be a respite for depressed users.
“Trump’s presidency and the resistance will continue to get headlines, as they should,” she said. “But after reading two or three articles on the national disaster that is Trump’s election to the presidency, people will want to be reminded of the good in the world.”