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Sex, Scandals, and Celebrities”: Exploring the Determinants of Popularity in Online News.

Abstract:

What kinds of articles are read most often on news websites? In web newsrooms, journalists now have access to software programs that allow them to track the preferences of their readers in real time. Based on this data, web journalists often claim that “sex, scandals, and celebrities” are the best recipe for attracting readers and “clicks.” Conversely, journalists assert that articles on world news, politics, and culture fare poorly online. Journalists also strongly distinguish between groups of readers, depending on whether they “click,” “like,” “tweet,” or write comments. This paper compares qualitative material and quantitative data to explore whether journalists’ representations of their “quantified audience” diverge from the actual behavior of their readers. Drawing on an original data set composed of 13,159 articles published between 2007 and 2012 on a French news site, I find that articles about sex, scandals, and celebrities indeed attract more readers than articles about world news or culture. Yet articles about politics, long articles, and user-generated contributions are also highly popular. In addition, the preferences of readers vary depending on whether one measures this by the number of “clicks,” “likes,” “tweets,” or comments on the articles. Though regression models do not reveal significant differences, a more qualitative approach indicates that the most popular articles on Facebook and Twitter are humorous pieces and user-generated contributions, whereas controversial political topics attract more comments. I propose several explanations in order to make sense of this gap between the journalists’ representations and the behavior of online readers. These involve the editorial line and audience of the French website under consideration, the changing political context and media coverage of politics in France, and the specific temporal structure of internet traffic for longer articles.