Are liberals overestimating the Facebook reach of rightwing media?

NewsWhip's data provides an interesting perspective, but not the whole picture.

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Are liberals overestimating the Facebook reach of rightwing media?

Judd Legum published some good analysis of why rightwing media outlets like The Daily Wire get so much engagement on Facebook. These publishers basically take reporting from mainstream news sources and repackage it with incendiary, right-wing headlines:

Nearly all of the top stories from The Daily Wire were aggregations of another news report, a tweet, or a video. Isolating the 27 top-performing Daily Wire stories that aggregated another news report, a clear pattern emerges. The Daily Wire takes another outlet's reporting, excerpts it, and gives it an inaccurate or incendiary spin.

For this minimal effort, The Daily Wire is rewarded with massive engagement on Facebook while the source of the journalism, quite often a local media outlet, gets a tiny fraction of engagement. Beyond distorting the content of the news, this dynamic has real financial consequences. The Daily Wire gets showered with traffic and the attendant advertising revenue while local outlets, who have to pay for the costs of the reporting, get practically nothing.

This is valuable reporting because it sheds light on how right wing media outlets can get significant reach on Facebook without investing huge resources into hiring writers. But I also think liberals tend to overestimate the amount of reach conservative outlets get on social media.

Whenever you see publishers ranked by their Facebook engagement, it’s usually through a service called NewsWhip. NewsWhip, as far as I can tell, only reports on metrics from public pages. This means that if I share a New York Times article within a private group or my own Facebook profile, there’s a good chance that my engagement isn’t getting recorded in NewsWhip’s data.

And that’s a huge thing to leave out. For the last several years Facebook has been decreasing the reach of Pages while at the same time increasing the reach of individual users and Groups. It’s probably safe to say that the majority of posts published on Facebook aren’t accounted for by NewsWhip’s API search.

***(UPDATE: Judd Legum replied to this by pointing to NewsWhip’s “data and ethics” page that states, "For Facebook, our engagement count is a sum of the Shares, Likes, Reactions, and Comments on a URL – on both public and private posts. This includes all activity by Pages, Groups, and users who share, comment, or react to the URL."

I actually did a fair amount of Googling looking for this information and for some reason could not find where they definitively said one way or the other. I did find a Twitter thread from the CEO where he seemed to acknowledge that their data only came from public pages, but maybe they've updated their approach since then. Either way, you should take my claims made above with a huge grain of salt).*** 

What’s more, simply adding up the number of Facebook comments, likes, or shares isn’t a good method for determining how many people click on an article link. I used to run the Facebook page of a major media outlet, and I was constantly amazed by how often an article would rack up more Facebook likes than views. 

This also explains why right wing pages tend to do so well in NewsWhip rankings. A conservative sees a headline that reinforces their own partisan outlook, and so they throw it a quick ‘like’ as they scroll past it. Partisan subjects are also more likely to instigate flame wars within the comments section. 

Some people respond to this argument with, “Well, it doesn’t matter if people actually click on the link as long as the conservative spin gets spread on Facebook, and posts with high engagement get more reach within the Newsfeed.”

Sure, but from what I’ve heard, one of the leading weights in the Facebook algorithm is the number of people who click on a link. In other words, Facebook values 100 link clicks above 100 post likes. So the public engagement data alone doesn’t necessarily correlate with reach.

So what would be the best way to compare how various publishers stack up against each other on Facebook? Well, it would require getting access to Facebook’s internal analytics. That way we could measure both link clicks AND total exposure within the platform.

Barring that, the next best thing would be to gain access to the web analytics accounts of individual publishers to see how many Facebook referrals they’re receiving. And my educated guess is that The New York Times receives a hell of a lot more Facebook traffic than The Daily Wire, even though NewsWhip ranks the former well below the latter.

My latest: Inside The Information's paywall strategy

When Jessica Lessin quit her job at The Wall Street Journal and launched The Information in 2013, digital subscription models were still a novel concept, and the few that did exist used a meter. The Information, on the other hand, instituted a hard paywall. I interviewed her about why she went that route.

Business Insider sets an arbitrary word limit on articles

Insider EiC Nicholas Carlson issued a memo last week mandating that all future articles should be under 600 words long. But is there sound data supporting this decision? Based on the reasoning he provided, I don’t think so. I wrote about it over here.

YouTube Shorts is minting brand new stars

Bloomberg wrote about YouTube’s aggressive efforts to compete with TikTok and how some brand new creators are really benefiting from this competition:

Canadian creator Thivi Baskar is one of Shorts’ growing number of successful converts. Before it came along, she primarily used TikTok to post her makeup tutorials — a category that wasn’t creating many new stars on YouTube despite its ubiquity. “It was just so saturated,” said Baskar, who has generated over 500 million views on Shorts and now ranks at the top of the beauty category by traffic on YouTube, according to her management firm Collab.

The rapid rise of previously unknown creators on Shorts has led some talent representatives to suggest that YouTube is tilting the scales to favor them. According to YouTube’s Sherman, the service’s algorithm isn’t biased toward newcomers. Instead, he said, the nature of short-form video allows YouTube to put a wider set of creators in front of viewers. Like TikTok, Shorts is designed on mobile devices for endless thumbing.

Given YouTube’s size, it can be extremely difficult for new users to gain traction on it, but for the first time in at least a half decade, the platform feels like the Wild West again where anyone can suddenly blow up. The only catch is you that you have to keep your videos under 60 seconds.

The Apple Tax never came for Patreon

For years, developers have been complaining about the iOS App Store’s 30% cut of all purchases, but for most consumers the entire debate seemed rather abstract. Most people simply don’t care about Apple’s squabbles with companies like Uber and Spotify.

But now that so many platforms are offering creator monetization tools? Suddenly, the idea of paying 30 cents of every dollar you generate to a monopolist tech platform that did virtually nothing to help you build your audience seems pretty absurd.

A lot of platforms get around this by not allowing in-app purchases. Substack, for instance, doesn’t even have a mobile app (as far as I know), and Spotify will push people onto Anchor’s website to drive podcast subscriptions. I assumed Patreon operated under the same approach, but it turns out it was simply exempted from the Apple Tax for some reason:

Patreon has been one of the odd exceptions to the rule. The platform’s iOS app has been able to accept payments outside of Apple’s in-app purchase system, which lets the company walk around that 30 percent cut. [CEO Jack Conte] suggests this may be allowed because users don’t come to Patreon to discover creators and content. “A lot of the actual engagement is happening on other platforms ... So it’s just not the primary behavior that’s happening on Patreon,” Conte said. The Verge has reached out to Apple for comment.

This is a strange carve-out and also seems like a looming threat to Patreon's business. What happens if Apple decides one day to start enforcing the 30% tax?

The Economist surpasses 1 million subscribers

The Economist joins the vaunted 1 Million Subscriber Club and has an operating profit of £41.8m. That's a pretty good business.

The majority of new subscribers were digital-only and Minton Beddoes said a “rapid improvement in our digital capabilities” is planned and much-needed. Some of the brand’s own products including its website and apps were “laggards”, she said, adding: “That is now changing fast.”

The Economist website homepage has been redesigned and its Espresso daily news briefing app has been upgraded. Other digital investment has gone into new newsletters and interactive data journalism while a “future customer experience” platform was designed to “transform and improve the subscriber experience and increase engagement and retention”.

Apple News+ still doesn’t appear to be a huge hit

Press Gazette published some audience reach numbers for outlets within Apple News+. I wouldn't say these are eye-popping numbers, especially when you consider the size of Apple's brand.

Can Axios’s local news model scale beyond cities?

In a Press Gazette interview, Axios's CEO hints he eventually wants to launch newsletters in smaller communities outside large cities.

“There’s no doubt in the 50-100 biggest markets that there are more than enough readers on a daily basis to make it a very viable product funded by advertising.

“Once you get to smaller communities, I hope that’s the case. I believe that’s the case. And, at some point, we’ll test that there’s a very viable model there as well.” …

… “I think the fundamental principles that work here would work in any local community. People care about what’s happening with politics or business or technology, or what you should do and see, in any city or town that they live in.

ICYMI: How The Daily Show reinvented itself for the social media age

Trevor Noah doesn't care if you watch the show on your TV or your phone.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.