US POLITICS

Trump Fatigue Online? Not So Fast

Trump coverage doesn't translate to clicks, but that misses the point

US POLITICS
Donald Trump, overexposed? — REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
May 27, 2016 at 1:23 PM ET

Television news covers Donald Trump because, aside from his general newsworthiness, viewers tune in. To wit: CBS chief Les Moonves proclaimed the presumptive Republican nominee’s success “damn good” for his network. But Trump’s bump doesn’t necessarily apply to online audiences. 

In a post on its blog, the media analytics company Parse.ly (disclaimer: Vocativ uses their traffic analytics tools) combed through “more than one billion page views across more than 100,000 articles” to gauge which candidates received the most media attention. They find that, unsurprisingly, Trump has received as much coverage as Clinton, Sanders, Cruz, and Kasich combined. Perhaps more surprising is their finding that “The average number of page views for an article on Donald Trump is very similar to the average number of page views” for the rest of these current and former candidates (besides Kasich, who earned significantly less clicks per article). 

These are interesting numbers! If Trump coverage doesn’t guarantee more clicks than that of other candidates, why would digital media cover him so much more? Parse.ly’s analysis, however, seems to miss out on a few possible explanations for its findings.

Let’s take the Parse.ly report in pieces.

On average, an article on Hillary Clinton receives six percent more page views than an article on Trump. Thus, Trump does not appear to be driving revenue.

Clicks per article is not the only way online media outlets make cash. Revenue strategies vary and may include any combination of subscriptions, sponsored content, pledging allegiance to a billionaire benefactor, and prayer. Even so, Parse.ly’s analysis says Trump is the topic of 50 percent of all articles written about presidential candidates. So if it were true that “clicks for cash” was the prevailing revenue strategy, he would still be driving the most revenue from presidential candidate coverage. The post argues that because the top four candidates received the same clicks per article about them, that those same clicks would maintain if there were an equal number of articles about every candidate. Maybe? But we don’t have proof that would be true.

Parse.ly data clearly shows that online media is not providing equal coverage to candidates, as one might expect if it were trying to live up to the ideals of our democratic society. This may come as no surprise.

Indeed it is no surprise. All candidates are not made equal, and Donald Trump is a special case. He requires new explanations, and online media provides a wonderful way to work through them. He also says things that violate the rules that apply to other candidates. Sometimes they’re entertaining. So it’s no surprise he attracts more attention than other candidates. Covering him more than other candidates might even be viewed as a responsibility.

Trump’s scandalous behavior produces soundbite after soundbite, and journalists — racing to post the latest story — are letting their readers down by allowing non-events to dictate their coverage. The media’s focus on Trump has not benefit [sic] either readers or publishers.

When Trump says crazy things and we report it. According to Parse.ly’s numbers, it makes good business sense. 

This analysis demonstrates that Trump coverage may not be so necessary, and that editors and journalists should let data, rather than  ‘gut feelings,’ guide their decisions about future coverage.

These “gut feelings” might otherwise be known as editorial judgment. Different sites develop different voices and tones, different ways of sifting through what they see. Data (like Parse.ly’s) can certainly inform editorial judgment, but it cannot replace it. Some things get covered more than others, because some things matter more. Even if those things have an impossible plan to make Mexico pay for a border-length wall.