What causes some stories to catch fire on social media while others fall flat? Is it determined by indefinable qualities, or are there some elements that can be understood and controlled?

According to new academic research published in Journalism Studies, the topic of the news and the social media platform play influential roles in how much news content gets shared.

Marco Toledo Bastos, author of the research and a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy at the University of California at Davis, analyzed articles and social sharing from The New York Times and The Guardian for the first two weeks of October 2012. His results show that some topics attract more social attention than others.

Looking across 18 different news categories, Bastos tracked how many articles the newspapers publish online in each category and how often articles in each category circulate via social media. He found that the topics that spark attention on Facebook differ from those that catch people’s attention on Twitter.

For The New York Times, opinion pieces garner the most attention on Facebook. Of all Facebook shares of Times content, 31 percent are opinion pieces. World articles are the next most shared at 10 percent. On Twitter, national news is the most retweeted; of all retweeted Times content, 22 percent is national news, followed by opinion pieces at 14 percent. At The Guardian, opinion, world and entertainment content lead in both Facebook shares and retweets on Twitter.

Several categories appear proportionally more in the online versions of The New York Times than they do on Facebook and Twitter: world, economy and sports. Although 56 percent of news articles published on The New York Times site are from these three categories, only 25 percent of retweets and 18 percent of shares are from these news categories. Bastos speculates that these differences appear because of the sorts of people who engage with news via social media. For instance, younger audiences that flock to social media may be less interested in the economy and international affairs.

[pulldata context=”At The New York Times, national news is the most retweeted on Twitter with 22%.” align=right]

Some articles also account for more social media sharing than they do for the total amount of content on a news site. Here, opinion content sticks out. Opinion pieces make up a greater share of news content on social media than they do on the two news sites Bastos analyzed.

To obtain the data, Bastos first queried the newspapers’ APIs to obtain all news articles available from the first two weeks of October 2012. It is important to note that this was at the height of the U.S. presidential election, and it is not clear whether the results would remain the same during different time periods. He retrieved 11,607 unique articles from The New York Times and 5,222 from The Guardian. Using the URLs of the articles, Bastos then queried social media APIs, including the most popular social sites, Facebook and Twitter. Using these datasets, he was able to compare the news articles published by The New York Times and The Guardian to articles circulated on social media.

On average, articles from The New York Times were retweeted 39 times and shared 445 times on Facebook. Articles from The Guardian were retweeted an average of 50 times and shared 190 times per article on Facebook.

Bastos’ results provide insight for news organizations interested in social sharing. If a news organization generates lots of articles about the economy and these stories yield low rates of social sharing, the organization could focus its attention on increasing share rates for these articles. Alternatively, if sports does not generate much social traffic, the organization could consider cutting back on sports coverage. Importantly, Bastos notes that social is but one of many sources of traffic and value — even if economic coverage doesn’t generate a proportional social return, it may still attract an important audience outside of social media.

Bastos’ snapshot of social media traffic provides insight into social sharing at two news organizations. His technique is particularly valuable because it can be used by other news organizations to identify promising social topics and monitor the performance of various news categories on social media.

Share of all articles Twitter retweets Facebook shares
World 20% 11% 10%
Economy 20% 10% 4%
National 16% 22% 9%
Sports 16% 4% 4%
Arts 6% 6% 9%
Politics 5% 5% 6%
Opinion 3% 14% 31%
Local News 3% 4% 6%
Technology 2% 7% 2%
Lifestyle 2% 4% 3%
Entertainment 2% 3% 6%

Data Source: Marco Toledo Bastos, "Shares, Pins, and Tweets: News Readership from Daily Papers to Social Media," Journalism Studies
Topics with 1% or fewer news articles (health, science, fashion, cars, tourism, jobs and education) not shown.

American Press Institute

Next steps

Scholars and news organizations interested in continuing this line of research could collaborate to analyze:

  • Beyond the article topic, what other article characteristics influence the rate of social sharing?
  • How well do these results apply beyond The New York Times and The Guardian?
  • How much variability is there in these results over time — have news organizations changed their practices to publish more articles that are socially shared?


Marco Toledo Bastos (2015) Shares, Pins, and Tweets: News Readership from Daily Papers to Social Media, Journalism Studies, 16(3), 305-325, doi: 10.1080/1461670X.2014.891857

Research Review is a monthly series highlighting useful news-related findings from scholarly research papers. It is written by Natalie Jomini Stroud, associate professor of communication studies, assistant director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, and director of the Engaging News Project at the University of Texas at Austin. We hope this series will bring new insights to working journalists, as well as spark ideas among academics with an interest in researching the news.

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