In a recent interview, New York Times audience-development editor Alex MacCallum talked about the newspaper’s experiments with social and search optimization, but said that she didn’t see the Times as being in the same line of work as BuzzFeed — which she said was “chasing clicks.” I argued in a response that the Times actually is in the same business, in the sense that it needs to understand how social sharing is rapidly becoming the way in which people find content, whether from the Times or anywhere else.
The newspaper clearly understands this: not only did it create the job of audience-development editor and hire former Huffington Post staffer MacCallum to fill it, but the Times paywall has a social media “pass-through” that gives users of Twitter and other networks a free pass to read an article. The paper also laid out the necessity of social engagement around its stories in its widely-leaked internal innovation report, which noted:
In my post, I argued that when it comes to understanding and taking advantage of social, BuzzFeed is clearly winning — and some data collected by the media-industry news site The Media Briefing shows just how much it is winning by. The site used collected sharing information from the service BuzzSumo, which tracked how many people shared articles from some of the major publishers, including the New York Times and BuzzFeed, during a week in November.
According to the data, the average number of shares for an article posted on BuzzFeed (that is, the total number of shares divided by the total number of articles) was almost 8,000. The median — which means the number of shares in the exact middle of the sample, where half the examples are on the higher side and half on the lower side — was almost 1,000.
And the New York Times? The average number of shares per article for that week in November was about 800, or 10 times fewer than BuzzFeed. But since the average can be distorted by one or two pieces that get huge numbers of shares, it’s more instructive to look at the median: here, the Times saw just 11 shares per article, compared with almost 1,000 for BuzzFeed. That’s two orders of magnitude, or 100 times smaller.
Simon Owens argued in a response to my post (as did many people who argued with me on Twitter) that the New York Times and BuzzFeed aren’t in the same business at all, because the Times has a paywall, and so it wants people to pay for its content, and that means it has to have a different strategy. I don’t believe it’s as different as Owens and others think it is, however — if you want to find new readers, paying or not, you had better understand how social distribution works. And the Times needs to step up its game: look at the proportion of articles described in the chart below as “unnoticed.”
Note: After this post was published, several people — including former NYT developer Michael Donohoe — pointed out that the sharing stats on the Times could be negatively affected by the amount of wire-service copy the paper puts on its site, which is estimated to make up as much as 75 percent of its published content. Virtually none of it would likely be shared, so that would tend to push the NYT’s sharing ratio down.