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Why Hard News Is Thriving on Facebook

By Kieran Dahl January 25th, 2016

If you want people to share your content on Facebook right now, make listicles about politics, gun control, and the environment. Might I suggest “10 Gazillion Guns That the President Must Control to Save the Environment”?

That’s one key takeaway from a recent NewsWhip report on Facebook engagement. While most people expect animal videos to rule the News Feed, many of December’s most popular Facebook stories were about pressing, polarizing issues on both a global (climate change, refugees) and national (America’s gun epidemic, Flint’s water crisis) scale. With the circus of a presidential race sparking heated discussions across social media, it’s no wonder that these issues, all focal points of Democratic and Republican platforms, are getting widespread attention.

Breaking-news stories and opinionated follow-ups drove high levels of engagement for nearly every publisher. At The New York Times, for example, the biggest story of December was a front-page editorial calling for greater gun control regulations; it was published in the wake of the San Bernardino, Calif., mass shooting, the latest “slaughter of innocents,” as the Times calls it. The Washington Post‘s most-shared stories were about the aforementioned Flint water crisis and a freak storm at the North Pole. The BBC’s biggest stories, meanwhile, were also about breaking news, such as the death of Motorhead guitarist Lemmy.

In addition to the biggest names in news, there were also a few other surprising publishers that snuck into the top 25 last month. Goal, a soccer news and community site, came in sixth place, while MTV (remember MTV?) was in 21st place. The Hill, a U.S. political site led by former Gawker viral star Neetzan Zimmerman, had the biggest year-over-year web traffic growth of all U.S. publishers, reaching 19th place.

Digital-media heavyweights, namely the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed, still rule the world in terms of social shares. Their status as the most engaged publishers on Facebook—each got around 30 million Facebook engagements in December—is as perpetual as it is expected. Both founded by Jonah Peretti, who seems to understand the Internet like no one else, HuffPo and BuzzFeed are known for creating content that’s optimized to spread through the social web. BuzzFeed optimizes its headlines and images through heavy A/B testing, and it even has its own terrifically complex technology that tracks how content spreads in a tangled web from its original sharer to other channels.

With The Washington Post now publishing all its stories—more than 1,200 per day—on Instant Articles, one has to wonder what influence that decision has had on the publication’s stellar Facebook performance as of late. The Post was the 14th most engaged publisher on Facebook in December, but came in ninth in terms of shares.

The Biggest Sites On Facebook, December 2015

In October, the Post even leapfrogged The New York Times in online traffic for the first time. Much of its growth likely comes from a robust social media strategy that includes Snapchat and Apple News, but perhaps its most notable distribution channel has been Instant Articles. The Post‘s Facebook traffic rose from 43 percent to nearly 50 percent of its social referrals from May to October. And if more readers keep looking for their news on Facebook, don’t be surprised if other serious publishers continue to see big jumps in engagement throughout 2016.

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