What were the top news stories of 2015 that captured the attention of the public? How do readers discover these and what are the main traffic sources that helped catapult some news stories to the top, while buried others in cyberspace. A new report published for the period January-October 2015 by Parse.ly, a web analytics provider for digital publishers, analyses these issues and more.
In October, Facebook remains ahead of Google as the top source of referral traffic to Parse.ly’s network of nearly 400 digital publishers. It was ahead in July too. As of October 2015, Facebook claims 39.3% of the referral traffic versus Google’s share of 34.0%.
Here are the seven news topics of 2015 that the report identified. Parse.ly clarifies that the November Paris attacks are not part of the report as they took place outside of the report’s research period (January 2015-October 2015).
In order to arrive at the most popular news topics of 2015, Parse.ly looked at the top 100 stories each from top 100 digital publishers in their network.
This was the top news topic of the year. On 7 January 2015, Charlie Hebdo, a weekly satire magazine based in France, was the target of a terrorist attack that resulted in the death of 12 people, including the newspaper’s editor and several contributors.
Readers chose to navigate directly to this news on publisher websites about this topic more than any other story that Parse.ly examined. As the story developed, searching and sharing increased. At its peak, the Parse.ly network, which includes more than 400 digital publishers, published more than 1,300 posts in one day on the subject.
The second spike in interest in Charlie Hebdo coincided with an attack in Denmark in February, and was primarily driven by social media (Facebook and Twitter). In the month following the attack, social referrals brought in 53% more traffic than search on Google and Yahoo, among others.
Though coverage on this story continued throughout the year, social and search traffic didn’t contribute to the readership later as much as it did during the initial event.
Bobbi Kristina Brown
The daughter of performers Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston was found unresponsive in a bathtub on 31 January 2015. She was kept in a medically induced coma for several months, but died on 26 July 2015. According to the report, the main source of traffic for this topic came from search engines to social networks over the course of the year. Search engines generated a majority of traffic initially, but social traffic soon took over with 54.9% of the overall referral traffic.
Interestingly, reader interest in Brown continued for a full month—longer than any of the other top topics in the report. When Brown woke up from her coma in April, readers predominantly shared the story via social. However, it did not attract the same level of interest as her death.
Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and Manny Pacquiao
The much anticipated professional boxing match between Mayweather and Pacquiao on 2 May 2015 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas came in as the third-most read story. While interest around the match peaked on fight day, it had been building long before the event—with 66.4% of readers finding articles via search engines. Social networks took over shortly after the match ended, though overall interest declined significantly.
In June 2015, Rachel Dolezal resigned from her position as president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter in Spokane, Washington, after her white parents announced that their daughter was a white woman passing as black. The readership for this event was largely driven by social media, with 71.1% of referral traffic to publisher sites coming from social sites and only 28.9% coming in from search.
The story initially caused a spike in page views when Dolezal’s parents confirmed that she was a white woman. The second spike happened when Dolezal participated in several interviews and issued a statement trying to clarify her position.
Cecil the Lion
On 1 July 2015, Cecil the Lion, a Southwest African lion living in Zimbabwe, was killed by an American hunter named Walter Palmer. Although Palmer had a permit, the killing drew international media attention and sparked outrage among animal conservationists. The “Cecil the Lion" story attracted readers through social media, and heavy interest lasted around 20 days.
This topic is a prime example of news stories going “viral". The story had no connection to any larger national trends or breaking news stories but became national news by eliciting an emotional reaction and causing outrage—two of the reasons why stories go “viral". Viral pieces being one-hit wonders, predictably the follow-up wave of media coverage around Cecil the Lion was much less as compared to the initial coverage.
Ashley Madison data breach
The dating website was hacked in July. The hackers stole the emails, names, home addresses and credit card information of Ashley Madison customers, threatening to post it online if the site was not permanently closed. While the topic did attract a significant amount of social referrals, the majority of traffic came from search engines. Parse.ly’s hypothesis is that the amoral subject matter was something that people wanted to read about, but did not want to share on their social networks publicly. If this was indeed the case, then the Ashley Madison story is a good example of how psychology plays a role in shaping media traffic.
Another story that went viral was that of 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed who was arrested at MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas, for allegedly bringing a bomb to school on 14 September 2015. The “bomb" turned out to be an electronic clock that he had built himself, yet Mohamed was suspended from school for three days. The news caused social outrage, which led to national attention to a local story which then went viral. There was virtually no organic traffic coming from search engines about this topic. Of the popular topics in 2015, this one experienced the shortest lifespan, with almost all media coverage dropping off in November.