Coronavirus coverage has led to a huge boost in engagement for some publishers

March 25, 2020

Written by Benedict Nicholson

The coronavirus pandemic has led people to turn to the publishers they trust for information. We looked at the engagement data around it.

You may have read Kevin Roose and Gabriel Dance’s excellent piece in The New York Times on Monday about the sheer amount of traffic publishers are seeing from Facebook as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. 

One of the positive effects of this is that people are turning to news organizations that they trust to get news of the crisis. This is something we had also noted in terms of the most engaged publishers in the last month writing about the pandemic.

COVID-19 content engagement overall 

As we noted in our report on the matter, published last week, coronavirus has seen unprecedented levels of coverage and engagement.  Below we compare it to the amount of engagement that coverage of President Trump and Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden received. Trump and Biden would traditionally be extremely engaging, especially in an election year. 

Facebook engagements to web articles about coronavirus, Trump, and Biden in 2020

It’s not even close. Coronavirus has been well ahead of both in terms of engagement since the week of February 24th, and dwarfs any peaks that coverage of the two politicians has received this year. That peak for Trump the week of February 3rd was the week he was acquitted by the Senate in his impeachment trial. The small jump in the yellow line was Joe Biden’s Super Tuesday victory. 

So let’s broaden it out.  In the month of March, coronavirus has been mentioned in 2.6 million of the 10.1 million articles in the English language in our database, and these articles have been responsible for 1.88 billion of the 3.94 billion engagements that content has received. That means coronavirus content has been responsible for about 26 percent of the English language content, and responsible for roughly 48% of the engagement. 

This lines up well with the Times’ report that “as of Thursday, more than half the articles being consumed on Facebook in the United States were related to the coronavirus, according to an internal report obtained by The New York Times.”  Let’s look at it on a publisher level, as that’s also something covered in the report. 

Engagements for specific publishers

The Times piece points out that a number of publishers have seen particular elevations in traffic from Facebook during the coronavirus crisis. Examples of this include big publishers that people trust, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC News, CNN, and The Atlantic.  Some of these publishers had a 100 percent plus increase in clicks on their Facebook links compared to the same period in the previous month, according to the article. Let’s see what that looks like in terms of engagement to all of their content this year, up until Sunday the 22nd of March. 

Facebook engagements for selected publishers in 2020

Graph of engagement for the five high-performing publishers in 2020

As the above graph shows, there has been a significant increase in the engagement of all of these publishers.

CNN and NBC News (plus its affiliate local news) have seen the most dramatic rises in engagements, both receiving more engagements last week than most publishers receive in a month.

The effect was perhaps most striking for The Atlantic, who had a peak of 7 million engagements to their content the week of March 9th, double any of their other most engaged weeks from the year. In 2019, no single week of content from The Atlantic received more than 2 million engagements on Facebook, so the difference is remarkable.

But what does that look like in terms of the top content for the year? 

Top content in 2020 across New York Times, Washington Post, NBC, CNN, and The Atlantic

The New York Times’ top article of the year was their in-depth piece about the man who purchased 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer and ended up with nowhere to sell them. Not all of the top articles were to do with the virus, however, with only three of the top ten articles being about the subject explicitly. The rest were mostly political, focusing either on the President’s impeachment trial or the Democratic primary.  The top ten stories from the NYT in 2020 by engagement For The Washington Post, the story was similar, with only two of the top stories actually being about COVID-19. These were, however, the outlet’s top two articles in terms of engagement for the whole year. Their article modeling the spread of the virus and the importance of social distancing is actually the most engaged article about the topic to date, with some 6 million engagements and counting. The top ten stories from the Washington Post in 2020 by engagement For NBC the top story was again about the virus, though with more of a political angle, looking at the Senate’s failure to pass any form of relief bill on the first day of negotiations. The publisher also generally had more of their top articles be about the disease, with half of the top ten being on the topic.  The top ten stories from NBC in 2020 by engagement CNN meanwhile, was the only one of these mainstream publications to not have a coronavirus adjacent story be its most engaged of the year. For CNN, that accolade went to the story of a five year old saving his sister and family dog from a fire, which received some 2.5 million engagements. Their most engaged story about the virus was covering Scholastic’s decision to make materials available to kids for free to ease the burden of the current lockdown.  The top ten stories from CNN in 2020 by engagement For The Atlantic, while it may not be obvious from the title, the top piece is about the US response to the coronavirus pandemic, and how the author views it as an indictment of the Trump presidency.  This was the most engaged piece from The Atlantic by some distance, with some 3.5 million engagements on Facebook. The essays “Who Gets the Hospital Bed?”,  ‘Cancel Everything”, and “The Worst Outcome” are all also about the virus, as of course is the one that deals with the Italian experience of the outbreak. This means that the virus was responsible for half of the most engaged stories that The Atlantic has written this year. The top ten stories from the Atlantic in 2020 by engagement In summary, then, the engagement data firmly backs up the work done by The New York Times. Publishers have seen a huge boost in engagement due to the unprecedented levels of coverage and attention it is seeing. And the good news is that people are turning to trusted, well-sourced publications in the content that they are sharing with their networks and with which they are engaging.

We’re writing a daily COVID-19 briefing, where we predict the stories and narratives that are going to drive the conversation each day. You can sign up here.

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Benedict Nicholson

In addition to leading the NewsWhip Research Center in New York, Benedict Nicholson manages partnerships with internationally recognized media outlets furthering data journalism, which includes NewsWhip’s Data for Democracy program. Benedict also facilitates consultations with communicators from the top 10 public relations agencies across America and Europe and with Fortune 500 brands to discuss consumer engagement trends and effective media monitoring. Email Benedict via

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