While publishers may still be struggling to establish sustainable business models to support themselves, the content they create can have a remarkable impact on public discourse in this country and elsewhere. That’s true even for content from small publishers, according to a new study published in Science.
The study, led by Harvard professor Gary King, set out to quantify the impact of news media on public life by tracking the volume and quality of sentiment on social media. To help control for audience exposure, the researchers collaborated with an alliance of independent news outlets, the Media Consortium, originally focusing on a small group of participants before expanding the study.
Overall, the researchers worked with 48 news outlets, 60% recruited through the consortium, who agreed to publish pieces addressing the same policy areas at the same time, in subjects they normally address, such as immigration, abortion and climate change.
The publishers, with a median audience of 50,000 subscribers, agreed to subjects and schedule, but retained total control of what was published.
After 35 experimental runs, the study analyzed Twitter activity around the subjects before and after the coverage. Among other findings, they discovered just a few small news outlets covering a particular subject with policy implications caused the volume of discourse on social media about the same subject to spike by 19% over the average daily volume the following day.
That increased to 63% over the course of a week.
The findings are encouraging, in part because they suggest small publishers can still cut through the noise despite their size. In fact, the study found that smaller, independent news outlets may have a special advantage over bigger peers.
Their audiences – while smaller – also tend to be more committed and engaged with the subjects they report on — and more likely to share it aggressively.