October 30, 2006

How Online Users Share the Day’s News

Hard news Soft news
AOL 10 5
Yahoo! 8 7
NY Times 8 7
Fox 7 8

When you see the list of stories on news websites called “most emailed,” what is it people are sending to one another?

PEJ surveyed the most emailed stories on four sites over the course of a week – AOL News, Yahoo! News, and the New York Times and Fox News sites – and found that the answer is divided, from the serious, to the practical, with a healthy dose of the odd and absurd.

Nearly half of the items (45%) were about soft, feature-oriented topics including lifestyle and the just-plain unusual.

The other 55% of the most frequently forwarded stories dealt with so-called “hard news” –subjects that ranged from scientific findings to court rulings to political maneuvering.

The “most emailed” stories online aren’t necessarily an indication of all the news that people are reading. But they do offer some sense of what people want to talk about. To get a look these news-sharing habits, PEJ looked at the top-five most emailed stories each day on those four highly trafficked websites from Oct 24-26. For our purposes, hard news included stories about government, international affairs, science and technology and breaking news events. Soft news was classified as features or stories about culture, entertainment and human interest stories.

On the softer side of the news, the story “Toddler Gets Stuck in Vending Machine” was among the most popular. It topped the most-emailed list for Yahoo! on Oct. 25, sent almost 2,000 times, and came in second on the AOL site the following day. Another story apparently worth sharing—about how vegetables make your brain young—was emailed more than 5,000 times on Yahoo! on Oct. 24. Other stories that generated plenty of email traffic dealt with eyelash transplants, the search for the “hottest mom in America,” and how to make a good salad dressing.

The hard news topic that proved most popular was the controversy created when Rush Limbaugh’s questioned the authenticity of Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s symptoms and criticized him for making a political commercial. The New Jersey Supreme Court decision allowing same sex unions was also forwarded frequently as was the news, delivered via a government report, that a bachelor’s degree is “worth $23,000 a year.”

In drawing distinctions between the sites, Fox News users were most interested in sharing soft news, with eight out of the 15 top emailed stories over the three-day period falling in that category. AOL news readers, on the other hand, were least interested in forwarding soft news stories. Only 33% of the most emailed stories reflecting the lighter side of the news. New York Times and Yahoo! readers fell in between, emailing slightly more hard news stories than soft news pieces.

If the most emailed feature on a website is the online equivalent of the proverbial water cooler conversation, what does it tell us about how journalists might engage the public? The answer, at least from this snapshot, is not so simple. Yes, people like snacking on lighter fare, but they also want to talk about things that involve politics, science, morality and more.