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A nation of news consumption hypocrites

The news and information that U.S. adults actually read doesn't always match up with the topics they claim they want covered more, according to data from traffic analytics company Parse.ly and an Axios/SurveyMonkey poll.

Data: Axios/SurveyMonkey poll, Parse.ly; Note: Media, celebrity, local news and transportation topics were not tracked by both data sets and were omitted from analysis; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The big picture: Entertainment and emotionally charged topics over-index on how much they are read vs. readers' stated coverage preferences. More academic, less personality-driven issues end up getting read less.

By the numbers: Demand is defined as the total number of views for a topic divided by the number of articles written about that topic.

  • According to traffic data pulled from Parse.ly's 2000+ publisher member sites for the month of May, demand is highest for news about politics and government, followed by sports and immigration.
  • But while the demand for those topics is high, most consumers said in an Axios/SurveyMonkey poll that they want more news about health care, followed by climate/environment and education. Respectively, those topics ranked 7th, 5th and 11th out of more than a dozen topics in terms of demand.
  • Similarly, only 5% of total U.S. adults surveyed said they want more sports coverage, but sports has the third-highest demand, according to Parse.ly.

Be smart: This behavior is a symptom of our era of passive news consumption: When news is sprinkled into our social media feeds and accessed in other on-the-go environments, the items that will satisfy us in that moment will be the ones that get clicked.

  • An acknowledgement of important topics for coverage doesn't translate to real reading behaviors, which tend to be less holistically considered and more spontaneous.
  • It's easy to blame the media for overblown media coverage, but it's only half to blame. Publishers have to respond to what people actually read — not what they say they want.
  • It's also important to note that individual topics will vary in interest from month-to-month based on the news cycle. Interest in a topic like national security can depend on how close it runs to other wrought issues, like the role of the president in the issue or a specific storyline.

The big picture: Media companies struggling to find their footing are looking for ways to better connect with consumers. This involves finding new verticals and topics to write about, as well as more innovative ways to cover traditional topics.

Our thought bubble: Successful subscription models are able to sidestep the traffic trap of covering easy-gratification topics for clicks by reaching audiences in more intentional consumption environments — newsletters, magazines and streaming services.