Worrying about America: What people read when things get serious

Blendle’s most-read during the RNC and DNC

We live in extraordinary times. And it’s easy to be distracted by a 24-hour news cycle that allows us little time to reflect on what’s actually happening. This was true-as-ever during the U.S. conventions earlier this month, with a constantly whirring schedule of speeches, briefings, and fringe events. But on Blendle, people took a step back to see the bigger picture.

Among our most popular stories during the RNC and DNC, the amount of political stories spiked, as you’d expect. But the four political stories that made it into our most-read top 10 had one distinct characteristic — they were about Trump, Trump’s family, and the RNC. Clinton and the DNC were not the subject of any story in our top 10 during those two weeks, even though Blendle editors surfaced and recommended stories on both candidates in equal measure. No sign of Trump fatigue here.

Those most-read stories also revealed something about the type of convention coverage you were looking for. Our #1 story of the two weeks was Newsweek’s Donald Trump Can Win, Really — an exploration of polling and population change explaining how the numbers could actually work in Trump’s favor come November, away from the hysteria. Coming in a close second was The Atavist’s Biased and Phony Media Descend on Cleveland to Cover Very Tremendous Convention — an offbeat, heavily satirical series of daily dispatches from the Quicken Loans Arena that offered an insight into the dark, unscrupulous, and downright farcical underbelly of political conventions.

There was also The New York Times’ inside account of Melania Trump’s speech fiasco, How Melania Trump Sent Speech Veering Off Course. And bringing up the rear was TIME’s cover story, What A President Needs to Know — an interview with Trump on the subject of his “presidential literacy”. As I discussed in my last Medium post on what people read when they’re paying for news, each of these four pieces provides a unique viewpoint or insight into the conventions away from the 24-hour cycle of breaking stories, that helps voters make sense of the news and perhaps ultimately inform their vote.

But what if we look closer, at a state by state level, at some of those areas predicted to be crucial battlegrounds this November — could that tell us something more? Using the New York Times’ live poll of polls tracker, we compared some of the swing states’ average margins with their most popular stories on Blendle during the conventions.

In those states where the average margin between Clinton and Trump is less than 3%, we saw some similarities in the most popular stories. For example, in New Hampshire and Florida, where Hillary leads with an average margin of 1.2% and 1.3% respectively, the most popular story was the previously-mentioned Times’ analysis of How Melania Trump’s Speech Veered Off Course. The same was true in Georgia, where Trump leads with an average of 2.6%. And in North Carolina (+2.3% Clinton) and Ohio (+0.2% Clinton), the most popular story was Newsweek’s Donald Trump Can Win, Really. We don’t have data on the political persuasion of the people reading these stories, but in those places where the race is tightest, it seems people wanted to read about how the Trump campaign may have been damaged by Melania’s “borrowing” (of equal interest to both Trump and Clinton supporters), and how close this fight really could be. Makes sense.

In Pennsylvania and Virginia where Clinton’s average lead sits slightly higher (+3.5% and +3.8% respectively) the most popular story was The Atavist’s Biased and Phony Media Descend on Cleveland to Cover Very Tremendous Convention. Clinton has polled ahead pretty consistently in these states, and readers appear to have turned to something that sends up the Trump campaign — perhaps searching for reassurance about their choice.

And then we come to Wisconsin, where Clinton’s average margin sits at 7%, and the most popular story was something that has not featured in this discussion so far: The Economist’s searing leader, The Dividing of America — on how Trump’s nomination “will put a thriving country at risk of a great, self-inflicted wound”. The Times’ tracker shows Clinton has led in state polls here since January, but her margin has narrowed in recent weeks — and Wisconsin readers appear to be contemplating the weight of their decision.

We can’t know for certain what drives people’s reading choices around a particular subject without focus groups or in depth interviews. But as the most bitterly fought election in a generation heats up, it’s interesting to see which stories Blendle users are choosing to inform their political nous, what subjects they feel so strongly about that they will pay to read them, and examine these reading patterns in a wider context.

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