The Mirror jumped from 12th to 3rd in a monthly ranking of global publishers’ Facebook engagement.
It was behind only Ben Shapiro’s US conservative news website Daily Wire, which was in first place throughout 2021 and had 35.8m Facebook engagements in December, and the Daily Mail, which had 28.5m and has been in second place for every data release since April.
Reach’s nationals audience director Ben Rankin put this down to investment in the social team which meant more time and space to create custom Facebook content and think about how to sell the 90-odd posts handpicked for the Mirror’s main page every day.
He told Press Gazette: “Time and space isn’t something that digital journalism gets a lot of and it just shows that it can really help when you allow people who are really good at what they do just to have a bit more time to do it.”
Although publishers' Facebook performance can vary wildly month by month, Rankin said: "It's a good indicator of the health of our offering, that we're we're doing well in this area, but there are also other areas that we have to be mindful of."
He added that the ranking "bodes well" as Reach is focusing on cultivating loyal audiences: "The more engaged our readers are with our content, the better because I think it shines a light as much on the content that we're producing as it does the relationships that we've got with the likes of Facebook and others."
Reach has a social team of 30 working on its national newsbrands (Mirror, Express and Star). Although the team has expanded in other areas, Reach has put the boost in Facebook engagement largely down to growing the number of social video journalists from one to four since September, giving them time to create more custom Facebook video packages rather than simply, for example, uploading wire clips.
Rankin said already The Mirror is already putting out twice the amount of video on Facebook since September with six times the number of views.
Facebook native video performance is not itself included in the Newswhip rankings however, as only likes, shares, and comments to web content count.
Reach, the UK's biggest national and regional publisher, cut about 550 roles – around 12% of its workforce - in the summer of 2020 as many media organisations reacted to the Covid-19 pandemic. However last year it launched hiring sprees across many areas, especially in digital roles, and now employs more journalists than it did at any point in the past ten years.
Rankin said: "If you look at that list of publishers, we haven't got the deepest pockets but we do box clever, and we knew this was an area that if we could target it with support from the company it would bring us rewards.
"We're in the Champions League places here to use a football analogy and we're not quite Manchester City, top of the table, but third is fantastic and I really want people to notice us for this achievement, for other publishers to see that you don't have to be the biggest spenders in order to do really well. You've got to choose how you're going to invest and do it smartly and I think we've done that."
The Mirror also appears to be punching above its weight in terms of engaging with its audience size, with a smaller number of followers (3.8m) on its main page than Mail Online, which appeared second in the ranking every data release since April behind US Conservative site Daily Wire and has 21.4m Facebook followers on its main page.
The Mirror also had no articles in Newswhip's list of the top 15 performing news articles on Facebook in December, indicating it was doing consistently well rather than relying on a few viral hits.
According to Newswhip, "much of The Daily Mirror’s success was driven by sports" with its top five articles all about football.
But Rankin argued that despite a loyal football audience "it wasn't just sport" - with parenting also a major area that "really resonates with our Facebook audience".
"There's a certain demographic that uses our main Mirror Facebook page and we tapped into that," he said.
He added that "football and family are right to the core of what the Mirror represents" and that work has been done to make sure The Mirror's print and digital output is more aligned.
"We've done a lot of work there and for the same topics that you'd read about in print to be working digitally is fantastic," he said, adding that showbiz and TV could be similar growth areas.
Rankin added: "It's a really delicate business making sure that we offer up the right stories and the stories that are right for the brand, that drive loyalty and also help with audience... so we don't just write any old stuff and stuff that we know is going to perform outrageous page views but it's not going to look good for the Mirror if we do it."
Manchester Evening News, which is also owned by Reach, is "following a similar path" in terms of investment in social. It appeared in the list of top 25 Facebook publishers twice in 2021: in May it ranked 21st with 8.6m engagements and in December it was 13th with 8.9m.
Rankin said: "One of the beauties of Reach is that the nationals and the regionals aren't really separated. We are one team. We share what works best, whether that's on the Mirror which is the biggest title we have, versus Norfolk Live, which is one of the newest ones, if it's something that we can share.
"I think one of the reasons that we're doing well as a company digitally is that we are prepared to have those conversations whereas 20 years ago, it was probably a different world."
Other UK-based publishers consistently appearing in the rankings including BBC UK (21.2m engagements in December), The Sun (8.7m) and The Guardian (8.5m). The only UK publisher to have an article among the top-performers in December was Mail Online with news of actor Betty White's death (tenth place with 491,039 engagements).
The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism's Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends and Predictions 2022 report this week revealed publishers are planning to put less time into Facebook and Twitter and invest more in Instagram, TikTok and YouTube.
But Rankin said although Reach has hired more staff to work on those more visual platforms and reach younger audiences, it is "not rolling back" on the older sites which remain the "bread and butter". Facebook remains the biggest social platform for publishers.