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March 30, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:11am

Unprecedented reader interest in Ukraine as publishers shift to covering longer war

By Andrew Kersley

Just over one month after the start of the Russian invasion, reader interest for content covering the war in Ukraine has started to wane.

After record highs, many news outlets have reported drops in page views while Google Trends data is indicating a significant downturn in how many people are looking up Ukraine-related topics.

Record engagement

In the first few weeks of the war, many outlets recorded record-breaking levels of audience engagement.

The Guardian said February 2022 was its fifth-biggest ever month for page views. Its daily Ukraine live blog consistently saw two million views per day and a comment piece about why Putin had “already lost this war” by historian Yuval Noah Harari four days after the invasion began became its most-read opinion article ever.

The Sun said it had seen 70 million page views on its websites for Ukraine-related stories in the month since the start of the invasion, 40% of which was from direct traffic.

The Telegraph said its Ukraine coverage had seen “unprecedented” interest from readers. Its video content in particular has been seeing engagement at 300% of the normal rate, while a new podcast on the conflict in Ukraine averaged more than 50,000 listeners a day in its first week.

Times head of digital Edward Roussel previously told Press Gazette that the outlet had gained 1,000 new subscribers a day during the first two weeks of the invasion, one of its highest ever growth rates.

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More than 280 million people are estimated to have used the BBC’s online news output in the week the war started. The BBC News live page about Ukraine recorded 396 million page views between 24 February and 13 March.

Reader fatigue for the war in Ukraine

But one month after the start of the war, interest is beginning to wane among readers in the UK.

Google Trends data has shown a dip in interest in topics related to the war. On 21 March, key terms like ‘Ukraine’, ‘Putin’, ‘Zelensky’ and ‘Russia’ were at 10%, 10%, 11% and 6% respectively of the number of searches seen on their 24 February peak.

That dip in interest has impacted news outlets, with some altering the ways they cover the conflict.

On-the-ground reporting and analysis remains popular

Spokespeople for The Guardian and The Telegraph both confirmed they had seen dips in online traffic in March compared to February.

The Guardian spokesperson added that the publication was drawing on its community team to help keep track of the “changing nature of the crisis” and was working to feature “powerful first-person accounts” of the conflict.

A spokesperson for The Times told Press Gazette that the Ukraine invasion is still one of its most-read topics, with seven out of ten of its most-read stories being Russia-Ukraine related in the week of 21 March.

On how The Times had adapted its journalism to rising reader fatigue, they said: "The newsroom uses a data-informed approach to shape our coverage and keep readers engaged as the conflict continues. The data shows our readers are most interested in key developments, explainers and analytical reads that give context and address the big questions."

They added: "We have an unrivalled team continuing to provide insight and analysis, and we plan to keep journalists on the ground in Ukraine."

The BBC's head of news content Richard Burgess said that to keep audiences engaged the corporation is now focusing more on its on-the-ground reporting and human stories from Ukraine, plus offering more analysis of the “bigger implications” of the war and of how it may come to an end.

Burgess told Press Gazette: “The level of audience engagement that we saw at the start of the war was very high. Record-breaking on some occasions. That level of engagement is not as high now; it is returning to something that you would consider more of a normal level.”

He added: “As far as how we adapt our coverage because of that, I think there are clearly other stories that are of interest, not least the cost of living."

On the challenges of the shift in coverage that is now taking place, Burgess said: “I think it's our job to tell the audience what we know and what we don't know in terms of the war. In modern warfare, disinformation is a weapon used by state authorities or broadcasters, and we have certainly seen that in this war.”

He added: “Nobody knows exactly how things may end. But I do think it's important for us to be exploring some of those possibilities… We've seen a lot of interest in the analysis we've done on where this war might end.”

Burgess also said the BBC has been increasingly focusing on open-source reporting to try and establish what is happening on the ground, with support from its Ukraine and Russia language services and its disinformation and user-generated content units.

He said: “We brought those teams together because there is such a lot of information out there. They're all working to do two things. One is to establish whether the material that is surfacing online is genuine. And secondly, to do more detailed open-source journalism for ourselves, to try to get to some of the facts around this conflict that are not being published.”

Channel 4 News also reported a surge in interest "across all platforms" during the first weeks of the invasion that has since "peaked" but "still remains well above pre-crisis levels". It saw 214 million online video views in the four weeks after the war began.

Georgina Lee, who leads Channel 4 News' Fact Check, told Press Gazette: "Now we're moving into the second month of the invasion, we are thinking about how we tell the story in the medium term. Viewers, listeners and readers are building up a greater knowledge of what's happening day by day, and so bringing new insight means taking the time to tell more complex stories.

"Whereas our early successes came in the 'back to basics' approach, introducing viewers to what we assume for most is a relatively new topic, our latest FactCheck explainer takes a longer view across Putin's history as a war leader and tracks the patterns of his tactics over his decades in office."

Read more: Channel 4 News reaches record social media audience with Ukraine war explainers

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