In the world of journalism, a question haunts the minds of many aspiring writers: How can one create a narrative that breaks away from the crowd, leaving readers with a positive impression? Rutger Verhoeven shares his insights.

Short notice in advance. I am aware that the world is frequently shaken by tragedies: bombings, wars, natural disasters. Every day we see the devastating impact the Russion aggression is having on the civilians of Ukraine.

But, from our data and in the behaviour of our clients’ audiences we see that there’s a very real need for some positive news as well. Audiences need a pressure-release valve. News fatigue is a very real phenomenon.

So that’s why we decided to publish this blog about the impact of positive news. There’s some really interesting insights you’ll be able to get from this data survey and maybe you’ll find something which will help you to get all your stories across more effectively. What we can certainly see is that publishing positive news will help you connect better with your desired audience - and there are multiple ways to do this.

Why positive news should have your attention

Every morning I take my dog, Vos, out for a serious walk. It clears my head, allows me to stretch my legs and it makes me happy! Aside from being part of our family, Vos also has an important role at smartocto: Chief Happiness Officer (check her out here on Instagram). It’s not at all surprising that she’s collected the most likes of all the employees of our beautiful company. And yes, you’re welcome to donate your heart as well.

Recently, while we were walking through the woods and hills, I stumbled upon something really small but nice. It’s called a ‘Happy Stone’, and it’s something that’s so simple, yet so lovely. Happy stones are - as you can see - stones which have been painted and then hidden somewhere in nature for people to find. You might keep it, or you might hide it again for someone else to discover.

It was such an unexpected and joyful thing to find this, and it got me thinking.

Happy stone found during the daily dogwalk
The happy stone I found during my daily walk with Vos

Almost all the clients we work for mainly focus on publishing the news every day, which isn’t particularly happy-making. We all know the expression that ‘bad news sells’ but - while still holding the happy stone - I wondered if that is actually true.

Over the past months, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about user needs and it was through this project that we saw that Inspire me stories (those that often have a positive touch to them) have a definite place in the publishing calendar, and do well with their audiences. It’s kind of obvious when you think about it: I know I tend to remember (or share) happy news more often than the negative, and I’m guessing you probably do too. Maybe it’s the same feeling of unexpected joy and happiness you want to share - like with these happy stones. No one’s keeping hold of mouldy sticks, after all, even if your dog lovingly brings them to you.

The user need Divert me

There's another user need involved: Divert me. People simply can't consume 'hard news' all the time. That's where the user need 'Divert me' comes in. Think of it like a pressure valve: it introduces something lighter and helps alleviate news fatigue. Something that'll bring a smile to your face, surprises or amazes you.

Originally, the ‘Divert me’ user need was called 'Amuse me'. But it's much more diverse than flat entertainment. It can be a lighter take on a harder topic, something funny that happened during a very serious event. Readers will appreciate you sharing anything that breaks the flow of heavy, hard news. But what we see among clients is, that they find it challenging to come up with something different than '5 most beautiful goals of Zlatan Ibrahimovic'.

User needs, feel, emotion driven
The user needs 'Divert me' and 'Inspire me' are about letting the audience feel something. These stories are emotion driven.

Social media sentiments give a clue

You’ll likely be familiar with the notifications we calculate on single stories, helping newsrooms to get more from their editorial efforts. One of these notifications is related to social media sentiments - you know, the little reaction buttons where you can smile or laugh or cry about a story. These notifications can alert newsrooms when it’s timely and good to add more great stuff. It’s actually one of my favourite notifications because it helps to show newsrooms that good news actually sells as well.

And to prove my case here, as soon as I got back from my walk with Vos, I got in touch with our Labs team and asked them to pick a newsbrand and analyse the last 25 stories they published that were high on ‘positive sentiment’. I wanted to find out how they compared to the stories that had high negative sentiment.

So, the Labs team picked the stories from four brands (*) and these are the super interesting results.

  • These 4 brands are:
    NOS from the Netherlands
    VRTNWS from Belgium
    La Silla Rota from Mexico
    Regional Heute from Germany

Let me start with the best news: it does actually pay to publish positive news. From the little survey we did we concluded that - on average - the social engagement and the overall reach show positive results for positive news in comparison with negative news.

Before we dive into the numbers and results, here’s how we did it.

We defined positive news as articles that got a HAHA or LOVE on Facebook and we considered negative news to be when the Facebook reactions were more SAD and ANGRY.

This isn’t of course a watertight analysis, but for a first quick ‘feeling’ to understand how various audiences in different countries react to positive and negative news, it’s something reasonably solid to look at.

positive vs negative sentiment
The definitions of positive and negative news based on Facebook reactions

Exclude the sarcastic laugh

A few things should be mentioned upfront. We’ve noticed during this little survey that people tend to use the HAHA-button to indicate that they feel cynical. Facebook created this extension to the like-button to give the opportunity to show that a certain topic or story makes you laugh. In some cases it’s not supportive but rather sarcastically meant. One example was a thief who stole a catalytic converter from under a car and died doing it. It’s of course a sad thing that someone dies but because it was a thief the audience might have felt that ‘he had it coming’. So laughs there as well.

And finally there’s a lot to say about the topics of the stories. It is almost always very local. For example the end results of a football game will have lovers and haters. And this is something we see in the data. However, when a story addresses a general feeling of joy, the results are evident. People comment and ‘like’ it more - and the pageviews are significantly higher than with negative stories.

So there’s all that. Now let’s dive into the graphs and numbers, shall we?

average on all analysed stories (140) of 4 brands in period nov 2021 - jan 2022
The averages on all analysed stories of the four brands

This shows the overall results from all the analysed news articles from the four brands.

All metrics go up, except shares

All metrics go up in positive news coverage, except the shares. Why is this? Maybe readers are just keeping the story to themselves? Maybe there’s a tipping point for ‘happy stones stories’, where people only share when it really makes them smile? Or maybe newsrooms should learn more from all the user need related articles we’ve been writing. If they add stuff to articles that address the various needs the audience has, it will probably also positively affect the sharing results. That’s something to ponder. So, news brands need to invest in making the good vibe stories more shareable in order to grow that engagement metric as well. If you have any suggestions or great examples about how this is done we’d be more than interested to hear about them!

I believe it is crucial to embark on a quest for a format that resonates with a subject where the intention is to exude a sense of positivity. At smartocto, we have created educational cards specifically designed to assist in selecting the most appropriate perspective and structure. Placing the user's needs at the forefront, these cards serve as invaluable tools in crafting narratives. For instance, a short story format could be an ideal choice. If you desire further enlightenment on this format, kindly access the downloadable format card below. ↓

download format card

average on all analysed stories (120) of 4 brands without covid related articles
The averages on all analysed stories, when articles concerning Covid are excluded

During the period of this survey, Covid was still very dominant present in the news. Because the Covid articles were hard to define, and because some of the likes were not related to the news story but rather to the effect it had on people, we did another analysis where we cut out these Covid articles. There were 20 of these articles in total, but it really had some unexpected effects on the results. Although comments and likes still were higher than the negative stories, one could argue that the comments are more or less the same. The ‘liked’ articles favour positive news coverage. But more striking are the results on pageviews and shares. They both are lower than for their negative counterparts.

I realised that the 20 Covid articles made a huge difference in the total numbers. And that made me dive into the data one final time. I wanted to figure out which article (from all 140 analysed stories) was the most positive (having almost no negative feedback and high amount of positive reactions) which one was the most negative (having no positive feedback and high amount of negative reactions) and which news story was the most polarised (high on both positive and negative).

This is what I found:

2 articles on the positive side stand out.
One of them is about Max Verstappen winning in Abu Dhabi. It got the most positive feedback of all stories, more than 8k LOVES and just 41 negatives. And one other story stood out as well. This was from VRTnws about a person who stopped another car whose driver had become unwell by using his own car as a blockade. The video of the incident went viral and people loved this heroic action. It got over 5k LOVES and just 3 negatives.

So if we exclude a sports result (which of course was the incredible win of Max Verstappen), the heroic action of an individual who saves the life of another person while putting himself into danger is something people truly like and this would definitely have been the ‘happy stone story’ of the day!

For the negative stories I noticed that really tragic stories and ones recounting horrendous suffering stand out. A devastating story about a 2-year old boy who froze to death when he was searching for his parents and a story describing firework violence towards a horse got the most negative feedback (SAD reactions (for the 2-year old) and ANGRY (for that of the horse). And while this is of course not surprising, I always wonder why news organisations publish this news if it is actually ‘only’ Update Me (check out our guide to how to cover this user need here).

And the article that got a lot of negative as well as positive remarks was a story about the Dutch royal family who organised a party for Princess Amalia who turned 18. Although Dutch Covid regulations stipulated that the maximum size of a gathering was 4 guests, the invite list for this party was far longer. The most remarkable thing here is that people massively reacted to this story, and over 5k comments were left. These comments were often funny, for example saying that due to the fact the royals have immense gardens the 1.5 metre social distance zone couldn’t possibly be violated. That gathered a lot of HAHAs, while the initial article got loads of ANGRY-likes. So apparently humour arises once there are stories people feel ANGRY about. Good to know, especially if you’re a comedian with writer’s block.

Page depth

There’s one more thing we found in the data that’s worth mentioning. It’s all about page depth. Page depth looks at how many other stories people click on once they enter your domain via a particular story. I wondered if the page depth of these positive articles would be higher than on regular stories. In that case it could be smart to publish positive news articles more regularly because it contributes to the overall content strategy.

We only found that for La Silla Rota the page depth was a lot higher than with regular articles. None of the other news brands that were part of this survey showed an uplift on page depth. With more than 5% increase it’s safe to say that the Mexican news brand La Silla Rota can benefit from bringing positive news more often. We’ve reached out to the editor in chief of their online news platform but unfortunately he hasn’t reacted to these insights yet.

page depth

Final note:

Of course this is just a simple - and mainly qualitative - analysis of some random stories from randomly picked news brands across the globe. No real explicit things can be said based on these results but I find it comforting that positive news stories seem to have some positive effects on simple metrics that do count, like pageviews, comments and page depth.

We need to dive into this subject a bit more if we want to say something of real value, but I like to believe that my discovery of the happy stone wasn’t just a coincidence. The simplicity but also the purity of the happy stone in itself is all there is to it. And with that it also counts for positive news - as an alternative to all the negative and bad stuff we get offered every day. The Happy Stone story is a little sparkle that we all need. Just to feel good.

My only suggestion would be: spread it some more, make those share-metrics go up. Don’t hold on to your happy stone but set it free! Who knows what its ripples will accomplish.

And at smartocto we will create the Happy Stone notification. Just for the newsrooms to understand that good news needs attention as well! Stay tuned!