Think Tank

Journalists: learn to use “Why…” wisely!

Hot on the heels of breaking news and initial reactions comes the time for explainers. It makes sense, after all journalists since time immemorial are by nature inclined to ask the question “Why…”. But with time pressure comes the phenomena of the assembly line explainer piece. It it time to ask if these mass-produced articles are really that effective?

For all media, the “Why…” has a strategic character. It proves that the media is able to draw the first lessons from an event earlier than its competitors. It also confirms its relationship to the readers, by raising the issues that its target readership expects. It’s such a journalistic stalwart that the wisdom of ‘Why’ is rarely questioned. Which is precisely why we feel the need to take a look at it, with the help of two sets of data.

  • First set. I analysed a sample of 10,000 of the most shared articles on Facebook, published between July 2021 and July 2022, for the six major French media (1), leaders in terms of audience (Le Figaro,, Le Monde, Le Parisien, 20 Minutes and
  • Second set. I analysed a sample of 10,000 articles from these media titles as shared on Facebook, all of which included the word “Why”.

First, I tried to calculate the share of the “Why” in the first set, in order to have a good idea of their place in the editorial mix of these six media (see graph 1, below) by calculating the proportion of articles containing the word “Why”.

As we can see, the percentage of “Why” represents a significant part of the articles published for four of the six media studied: 3.2% for Le Parisien, 2.5% for, etc.
Important points to note: there is a fairly large gap between Le Figaro (1.1%) and Le Parisien (3.2%). and 20 Minutes did not manage to get a single one of their “Why…” articles in the top 10,000 most shared articles.

Next, I wanted to assess the effectiveness of this content. I compared the proportion of “Why” articles to their cumulative performance in terms of shares generated (see graph 2, below). The result is both instructive and surprising, to say the least…

In fact, we can see that for the media studied in this sample, the “Why” articles underperform, with the notable exception of Le Figaro. Indeed, they generate a proportion of shares (red column) lower than the share of published articles they represent (blue column). Why is Le Figaro the only one in this sample to be effective when it comes to this type of article? Are there any clues that could help improve this performance?

Explore the 10,000 pieces of content

Now let’s explore the second set of data, processed in Graph 3 below in an interactive way. The graph is divided into 3 panels:

  • On the top pane, you find a histogram on the publication rates per day (date on the x-axis).
  • On the lower left-hand side, you will find a distribution of the 10,000 articles according to the date of publication and the total commitment generated.

On the lower right-hand side, you will also find a violin plot which allows you to visualise and analyse the distribution of the 10,000 articles (with total_engagement on the ordinate).

Finally, on the interactive caption notes you can select, for each media, the data according to two populations of articles: those containing the word “Why” (example: Why) and those not containing the word “Why” (example: Other content).
Go on! Compare the media between them according to these multiple criteria because the lessons are very instructive!

As you can see, there is a wide variety of performance and publication rates for these “Why” articles. However, we can draw some striking lessons:

  • Le Figaro aims to produce over-performing articles.
  • Le Monde aims to optimise its median performance.
  • Explanations: in this sample, Le Monde produces a greater number of articles of average quality (between X and Y shares), while Le Figaro is able to produce articles that outperform.
  • In short, in this sample of the 10,000 most shared articles, Le Figaro’s strategy proves to be (marginally) the most effective: regularity and work on a headline that is most in line with the questions asked by its target readership.
  • Finally, the production rate of each media is very different. Let’s take the cases of Le Figaro and We can see that Le Figaro has a constant production rate, whereas has irregular production peaks, interspersed with periods without publication.

Encourage comments

Even more interesting (see graph, below) is an analysis of the number of comments generated on Facebook by “Why” articles. Taking as an example, we notice that its “Why” articles represent 2.5% of the total articles in the sample, but 4% of the total comments. This tendency is repeated for four of the media studied. is the media that performs best on this criterion.

Ultimately, good “Why” content is designed not simply to explain or editorialise, but to engage readers in dialogue, to help them express their ideas… hence the challenge of integrating the concerns and questions of audiences. In short the wise ‘Why’ piece is all about being in tune with your readership, and certainly not about clickbait.

Now it’s your turn

As we said before;not all content is equal. You have to learn to assign objectives to content items to better meet the expectations of your target audiences. Or to boil this analysis down to the five key points:

  1. In a world of information, consumed above all on mobile, the “Why”, just like the “Who”, “When”, “How”,… seems to be an ally of journalists to help their readers understand the article. However, it is clear that for social networks, the explainer angle of the “Why” is not the criterion of success when it comes to engagement. It should certainly not be banished, but probably fine-tuned to better serve its purpose.
  2. Master the production of your content: including regular output to reinforce reading habits. Indeed, if they liked your first “Why” the odds are they will look for it again.
  3. Start a learning process, understand what works, what doesn’t and learn how to fix it. The traditional role of journalists comes to an end as soon as the content is produced, all the more so now that the next piece of content is already demanding attention. Results analysis is not typically part of that process. So use data to help your journalists better understand the impact of their content and the types of engagement it provokes.
  4. Learn to constantly look for the best, unique,and rare angles that the reader will not find elsewhere, while never losing sight of what really concerns them. This is probably the most decisive point to master in the quest for high-performance content.
  5. Finally, identify and clearly state your goals to your team as early as possible. This will allow you to put in place a content strategy to understand together what works as expected, and what doesn’t work as advertised, so that you can constantly evaluate and update your output.

(1) I have carried out another study which this time includes Ouest-France and BFM TV. If you want to know more, contact me.

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