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Actress Jayne Mansfield, right, feels the belly of pregnant reporter Gail Tabor in 1965 in Columbus, Ohio.

Actress Jayne Mansfield, right, feels the belly of pregnant reporter Gail Tabor in 1965 in Columbus, Ohio.


My dead mother is more successful on the Internet than I am. It happened Thursday.

She had a little help.

But that doesn’t lessen my bemusement. It only seems to show how capricious the online audience is and how difficult it can be for a writer to be heard in the digital cacophony of the Internet.

I should explain.

I’m a second-generation journalist. My mother, Gail Tabor, was a reporter for the Citizen-Journal in Columbus, Ohio, when she met my father, Steve Lucas, who was pursuing a PhD in business at Ohio State.

She kept reporting right up through her pregnancy with me. She left reporting when she had me, but 12 or 15 years later, after her divorce and a move to Phoenix, Arizona, she got a job at the Arizona Republic. She worked as a features reporter, fashion editor, gossip columnist and news reporter, in roughly that order, until being forced into early retirement in the mid-1990s.

At the time she left the newspaper, the Internet was barely a thing most people had even heard of, and like most people she didn’t own a computer.

A few years after she retired, I took a job in Richmond, Virginia, that among other things called for me to be a daily advocate to the company’s newspaper editors for adopting various “new media” practices – video, blogs, social media, and on and on. As part of that work, I started a blog nearly 10 years ago devoted to those things.

The original blog was behind a company firewall and couldn’t be viewed by the larger world of the Internet, but in 2011 I migrated it here to WordPress.

Despite my clearly brilliant insights, however, the blog has never gained much of an audience – except for one post in 2012 that called for media companies (including but not limited to newspapers) to recognize that the people who produce their “content” are their most valuable commodity and need to be paid like it. That post drew a favorable comment on Steve Buttry’s blog, which got it noticed and linked to by All Things D, and traffic to my blog spiked to an all-time high. Nothing else I wrote ever came close to achieving that kind of audience. (Despite that post’s popularity, no one ever adopted my recommendation. Journalists, and content-providers in general, remain paid like dirt.)

Earlier in 2012, my mother died. Among her things were a good many of her newspaper stories and columns. One was a column she wrote in 1983 about a candy treat called Buckeye balls, which are rolled peanut butter balls dipped in chocolate, but not totally covered in chocolate so they look like Ohio buckeye nuts. Making Buckeye balls was a fall tradition for my family, usually done on the day of the Ohio State-Michigan game.

I loved that column and typed it, in its entirety, into a post on my blog.

Over time, that post became the second-best-read item on my blog. Pretty much every day, at least a couple of people searched the Internet for “buckeye balls,” “buckeye candies” or some variation and followed a link to that post.

And then on Thursday a slideshow online called United States of Food: Official State Foods mentioned “buckeye candies” in its Ohio entry and linked to my mother’s column on my blog.

The traffic blew away my previous one-day record. So now my mother, who never blogged a day in her life, has both the best-read post on my blog and the biggest single-day audience. If it were anyone but Mom, I’d be upset.

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Reading about attracting news audiences and revenue for online news sites has often been depressing. Even for someone who believes in the need for meeting the audience where it is and adapting to the needs of online and mobile news consumers, at times it has felt like the future was heading toward a world dominated by Buzzfeedy listicles and clickbait and Upworthy-worthy headlines, where all advertising revenue is forever lagging and all audiences are zephyrlike transients.

You can simultaneously believe that not just journalism but locally oriented journalism is necessary for society but feel overwhelmed by skepticism about how many people out there have the same belief and will actively seek it in numbers that will support some kind of sustainable revenue model.

But recent weeks have brought some research to stoke your optimism.

The American Press Institute reported this week on a survey by the Media Insight Project, an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, about news-consumption habits:

“When asked to volunteer how they came to the news, people tend think less about the device than the news gathering source and the means of discovery (social media or search). Taken in combination, the findings suggest that people make conscious choices about where they get their news and how they get it, using whatever technology is convenient at the moment.”

The survey also found that people do notice what strengths different news organizations have, for instance turning to local TV sources (TV itself or a TV station’s website) for weather, traffic, crime, and health news, and newspaper sources for news about their local town or city, for news about arts and culture, and for news about schools and education.

And hasn’t that been one of the underlying hopes of traditional journalists, that our existing “brand” is more than our traditional medium or platform, that the public associates our news organization with the news we produce?

That’s what this survey indicates is the case – they seek us out for news, not just, as often is said, wait for any news that really is important to find them:

“Overall, for instance, social media is becoming an important tool for people across all generations to discover news — but hardly the only one, even for the youngest adults.

“… People across all generations are most likely to discover news by going directly to a news organization, rather than letting the news come to them.”

Super.

We can check off that part of how to survive the future.

That still leaves revenue, the front that has been the bleakest, where analog dollars turn to digital dimes, if that.

But Tony Haile, the CEO of data-analytics company Chartbeat, wrote in a column last week for time.com on research by his company that finds that audiences drawn to actual news may hold more value for advertisers than those on other sites because they pay attention to the page and linger longer. Why that matters:

“Someone looking at the page for 20 seconds while an ad is there is 20-30% more likely to recall that ad afterwards.”

And best of all, it may be that news organizations have undervalued their advertising slots that are lower on the digital page, especially below the “fold” where ads and content aren’t seen unless the viewer scrolls:

“Here’s the skinny, 66% of attention on a normal media page is spent below the fold. That leaderboard at the top of the page? People scroll right past that and spend their time where the content, not the cruft, is. Yet most agency media planners will still demand that their ads run in the places where people aren’t and will ignore the places where they are.”

Pair this with the results of a study by the Pew Research Journalism Project that found that “People who visit a news organization’s website directly engage with its content more than those who enter ‘sideways’” through social media and other referrels, as Andrew Beaujon wrote last week at Poynter.org.

The Pew report, “Social, Search and Direct: Pathways to Digital News,” said:

“In this study of U.S. internet traffic to 26 of the most popular news websites, direct visitors — those who type in the news outlet’s specific address (URL) or have the address bookmarked — spend much more time on that news site, view many more pages of content and come back far more often than visitors who arrive from a search engine or a Facebook referral.

“… For news outlets operating under the traditional model of building a loyal, perhaps paying audience, obtaining referrals so that users think of the outlet as the first place to turn is critical.”

This doesn’t suggest to me that all the time newsrooms spend now trying to engage audiences on Facebook, Twitter or other social sites is wasted or even that it should be cut back. It puts your news in front of audiences, including some people who are not regular readers or viewers. That exposure may be critical in building your brand in the minds of that portion of the audience.

That makes it up to you to be sure that what you have lured them to is news they find worthwhile enough that they come back on their own.

And that has always been the name of the game for survival in news.

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The crude yet brilliant online comic The Oatmeal had a recent strip related to online piracy – inspired by the artist’s frustrated attempts to find a legal source for a show he wanted to buy – that actually had a moral highly relevant to traditional media companies trying to make their way in the new-media world: If you put all your focus on control instead of what your customers want, your customers will go elsewhere for what they want.

I thought it was great, and I wanted to post about it here, but it gets a bit far from the ground I usually stick to – but then the universe once again came through for me and showed me Jim Romenesko’s item about a Forbes piece that excerpts a much, much, much longer New York Times Magazine story and got a huge amount of traffic online. THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT I NEEDED! A journalist-level parallel!

From what Forbes writer Kashmir Hill sent Romenesko about her story on the Times story:

“Charles Duhigg’s piece is a masterful look at how Target gathers information about its customers and mines it to keep them loyal and better market to them. But as a writer who has covered the privacy beat for four years, what leaped out at me as the gold mine of the piece was the anecdote about Target data-mining its way into customers’ wombs so effectively that it picked up on a teen’s pregnancy before her father did. I ran with that anecdote and the sexy privacy issue Duhigg dug up — Target’s use of predictive analytics — distilling that from the larger piece for my privacy-interested audience. This is not a new or surprising practice in the world of online journalism – what has caught people’s attention is Forbes’ transparency. Thanks to our analytics being public, you can see the avalanche of social media love it triggered and the enviable million page views it garnered.”

So essentially, buried inside a nine-page story was a juicy nugget that had the potential to draw a huge audience. But that’s the thing – it was buried. And it had a dull headline, “How Companies Learn Your Secrets.” It’s information people would want, if only they knew it was there. Enter Hill:

“I suspect I drove a ton of traffic to the New York Times that they wouldn’t have otherwise gotten because they hadn’t sold their story quite as well as I did and didn’t create a short version of it that was easy to share and digest online. (Advice the NYT should consider is having their own bloggers tackle long pieces like this and chunk them up for the online crowd – a tactic the Wall Street Journal has effectively employed.)”

The difference between the comic strip and the Times/Forbes story is the artist knew what he wanted and the people who read the privacy story did not, but in both cases the originator of the content screwed up – in the comic strip, HBO made it impossible for the artist to find a legal source for “Game of Thrones” on DVD, limiting its audience to people willing to subscribe to the entire HBO universe; and the Times buried its best information in a story so long and dense that only its existing dedicated magazine customer base was likely to find it.

As journalists, we often don’t control a lot of business aspects of our industry, including whether our sites have paywalls or home delivery is available to everyone who wants it. But we are in charge of our own stories and photos — and making the best of it easy to find.

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Google logo
Writing for Poynter.org, Jeff Sonderman explains the longer-term implications of Google starting to incorporate your social connections in search results, so that whatever results Google might feed you for a search will be influenced by whatever your friends have looked at:

“The point for news organizations and journalists is that it’s more important than ever to build strong social followings and to optimize content for sharing. Social media is becoming an engine that drives more than just Facebook and Twitter’s own referrals.”

In other words, it’s another argument for engaging the audience, whether you like it or not.

However, I have a feeling the search model is going to change yet again. The whole “what your friends are reading will influence what you see” thing is wearing on me in my Washington Post Social Reader. Apparently a heck of a lot of my friends read not only celebrity gossip, which I don’t care to see at all, and Apple fanboy love but also a lot more fluff than I ever expected to come to me via anything with “Washington Post” in its name — of the top six headlines at the time of this writing, two are Apple stories, one is about a Korean pop group and one is about paparazzi photos of Kate Middleton’s sister. Social search, in other words, is making my social reader less and less useful to me, to the point I expect I’ll stop using it at all — until they fix it, at which point the model will shift again.

1/12/12 UPDATE: Good additional details from Justin Ellis at Nieman Journalism Lab. … Still haven’t seen anyone share my “Hell is other people” take on it.

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I have serious doubts that Google+ is going to escape the non-Facebook “I don’t need it” vortex, but I think Google’s plans to link journalists’ Google+ social profile to news search results may be something that, in some form, becomes routine in coming years. My initial reaction to seeing this was, “Yikes, that’s creepy.” But it’s not actually; if you already have a social profile out there — Facebook, Twitter, what have you — then why is it there? If not to connect with readers and (to use a term from Megan Garber’s Nieman post) provide transparency, then what? Marketing? Because your boss told you to? Any reason I can think of for having a social profile is served by linking it to the stories in news search results. But the “Yikes, that’s creepy” will be the understandable first reaction that, like even having a social profile in the first place, journalists will have to work through. Begin.

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I flunked SEO 101

riding the rapids
When I moved from a newsroom to Media General in 2001, it was a little like getting out of a river’s rapids and walking along the bank instead. I was close enough to still feel the water in the air as I watched those still on the river pass. And once in a while I’d call out, “NO, PADDLE LEFT! LEFT!!” but they didn’t hear me. Or maybe they did. Who could tell? And I would sometimes think, “Gosh, that was fun … but it’s kind of dangerous,” and when a big election night or something came and someone asked me to come help move copy, I jumped right in.

Something kind of like that last part is going on right now. I’ve just recently started helping two nights a week so a news editor in a community newsroom can actually get a night off, and unlike the election-night editing stints, it’s a hands-on experience that includes not only working with reporters but things like discussions about what goes on the website early and what goes on Facebook. My first day without the training wheels (I was the only editor on duty), I posted my very first early news bulletin. It went up, and out of curiosity I went to Google to see where it would turn up. Answer: It didn’t. But then the web editor tweaked the URL to put a person’s name in it — VOILA! The bulletin was at the top of the Google search results.

I had committed the most elementary error: I put a print headline on a website story. It’s not like I don’t know the search-engine-optimization rules; I spend a chunk of my time each week reminding editors of things like this. If you have attended any training sessions where web-oriented folks talk about things like this, well, I’ve sat through the same ones, multiple times in various states.

So, you ask, do I have a point? Yes, as elementary as my error: When you post a story online, take a few seconds and think about how that story is going to get found. Is the headline specific (personal names, business, place names, topic, etc.)? Did you include tags? Spending that extra minute or so on your end can make a lot of difference.

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You will know that Skynet has arrived and the ultimate war against the humans is imminent when someone invents a hyperlocalization news tool like that described by Jeff Sonderman in his commentary for Poynter.org about Google News’ new “news near you” service. In summary: Google takes aim at the mobile market by using your mobile device’s geolocation info to feed you more or less hyperlocal news results; Jeff says it’s great as far as it goes, but he wants more — more headlines, more curation, more socialization. His area, metro Washington, D.C., used to have something close to what he wants — it was called TBD.com, and it was killed in its crib a few months ago. Actually, Jeff is looking for the robot version, a “killer app,” and a certain level of personalization — a step beyond hyperlocalization:

“To create a market-dominating filter of local news, someone will need to curate the pool of aggregated news to match each reader’s interests, browsing history and social network activity, in addition to his or her location.

“The killer app would be one that filters a breadth of local aggregation like Outside.in through a hyperpersonalized social filter sought by mobile services such as News.me and Trove combined with the personal browsing and search history of Google.”

And he’s right. If someone can invent a computer program that can do all that, it will be a killer, all right — it might kill the need to have humans involved in the news-delivery process (that would be the group usually called editors or producers) at all.

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