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Posts Tagged ‘web metrics’

Over a year ago I wrote that I soon would be posting about my experiences with a paywall. Sixteen months later, the paywall finally went up on the News-Topic’s site, so this is my first postcard.

This actually is the site’s second experience with a paywall. I was not here for the first, but I am told all hell broke loose from people angered that they could no longer get the site for free. There were about 200 paying subscribers (paid print circulation at the time was about 6,000) by the time the company switched website vendors in 2012 and the site became free again because the new vendor was not quite ready to handle a paywall. How unready it was apparently was a surprise.

Given that previous experience, folks were bracing for a similar round of trouble when the paywall went up again in mid-June, but there was barely a ripple of trouble, mostly questions from people wanting help registering online. We have eight or nine new online subscriptions so far. Our Web traffic has taken a slight dip, but nothing so far that looks significant, and it could be attributed to the slow news of the past few weeks, the pre- and post-July 4 summer holiday period. We’ll have to keep watching.

The talk this week focused on how to drive the traffic we have past the home page headlines so they have to pay. In other words, how much information beyond the headline goes on the home page. Whether the slow pace of new subscriptions is due to that is, to me, an open question, but what we put on the home page is a valid issue for us because our site’s analytics show that the home page remains the first stop for most of our users. It’s a local audience.

A proposal raised at another paper in the company is that there should be only headlines and photos because people see enough of the story on the home page and don’t dive in to read. That analysis may be correct, but the solution that was chosen seems wrong to me. First, it puts a heavy premium on good Web headlines, and newsrooms our size don’t have reliably good headline writers. Second, the behavior that practice seeks to stop is not limited to the website. At any newspaper rack, some people walk up, look in the window, read what they want and walk away. Worse, at a newspaper stack inside a convenience store, they pick up the paper, turn it over, read a lot more and then don’t buy it. There always will be window-shoppers who don’t become buyers.

No, the trick as always is figuring out how much information is needed to make a person want to read more. A headline alone — or headline and photo alone — usually won’t do it, especially with a feature. You need some text from the story. How much might vary, but it shouldn’t give away so much information that clicking on the link to read the whole story will leave the person feeling that he/she wasted time because all the really important information was on the home page.

This is not a question unique to the Web. The same basic issues apply to writing teasers on A1 for stories appearing inside the paper. That’s all you’re doing on a website homepage if your goal is to drive readers past that page. Entice the reader with factual information, but leave questions hanging. Don’t overpromise or mislead. This is a writing skill. Use your writer’s instincts.

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The goat must be fed
In the 16 months since I came to the News-Topic, I have had the basic idea rumbling around my head for a post on the disconnect I see between posts about digital storytelling tools and the reality of small-town journalism, which accounts for the great majority of news organizations in the U.S. But I never had the time to pull my thoughts together.

Now the Duke Reporters Lab has helped do a lot of the heavy lifting for me with a study showing that there is a “significant gap between the industry’s digital haves and have-nots – particularly between big national organizations, which have been most willing to try data reporting and digital tools, and smaller local ones, which haven’t.”

I object to the word “willing” in that sentence. It may be the case in many places that there is active resistance to using data and digital tools, but I have not seen that at many of the small newsrooms I visited in my previous job or in this one. The spirit is willing at places like this, but the flesh is exhausted.

The study finds newsroom leaders citing “budget, time and people as their biggest constraints” but “also revealed deeper issues – part infrastructure, part culture. This includes a lack of technical understanding and ability and an unwillingness to break reporting habits that could create time and space to experiment.”

In the case of my organization – print circulation approximately 5,000-6,000 – I can tell you the issue is approximately 95 percent one of time and people. My news staff, including me, totals six people, one of them dedicated full-time to local sports. There is no clerk to compile our extensive events listings or obituaries. I am expected to have an all-local front page in the print product, and I have my own set of standards for what I will accept out front (and while the bar is lower than it might be at a major metro, it largely is set higher than “incremental” news). Three of my four writers have less than two years’ experience. And no matter whether I find some events very newsworthy, there are longstanding community expectations for coverage of certain things, and skipping them carries stiff costs in community relations. With all of that, I find that getting my minimum number of local stories worthy of A1 takes about all the staff time that can be managed.

I can recognize that digital storytelling is worthy in its own right, not just “bells and whistles,” and still say there is precious little room here for “difficult trade-offs” in coverage.

That’s the 95 percent obstacle. The 5 percent is primarily infrastructure and, to at least some extent, technical understanding. Simply put, our CMS seems terrible – it’s locked down, limited, balky and not at all user-friendly. But it’s possible we are wrong, since no one here has ever been able to get formal training for it. Whatever we know how to do is based on our knowledge of other CMSes each of us has used (I at other companies, and my staff at their school papers) or the bare-bones “this is how you post a story” knowledge that the existing reporting staff provided me when I arrived here.

This is not to say we don’t talk about the website, our online audience or how to engage readers online. We are active in social media, almost everyone on the staff has shot and posted video, and we have interactions with readers online. We do more online now than this newsroom ever has. We WANT to keep doing more, and I WILL keep looking for ways to do it.

But as the Duke report says: The goat must be fed. Everything else has to come later.

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I’m suddenly feeling much better about how my small newspaper is doing online after a recent post by Poynter’s Sam Kirkland that said:

“The latest report by analytics firm Parse.ly indicates large news sites see a greater percentage of visitors return within 30 days than small news sites do. … Sites with more than 10 million monthly visitors saw a 16 percent return rate, while sites with fewer than 1 million monthly visitors saw a 9 percent return rate. … Across Parse.ly’s entire network, an average of 11 percent of visitors returned to a site within 30 days.”

The monthly return rate on newstopic.net currently is 59.9 percent, if our Google Analytics are to be believed.

But I don’t know why that should be surprising. Unless you have local ties, you would not have much reason to seek out the content available from the News-Topic. If the hypothesis is that reader loyalty ought to make our site more attractive to online advertisers, then our site is an undiscovered gem, though our audience size (about 36,000 visitors in the past month) makes it a tiny gem.

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In a world of dwindling newsroom resources, one of the harder questions is how much of your time and attention to place online. The view I tend to align with is that the future audience is going to be all-digital, and likely mostly mobile, so we need to make sure we are moving ourselves.

Then comes this new study that shows that when it comes to news consumption, a lot of what you put online may as well be wasted effort in comparison to how much use the print product gets: 92 percent of the consumption of news is on legacy platforms, only 8 percent on digital.

The temptation is to say that everyone should then devote 92 percent of their time and energy to the legacy platform. I know that’s too simplistic.

What if digital news consumption is relatively low because we just aren’t that good yet at grabbing digital users?

Or maybe the real message is to spend your online energies tailoring what you do present online to the on-the-run way that people use that medium, which in turn may mean there are things you are doing online now that you don’t really need to do, given how little use it is getting.

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I wrote a couple weeks ago that my response to a question about how to fit in all the new things journalists are told to do now was that if you want to start something, you have to stop something. I probably should have fleshed that out. I didn’t, but Steve Buttry has. Sample, on government meetings:

Maybe for your community, the answer is to send a reporter to the meetings to livetweet (live coverage gets more readership than stories), but to have the reporter turn his attention after the meeting to enterprise reporting on topics covered in the meeting, rather than undertaking the redundant task of writing a story about the meeting he just livetweeted.

If your local government agencies livestream their meetings, maybe you don’t need a reporter present. You embed the livestream on your site for meeting coverage and spend your reporter’s time on enterprise, unless a meeting promises to be unusually newsworthy.

In fact, that was essentially the approach I took as a reporter in a far-flung bureau covering meetings in a town where there was a local paper. Anything that happened during the meeting that sounded interesting, I knew the local paper would report the next day, so instead I would do my own reporting on the subject and flesh it out over the next day or two, such as a case where people living near a quarry complained of the damage that blasting at the quarry was causing to their well water and homes. I got a better story, plus a photo. Nowadays I might be able to get a slideshow and/or video out of it too.

Steve has other suggestions, including, “We need to work out partnerships with community journalists (and non-journalists)” — another word for those is “bloggers” — “who are doing jobs we’ve been doing and stop doing what they are doing, so we can focus our resources on unique ways we can serve the community.” The Seattle Times has such a network going (and discussed it at a session I attended at ONA12), so it’s not just a vague idea, it’s a model you can study and emulate, and tweak to fit your community.

Steve also links to several previous posts he had that address the idea of what needs to change. It’s the only topic that’s certain to remain on your radar.

12/21/12 UPDATE: From one of the Nieman Journalism Lab’s columns making predictions for 2013 that seems relevant to part of this discussion: Local news organizations no longer have the luxury of throwing skilled reporters at procedural news stories that are only important to niche groups …

12/30/12 UPDATE: More on this topic John Robinson and Steve Buttry.

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Read all about it
A frequently heard complaint about news online and the use of web metrics is that they might dumb down the news and reward sensational and short pieces over serious journalism. The Longform Blog would seem to be made specifically to fly in the face of any tendency toward short, unserious news: Every day it recommends four stories — non-fiction only, each 2,000 words or more. As explained in a second-anniversary post:

“There’s no Most Popular box to keep the numbers churning for particular stories, we don’t SEO the hell out of posts, and every piece we recommend spends roughly the same amount of time at the top of the homepage. In deciding what to click, all readers have to go on is who wrote an article, where it was published, when it came out, and what it’s very basically about.”

And so, out of the 2,805 articles recommended since the site went up two years, the editors have looked back and drawn conclusions about what really interests people who go out specifically in search of longform journalism:

“So, turns out that it doesn’t really matter what kind of content you’re talking about—video, pics, 5,000-word features—sex on the internet is still sex on the internet. Stories in the sex category were nine times as likely to end up among the year’s most read. Looking for an even more sure-fire way to make the list? Write a story about porn.”

Murder also rates very high.

On a much more encouraging note, the stats show that truly compelling narrative non-fiction has legs — or, in webspeak, I guess it has a long tail:

“Readers on Longform are more likely to send an older story to the most-read list than they are a new one…”

The moral? Maybe it’s pay attention to web metrics or don’t, it doesn’t seem to change what people want to read.

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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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