Look at the bottom, not the top, of your traffic analytics to boost your website's readership

How can you increase your website’s traffic by looking at your current website readership data?

The answer to that question might seem obvious, but I warn you that too many news publishers approach this question from the wrong direction – and could be hurting their businesses as a result.

The obvious answer to the website traffic question appears to be… to look at what’s getting the most page views on your site, and to write more articles like those.

Don’t do that.

Why? Chasing traffic by trying to duplicate your most successful content ultimately narrows the focus of your website, as you try to focus on specific topics, features and tone that’s drawn visitors in the past, to the exclusion of other stories and styles. It leaves you (or your staff) feeling cynical, coming to believe that your coverage is being driving by chasing traffic instead of chasing the news. Trying to duplicate past success is reactive instead of proactive – and over the long run that too often leads to a dispirited staff producing formulaic, sterile, mechanical work that runs the risk of turning off readers and advertisers.

So how can traffic data help you to create a more popular website?

Instead of looking at what’s attracting eyeballs, flip your analysis around. Focus not on what’s working, but what isn’t.

Use your traffic data to show you what coverage to dump, and not what to duplicate. Why waste precious reporting and writing time on articles that no one’s reading, no one’s linking to and no one’s engaging with? Stop publishing content that your market’s rejected and use the resources you’d spent creating that to do something else instead.

Be careful when making those cuts, though, to be certain that you’re not eliminating something valuable due to bad analysis of your traffic data. It’s not enough to look at raw page view numbers over a limited time period. Some very valuable articles show few initial impressions, but continue to build traffic to your site over years. It’s worth the staff time to report and create those “evergreen” articles. Other types of articles might suffer due to the time of day that they’re posted on the site. Certain feature pieces that hit your homepage in the early evening due to production habits, only to disappear from the home page before the next morning’s traffic rush might draw more attention if you moved their online publication times to mid-afternoon, for example.

So be sure to take a long view when analyzing traffic data when making decisions about cuts and reassignments on your website. And consider what other factors, in addition to topic popularity, might be influencing unpopular articles and pages on your site. Are the pages consistently hitting the site at an unpopular time of day? Are the headlines not engaging? Could you put a different writer onto that beat who would command more respect, attention and engagement? Should does the audience for content want to see it in a different medium, such as a podcast or video blog instead?

You might not choose to walk away from a content topic altogether, but your focus should remain on the bottom of your traffic analytics. If something’s not hitting with the audience, work to change that. And if changing publication times, formatting or voice isn’t drawing more traffic to an area of the site, don’t be afraid to shift the focus of your reporting to something that your audience finds more important to their everyday lives. (Here’s my piece on the five most important beats for a local news website, to encourage some creative thought on what your beat mix should be.)

Like a gardener pruning the flower beds, cutting away withered elements of your publication can help encourage more growth elsewhere on the website. That’s a healthier way to pursue new traffic than endless trying to clone what’s worked best in the past. And it allows you, or your staff, to remain creative in trying to find new ways to lead your community by showing them fresh news and insight that they didn’t have but will embrace, instead of always feeling like you are reacting to that community, pandering to what was popular in the past.

Traffic data tells you what your community thinks of the work you’ve done on the past. You should respect your audience by paying attention to what they’re trying to tell you. Great news publishers lead – they don’t pander – but you can’t be a leader if no one follows you. Use your traffic data to cut what’s not working on your website, then spend those resources trying to find better ways to connect with your audience instead.

'Think before you act' and more rules for journalists on Twitter

A couple of weeks ago I was at a hockey game with my son. During the game, as I absentmindedly checked emails on my phone, I saw a Twitter note from an alumni of the UMass program saying “Look at what this person is saying about you!” Without thinking, I clicked on the link….and instantly kicked myself for doing so, as the link spawned a Twitter spam, sending the virus to hundreds of my Twitter followers. It was the first time for me, but definitely reminded me about the power of social media. I heard from friends, colleagues and students about the spam, and ended up apologizing more than once for not following my own advice to students: Think Before You Click!

The social media dustup surrounding the early and inaccurate reports of Joe Paterno’s death once again brought to the forefront how the rapid nature of social media can lead to bad journalism. It was deja vu all over again: A year ago NPR mistakenly reported that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died after being shot in the head.

Why do journalists keep botching the facts on Twitter?

I posed a question along these lines on the Social Journalism Educators group on Facebook and received some of the requisite “it’s not Twitter’s fault;” and Twitter is “only” an amplification device. As much as I love most of what Matthew Ingram writes, his post on the Paterno screw-up being another example of “news as a process” worries me. Defenders of the social media realm rarely seem to want to get at why these massive ethical lapses continue to occur on Twitter. And I just won’t buy the idea that “this is the way it is” or “letting everyone know you made a mistake is great for transparent journalism.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love the many benefits of social media and I teach about its journalistic value. But I also feel that we all need to begin practicing “safe social media” practices to protect us all.

After the Giffords debacle, Alicia Shepard, the former ombudsman for NPR, wrote a column about the need for journalists to re-learn the lesson of checking sources. And she counters the shrugs inherent in many comments from social media defenders by reminding us all why it’s important to get it right, even if it’s not first: “…To report a death, incorrectly, is a serious, serious error and may have caused untold grief and pain for many who know Giffords.” Journalism is about process but the process is to get the correct information out, not to throw spaghetti against the wall, see what sticks and sort it all out later.

So, what to do?

The main issue indeed seems to rest with amplification. The nature of the Twitter beast is to retweet something you see IMMEDIATELY to your followers. I first found out about the Paterno report from a Facebook friend who teaches social media and whose insight and opinions I respect. She attributed the news to CBS — which was part of a long laundry list of news organizations that retweeted what proved to be a shaky report from Onward State, a student-run website at Penn State.

I’ve been a part of too many “not dead yet” stories so I hesitated on retweeting and re-Facebooking and went to ESPN’s site. ESPN had a story about Paterno being in grave condition, but had not jumped on the Onward State bandwagon and declared him dead. It was responsible journalism as well as an affirmation of ESPN’s social media policy prohibiting reporters and editors from breaking news on Twitter — which drew a substantial amount of criticism from the defenders of the social media realm last year. (Full Disclosure: I work as a part-time editor for ESPN.com.)

ESPN’s policy is a step in the right direction. The policy makes ESPN journalists stop and think before hitting the retweet. But there is something else at work here. The natural inclination when journalists and journalism educators see tweets from news organizations like CBS and NPR is, well, to believe what is being tweeted.

That just needs to stop.

A new Twitter ethos is needed. Here are a few ideas:

* Retweeting. Don’t retweet immediately. Especially if it’s breaking news. A colleague and I were talking about the Days Before The Web and how the wire services used to send off bells on major breaking news events. (Ronald Reagan getting shot was 10 bells.) So, think about waiting for those 10 bells to go off.

* Trust. Stop trusting mainstream news organizations. Just because a major name is attached to the tweet doesn’t mean it’s true. Live by the old adage: “If your mother tells you it’s true, check it out.”

* Pick Up The Freaking Phone. In both the Giffords and the Paterno cases, journalistic disaster could have been easily averted by news organizations picking up a phone and doing some original reporting. Again, don’t trust, verify.

* Verify, Verify, Verify. Stop the lazy journalism folks. Hitting the retweet is easy. Do some work instead.

Think before you act!

Tool, or trouble? Facial recognition might be driving some sources away from the news

At first, Brittany Cantarella had no idea the man she accidentally swiped with her Chevrolet was named Lord Jesus Christ. But within two days, the minor traffic incident had gone viral. Reporters snatched the then 20-year-old’s Facebook profile picture and left messages on her grandmother’s answering machine. “It’s the girl that hit Jesus!” a man in Stop & Shop yelled.

“I wanted to hide, I wanted to run, I wanted to go far away,” Cantarella said.

Two months later, she was willing to talk to me about the accident at a coffee shop in western Massachusetts. She was resolute, though, that I not take her picture or shoot video. That’s because Cantarella’s experience with viral fame made her wary of having her image wedded to a traffic accident that would never go away online.

This small anecdote is part of a new media conundrum dogging the relationship between visual journalists and their subjects: most people happily publish their own picture online, but a growing number of them are becoming wary of having their image captured by visual journalists.

With facial recognition software becoming commercially available in the past few years, new technologies could further reshuffle the relationship between a subject and a visual journalist.

Ed Kashi is a renowned photojournalist who has spent the past 30 years shooting for National Geographic, the VII Photo Agency and dozens of other outlets. And, he told me in an email interview, he’s noticed individuals and organizations becoming more reluctant to allow visual access.

“There is more wariness and a desire to have more control over access and what you are allowed to show,” he said. “In some cases and with certain subjects, this new paradigm presents a dilemma and can halt worthy work.”

On balance, Kashi sees the change as positive. “Photojournalists are more accountable,” he said, since the people in the pictures can watchdog for accuracy whether they’re in New York City, Nigeria or the West Bank.

Pulitzer-Prize winning photojournalist Martha Rial, whose career spans over 20 years, agrees that photojournalists have a higher hurdle to get started on projects. “People are aware of how the 24-hour-news cycle has changed the perception of everything,” she told me.

“There’s no denying that it’s getting harder to convince people to allow photographers into their lives in a meaningful, substantive way,” said Jason Cohn, a Pittsburgh-based photographer and videographer, “and there’s no denying it’s for good reason on their part.”

Aside from his work as a photojournalist for outlets like Reuters, Cohn has been a member of his hometown city council since 2005. As a public official, he has become “really wary about photos taken of me, because you never know when a photo will be twisted or turned to be used against you out of context years down the road.”

With a few exceptions like spot news, visual journalists depend on their subjects’ consent. For a subject, that often means ceding control of your own image to a stranger.

Patience, respect and tenacity are the traits that photojournalists are taught to convince a waffling subject to appear in a story. Superlative photojournalists are renown precisely because they can find subjects who allow them to tell visual stories, regardless of obstacles.

How, then, does this wariness affect visual journalism? The problem arises when patience and time are not options visual journalists. That may be because they’re overworked daily journalists who don’t have time to talk their way into a storytelling picture. Or it might be because they are citizen journalists or students without the experience to explain the importance of their assignment. All might be too willing to take the first “no” as the final answer. That stops worthy visual coverage.

New technologies barreling into consumer products have the potential to further sandpaper the relationship between visual journalists and their subjects. That technology is facial recognition technology.

Over the past few years, versions of the technology have moved from law enforcement and big businesses to consumer uses, notably in Facebook and Google Picasa, according to Alessandro Acquisti, an associate professor of information systems and public policy at the Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University. He made headlines last summer with research showing he could find the name of 31 percent of CMU students who stopped at his research table simply by using facial recognition software and a database of public images from Facebook.

“You will never find me,” one student boasted before the experiment, Acquisti told me. The research team quickly found him thanks to a picture a friend posted.

“The subjects we identified, they were quite surprised,” said Acquisti.

Right now the kind of facial-recognition software Acquisti used for his research needs a frontal, well-lit shot to return a match.

“I’m pretty confident that [the technology] will get better and better over time. Whether it will ever meet or surpass human ability, it’s a difficult question,” says Acquisti.

If the consumer technology does become more powerful, it could have a significant effect on the subjects of news pictures. If a brutal actor like the Syrian government could find the identities of every protester, would it be ethical to take or publish a picture from a demonstration?

Sites like The Chive already feature galleries where they take pictures, sometimes from news or sports events, of women. Would those women want to be casually identified by anyone online? Those and other scenarios create an undeniable logic to not appearing in any news pictures.

Acquisti’s scientific research is more rigorous than the anecdotal wariness some visual journalists see. But “the behavioral economics of privacy,”
as Acquisti calls his research focus, portends a future where the subjects of visual journalism have new incentives to appear or not appear in the media.

“The joke is don’t put anything online that you would not like to have on the front page of the NY Times 10 years from now, because chances are that if you become an important person or you are about to be considered for an important position, that information will resurface.”

Should that message sink in, visual journalists may find themselves trying to fit in to a different equation.