Building reader loyalty, one bracket at a time

For those of you not spending the day at work watching NCAA basketball tournament games (or for those bored by an inevitable first-round blow-out), let’s take a look at a few innovative online projects that newspapers have created to build traffic off public interest in the annual college playoffs.

Many newspaper websites offer contests in the week leading up to the tournament, inviting readers to fill out the 65-team tournament bracket with their picks for winners in each of the games. It’s the (legal) online version of the ever-opular office betting pools, with the not-so-legally-insignificant difference that the prizes are coming from sponsors and not money put up by the participants.

That’s fine. It drives some traffic, and people like making picks without having to put any of their own skin in the game. But everyone’s doing that. What else is out there?

I found a few interesting examples.

First, the Los Angeles Times offered an option on its Flash tournament brackets that I’d not seen before:

LA Times graphic

It’s a geographic map that shows where each of the 65 teams are traveling from and to for the first-round matchups. The NCAA sends teams flying all over the country in an effort to balance the competitive level in each of its tournament regions. I found it fascinating to see, in one glance, just how far some teams have to go. Plus, this graphic provides a handy way to answer the inevitable first-round question: “I’ve never heard of that school; where is it from again?”

Click on the “Bracket” option at the top of the graphic, and you return to the traditional bracket chart, which readers can fill out by clicking team names.

The Washington Post and USA Today produced their own NCAA tournament webpages, but what caught my eye is how they also spun the idea of filling out a tournament bracket and applied that to different forms of entertainment.

The Post got a head start by starting earlier this month a single-elimination tournament pitting characters from the TV show “Lost” against one another. Readers voted for the characters they thought would survive in each head-to-head match-up.

Washington Post graphic

USA Today seeded 64 entertainment celebrities and celebrity couples and created a reader-vote tournament to find the “winner”:

USA Today graphic

The WaPo and USAT tournaments exemplify the power of reader interactivity. Sure, they are fluff. But they, like the interactive NCAA tournament brackets, are fluff that get people reading, clicking and spending time on their newspapers’ websites.

Industry veteran Vin Crosbie last week pointed out on Poynter’s online-news e-mail list that U.S. newspapers have a huge problem in eliciting repeat visits from their online readers:

“If you download the NAA’s spreadsheet of the N//N data and calculate medians, you’ll see that the median user of those top 100 U.S. newspaper sites visited only 2.58 times per month and saw only 15.03 Web pages on a newspaper site per month. That’s not much: a visit only once every 11.6 days and 15 Web pages all month.”

My wife is fond of citing her Suzuki violin training that “it takes 21 days to form a habit.” (“And 12 steps to break it,” I shot back the first time she told me this.) Whether habits form in 21 days or not, website publishers help their readership numbers by creating features that inspire readers to come back to a site, and reward them for doing so, day after day.

A reader-vote tournament, such as the Post’s and USA Today’s, does this. Unlike traditional online polls, these build upon each other, sending the winners in one day’s poll on to the next’s, inspiring readers to return. Unlike the NCAA tournament, which you can follow on TVs, websites, cell phones and newspapers, these tournaments are available only on their creators’ websites. So you gotta come back there to vote, and to see who won in each round.

Take it a step further: Include each day’s match-ups and results in one of your daily update e-mails, and invite those readers following the tournament to subscribe to it. I’ll bet you many of them continue to get and read that daily e-mail, finding other news and features on your site, even after the tournament’s done.

If you want people reading the great reporting on your news website, first, you’ve got to get them in the habit of coming to the site. Don’t overlook the value of interactive reader-driven online events, such as these, in helping you to do that.

Five lessons from 2007

We hope that you’ve been reading, enjoying and learning from OJR throughout 2007. But just in case you’ve, um, missed an article or two here is one editor’s humble attempt to distill an entire year’s articles into five simple lessons.

1. Newspapers: Get a breaking news blog

I asked several friends of OJR to suggest their favorite news sites and features of the past year, and many Southern California neighbors pointed toward the coverage of this year’s wildfires by the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune’s

In May, I wrote about the Los Angeles Times’ use of a breaking news blog to keep readers informed about that month’s wildfires, which struck the city’s popular Griffith Park.

Blogs are the ideal format for breaking news, as they allow newsrooms to swiftly publish little bits of information, as they are confirmed, and without having to weave them into a traditional story format. They also make it easy for readers to see “the latest” on a developing story, rewarding the reader and making it easier for traditional-print newsrooms to compete with the immediacy of broadcast media.

2. Get widget love

Text, photos and video are just three of the tools available to online news publishers, with which to engage readers and hook ’em into spending more time with your site.

Millions of Web readers are using online widgets, from embedded YouTube videos to online polls, to dress up their blogs, personal websites and Facebook and MySpace pages. There’s nothing keeping news publishers from using these same tools, as well.

  • The LAT and SignonSanDiego employed Google Maps in addition to blogging, to help readers see where the fires were, in relation to their homes and workplaces.
  • Easy-to-use online polling tools can help news publishers provide an attractive way to get readers to contribute their first bits of content to a website, leading them into discussions and other ways of participating on the site.
  • Check out OJR’s “to-do” guide on publishing tools, for more low- and no-cost widgets that you can employ to help spice up the functionality of your webpages.
  • And don’t forget the Web’s original interactive widget: hyperlinking, which can help enliven any news story by providing additional context and background, without interrupting its narrative flow.

    3. Learn from sports how to engage readers

    While newspaper websites tend to do well in moving pageviews and attracting audience during major breaking news events, most of such sites do a poor job to drawing traffic and building community on a daily basis.

    With one exception. At most newspapers websites I’ve encountered, the same section of the site consistently leads in traffic, comments posted to the site and inbound links from other sites.

    That’s sports.

    Sports provides the best training ground for managing reader comments, its columnists transition well to blogging, and sports desks tend to have many writers and editors who are heavy Web users themselves, allowing them to bring all the pieces together in compelling and heavily read Web productions.

    Not to mention that sports reporters tend to have no fear of data, using sports stats on a daily basis. So the next time you are assigned to put together a new online publishing project, why not bring on some help from your sports department — or look to a sports blogger for inspiration?

    4. Ask readers for information, not articles

    The failure of one “citizen journalism” Web business after another this year ought to be showing news publishers that a business model based on readers doing reporters’ jobs for free isn’t working.

    That does not mean that readers do not have information that can build the foundation for a website. Or that readers are unwilling to share that information. It’s just that they are not, except in rare or special circumstances, going to produce that information within or according to traditional journalism story formats.

    Instead, ask for information in nuggets: A photo, a short eyewitness report or a questionnaire. Use crowdsourcing techniques to collect sets of data that you can use to provide a well-reported investigative feature or breaking news package.

    User-generated content powers many of the Web’s most popular sites, from blog communities to discussion forums to photo-sharing and other social networks. News publishers can better employ the power of “UGC” for journalism if they resist the temptation to see content-generating users as replacements for reporters and start looking at them as great potential sources.

    5. Call out the liars

    The new year will challenge all online news publishers. Not because the new year will bring its own news stories, new website competitors and new temptations for readers’ time. Almost certainly, 2008 will see the popping of the housing bubble drag the U.S. economy into recession. That will further endanger ad revenue even as publishers hope for election-year campaign advertising to surge.

    How do you distinguish yourself among all this information competition? Don’t rely on the value of and goodwill toward your publications “brand.” If that was gonna bail you out, it would have already. No, news publishers need to provide information that is more timely, more accurate, and above all, more useful and rewarding to their readers in order to claim a larger share of what might be in 2008 a shrinking ad revenue pie.

    Readers today are drowning in lies: People lying about their employment and income to get home mortgages. Mortgage lenders lying about their borrowers’ lies. People lying about relationships and pre-existing conditions to get health insurance. Politicians lying about criminal investigations, CIA tapes, Iranian nuclear programs, disaster preparations, Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, etc.

    The news sites that prosper in 2008 and beyond will be the ones that do not leave their readers hanging with “he said, she said” coverage, but that report aggressively to reveal to readers who’s lying and who is telling the truth.

    The online medium is changing journalism. But not just to make it a 24/7, global, clickable and interactive. By unleashing fresh competition on the field, it is pressuring established newsrooms to wake up from their lazy practice of stenography-as-journalism, and start calling out the liars again.

    Now, whether those newsrooms respond to that pressure by stepping up their reporting… or by badmouthing the ‘Net, is up to their leaders.

    We’ll see what happens in 2008. Happy holidays!

  • Want to build your audience? Take a reader to lunch

    John McClain covers the Houston Texans National Football League franchise for the Houston Chronicle. Like a growing number of other sports beat newswriters, McClain maintains a blog on his paper’s website. But McClain’s NFL blogs include much more than notes which couldn’t make the cut for the paper. McClain covers the Texans with text, audio and video entries, engaging his readers in an ongoing conversation, in multiple media.

    I first noted McClain’s work in OJR earlier this year, when he posted a hilarious retort to the NFL’s new rule limiting the amount of video of players and coaches that news organizations could use online. I’ve been following McClain’s blog since then and last week, decided to touch base with McClain through an e-mail interview about his blog.

    McClain’s no Web-head, blogging and video blogging just for tech’s sake. His print roots run deep, with a strong commitment to connecting with and serving his readers… a commitment that’s led him beyond print and into multimedia publishing.

    OJR: To start, at this point, should we be calling you a newspaper columnist or a blogger?

    McClain: I cover the Texans and the NFL for the Houston Chronicle. I write blogs and do videos and audio for, our website. Our videos are run on YouTube and Brightcove and other sites. I write two columns a week for the Chronicle. I do four blogs a week for I also do six weekly sports talk shows in three cities: Houston, Nashville and Waco. I do a Friday night TV show on the local Fox affiliate, First and Ten with Mark Berman. So what drives the most attention to me? The only thing that can be accurately measured is our website. I had more than 37,000 hits on draft day. I usually get between 75,000 and 100,000 hits a week, depending on how much I do.

    OJR: Walk us through how you decide what to report in each medium: in the paper, online in text and online in video.

    McClain: On Sunday night after games, I talk with Megan Manfull, who covers the Texans with me, about stories we want to do in the Chronicle, and then I run them by the sports editor. Then, I call Anna-Megan Raley, who does videos with me for and talk to her about possible videos for our website. When I write blogs, I just do whatever I feel like, usually based on the Texans because they generate the most interest.

    OJR: Who were, or are, your influences as a reporter and columnist?

    McClain: When I was growing up in Waco, I read the Waco Tribune-Herald and sports editor Dave Campbell, who had that job for more than 40 years and also founded Texas Football magazine in 1960. He was a god to anyone who loved sports, especially football, in Central Texas. I also read the Dallas Morning News and Dallas Times Herald, mostly about the Cowboys. I followed Bob St. John, Frank Luksa, Blackie Sherrod and Sam Blair. I read The Sporting News each week and loved columnists like Dick Young and Joe Falls.

    No one has influenced me as a blogger. I started the first blog at the Chronicle several years ago when I covered the NFL, then stopped when I started covering the Texans in 2004, then started again when I realized how important it was to my bosses at the Chronicle and at Hearst in New York.

    OJR: Do you talk about blogging with other members of the Chronicle staff who blog? What about with bloggers outside the Chronicle?

    McClain: I talk to other Chronicle writers who blog but seldom to others who blog. We talk about sports and writing and radio and TV but not about blogging. Everyone has a different style of blogging. It’s something we develop on our own. Richard Justice, our lead columnist, and I generate the most hits in sports. Our styles are different. We talk about our blogs, mainly those who write us, quite a bit.

    OJR: What tips would you offer other newspaper bloggers looking for ways to get readers more involved in their blogs?

    McClain: Treat readers with respect. Ask them questions that make them think. Get them involved in your blog. I run contests and taken readers to lunch so I can meet them. I’ve done this three times, the last time for 15 of them, and will be doing it many more times. Write what they want to read. I cover the NFL, the most popular sport. It’s not hard to get them interested. When I travel, I try to take them with me, as if they’re traveling with me. I tell them about the sights, sounds and people I come in contact with.

    OJR: Do you think that it is easier for journalists to blog on sports than on other beats at the paper? Why, or why not?

    McClain: Definitely. Everyone’s an expert on sports. Fans think they know more than we do, and many do. They want to be heard. They want their opinions to be shared. They want to get a response to what they write. I give them a forum to do that. As for other non-sports beats, I don’t think everyone thinks he’s an expert on cops, or travel or business or food.

    OJR: What’s your favorite part of blogging? Least favorite?

    McClain: My favorte part is writing about whatever I want. There are no space limitations. I don’t have to stick to the Texans or the NFL. I can write about the Rockets, Astros or movies. What I like the least is having to read every comment before I post them to make sure they’re not crude or use words we don’t use. Also, some of the readers irritate the hell out of me, but when you let them know it, they’ve got you. You have to have thick skin if you’re going to blog and let readers say just about anything they want.

    OJR: Do you think newspapers can hold on to sports fans, or is it ESPN’s destiny to become America’s sports monopoly (and eventual employer of every major current newspaper sports blogger)? What do newspapers need to do?

    McClain: The only thing you can’t get on the Internet that you can put in the newspaper is your opinion, your expertise, your credibility. I think newspaper stories should have more opinion. That’s what blogging is; giving opinions. If you develop credibility, readers will come back.