OJR gets a reboot: new look, more rich content, and you


OJR opens a new chapter today with a fresh look and even more of the content you’ve come to trust. Not only that, but we’re looking to involve the greater journalism community in the discussion. We are now accepting submissions from reporters and media observers who can offer keen insight into the future of news.

But first, the look. OJR has developed a reputation for thoughtful, in-depth reporting and commentaries on the changing media landscape. That focus remains the cornerstone of our brand. Front and center you will always find one of our signature reports or commentaries, and the latest offering is a perfect example. Geneva Overholser, director of the journalism school at our host institution, USC Annenberg, raises critical questions about the nature of public interest reporting in a time when information is easier than ever to obtain but concerns over privacy threaten to muzzle discourse. Her focus is on the recent spate of government attacks on news organizations for publishing information about gun permit holders following the tragic shooting in Newtown, Conn. Overholser draws on some hard-knock experience as an old-school journalist and editor and weaves in spot-on observations about how open data is changing the business to come up with a compelling argument for openness, as painful as it may be.

The first thing you’ll probably notice that’s different, aside from a new color scheme and masthead, is that conspicuous center column. This is a new department we’re calling The Repeater. Here you will find news and views from other outlets that we think are worth passing along.

Beyond the website, we recently launched a Facebook page. There, and on Twitter, you will find more of the stuff we’re paying attention to that we didn’t have time to include in The Repeater.

With these advances, we will be able to build on our continuing commitment to help our readers understand and contribute to the revolution taking place in news.

And that’s where you come in. Defining online journalism has never been more interesting. Is it about the ever more important role of data? The burgeoning reporting potential of social media? The ever-richer conversation between communities and journalism? The changing role of professionals amid the convergence of news platforms? We want to hear from you. Maybe you have a topic you’d like to see discussed, or maybe you have an article to pitch. Either way, we want to hear from you.

If you have a question, a story idea, or you’re interested in contributing, send your pitch to editor[at]ojr[dot]org. Or feel free to just leave a comment below to share your thoughts about this new direction for OJR.

As a large, vibrant and diverse undergraduate and graduate School of Journalism, USC Annenberg is grappling with all these questions. They play out in our multiple newslabs, they inform our teaching (and learning!), they determine the nature of our research. We will continue to draw on all these experiences with contributions from our faculty, staff and students, and we hope you’ll join us.

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.

Five myths I hope you don't hear at ONA 2011

Here are a few of the industry myths that I hope you will not hear during the Online News Association conference in Boston next week. The ONA’s done a good job over the years of inviting more speakers and panelists who are grounded in “real Web” experience, minimizing the number of speaking slots for print-side executives who’d rather pine for the days of their lost monopolies. Still, people who look at the Internet through an opaque sheet of newsprint still show up at ONA, and other industry conferences. These are a few of their favorite lines, ones that I invite you to ignore, or, if you’re looking for some fun, to challenge.

Myth 1: You can’t support a publication on online advertising revenue.

When you hear this line, here’s what the speaker really is saying: “I can’t support my publication on my online advertising revenue.” Just because one manager hasn’t figured it out doesn’t mean that the solution doesn’t exist. If you want to seek foundation support, great. Go for it. But don’t fool yourself for a moment into believing that “non profit” means “no money worries.” Non-profit is a tax status, not a business model. You’ll still need to find sources of income, and in the non-profit world those sources come with many more strings attached than advertising contracts have.

Myth 1 is often followed in the same comment by Myth 1.a: You can’t make money on AdSense. Again, what the speaker is really saying is: “I can’t make money on AdSense.” People who say this typically make the lazy mistake of thinking that AdSense provides incremental revenue each time it displays on a website, so they stick it into every ad slot on the site they can’t sell themselves.

Well, if your local or small-scale advertisers didn’t want to pay to deliver their message on a page, what makes you think that the big industry pros who are placing multi-million-dollar AdWords campaigns want any part of those pages, either? Slapping ads on pages that don’t convert causes Google to cut your payment on pages that do. Adding extra AdSense slots to your site can actually decrease your revenue. The key to AdSense is to limit its deployment to pages that will attract interested readers who will click through to big-dollar advertisers. Never use AdSense as remnant inventory. Use it as a tool to attract ads to pages of interest to national and global advertisers you can’t reach with your local sales staff.

Myth 2: Readers have short attention spans, so you must break up your content.

Readers only appear to have short attention spans because the media revolutions of the 20th and 21st centuries have left them bombarded with content options. They must make decisions within split seconds about which content to read or watch and which to ignore.

But once they make the decision to try your content they will stick with it as long as they continue to feel that it’s worth their time. People with short attention spans don’t spend hours without interruption playing Minecraft or Madden. They don’t read 800-page Harry Potter books cover to cover or sit through three-hour Lord of the Rings movies. But all of those were huge hits.

Breaking up content into multiple pages and components simply reminds people at each interruption that they have a choice and could be doing something else. Invest your energy instead into ensuring that your work is relevant and rewarding to your audience. Then craft an awesome lead or visual to grab their attention.

Myth 3: Online journalism = big Flash graphics

Back in the days of shovelware newspaper websites, staffers in the online department had to justify their existence while trying to define to their print-focused bosses just what this Internet thing was good for anyway.

Enter the big Flash graphic. Hey, I had a lot of fun with Flash presentations that turned investigative reports into facile video games, too. But there’s so much more for us to do today. And with poor or nonexistent mobile support limiting the usability of Flash content, I’d question continuing to invest significant resources in Flash development. Perhaps the bigger problem is the attitude illustrated by Myth 3.a: Interactivity = multimedia. No, they are not the same. Interactivity is the inclusion of the audience in the creation of a work. Multimedia is the use of multiple media, including photos, video, audio, text and animation, in a work. That readers must decide what to click on in a big Flash graphic doesn’t make it any more interactive than a Web browser, which also gives readers click choices.

Myth 4: You need a big editorial staff to do great journalism online.

This myth is a favorite of old-media managers who are trying to define away their competition. The market is evolving. Let’s deal with it, instead of trying to pretend that change isn’t happening. Devotion to large staffs explains why so many publications find themselves believing Myth 1, too. Their problem is using old-media models to compete in a new-media space. (Across-the-board cutting isn’t the solution, by the way. Reinvention is.) One-person websites can do great work. They’ve even won Online Journalism Awards in the past.

Myth 5: Paywalls are the best (or only) way to paid content online.

Paywalls work when you offer (a) highly-specialized, unique content of tangible value to people (see Wall Street Journal or Cooks’ Illustrated), or (b) offer enough free passageways through the paywall that the pay scheme becomes a voluntary contribution system (see The New York Times).

Despite how great you think your content to be, if you’re reporting daily news, your site probably doesn’t fall under (a). And if you are not a beloved national brand, you probably won’t make much money from (b), either. If you really want to sell content directly to the reader, do as I’ve been urging for the past two months and look into eBooks, an established market where consumers have shown that they’re willing to pay for content at higher price points than many paywall schemes have offered.

Have fun at the conference. Go ahead and poke the trolls. And, as with any conference, don’t forget to give yourself a daily goal of meeting at least five new people, then talking with each one for at least a couple of minutes. You’ll learn more from those interactions than from listening to any of these old myths.