March to Your Own Beat

Lame excuses notwithstanding—like, “The dog ate my computer”—today will be a double-post day, something I must do to get myself back on track after a week’s time of neglect.*

Interesting story from Gigaom on the service Chartbeat, which provides real-time analytics of a webpage’s click statistics (among other nuggets of information). Real-time is the differentiating factor here, as Google Analytics already provides users with statistics referring to pageviews, unique visitors, content clicks, referring sites, and the like; Chartbeat provides a minute-by-minute analysis of how viewers of a website interact with the content: where they click, precisely when they do click, how long they remain on certain pages, and whether they’re commenting or not (provided commenting is a feature provided by said website).

Newsbeat is the newsroom equivalent employed by several reputable publications and television outlets, including Fast Company, The New York Times, and Al Jazeera.**

The service, for those organizations that can afford it—I would add, as an aside, that for smaller media outfits, the monthly cost of Newsbeat probably will not ever justify its overall value, unless online revenues rose in proportion—seems to be the worthwhile alternative to Google Analytics, or at least an additional layer of reader information to garner more precise thoughts about a website’s content that extrapolation from day-to-day data offered by Google’s service can’t always offer (unless you’re a psychic, or that boy wizard who stopped making movies and has now left countless teenagers without a purpose in life).

Of particular note, though, is what Chartbeat general manager Tony Haile called attention to with respect to one news outlet’s experience with Newsbeat. From Gigaom:

“And not only will this data not accelerate a “race to the bottom” with respect to content, Haile says it can actually help do the opposite: the Chartbeat GM says that one of the major publishers the company was working with looked at the data from Newsbeat and saw that two stories were getting large amounts of traffic: one about a case of infanticide in France and the other about Iraq. The number one story on the front page of the site was about season two of The Jersey Shore, and it was getting hardly any traffic at all — and neither of the two most-read stories were above the fold on the home page.”

The fact that a story about the Jersey Shore is getting no traffic isn’t the remarkable thing here—necessarily. What the anecdote argues implicitly against is a crazed obsession with formatting headlines, story summaries, and even the first paragraphs of stories themselves so that they conform to Google’s SEO standards. Journalists decrying such a practice as something that dumbs down news or misleads readers is not new.

But consider, for a moment, how news organizations for a decade have tended to interpret their analytics information. A great emphasis was placed on unique visitors, or, in Google Analytics’ (now rather meaningless) jargon, absolute unique visitors, and rightly so. The thinking, it went, was any increase in unique visitors would enable a news outlet to charge more for their online advertising, since more eyeballs were hitting a site. Yes.

But also consider how such a philosophy could be drastically misleading. What an over-emphasis on SEO-friendly language and counting uniques could do is force a news organization to lose site of its audience (especially those aforementioned smaller news outlets, with limited audiences on the basis of where they publish and who the readership comprises). What becomes paramount is any large number of eyeballs on a site, irrespective of their relative number of pageviews (one million visitors could be looking at just one page) or their relative time spent on your site (one million visitors could be spending five seconds each just looking at the headline). It’s a trend the latest Tow Center for Digital Journalism’s digital media report calls “fly-bys.” From the report:

“[Seattle-based ScoutAnalytics' Matt] Shanahan points to a website for a 90,000-circulation newspaper that serves a medium-sized city on the East Coast. … This site gets around 450,000 unique visitors a month. … The most loyal are the ‘fans,’ who visit at least twice a week. … and finally, the ‘fly-bys,’ who come about once a month. … The most loyal visitors are a very small part of the overall audience: Fans make up about 4 percent of the total number of visitors. … [But] [f]ans, despite their small numbers, were responsible for more than 55 percent of the site’s traffic. Fly-bys—those people most likely to come from a search engine or blog—clicked on barely three pages a month. Overall, each fan generated about 50 times more traffic per person than a fly-by.

As Hamlet would say, there’s the rub. What Newsbeat could effectively do is allow news organizations to better target and tailor their content for their respective audiences—what their readers spend time reading and commenting on, and then work to provide expanded coverage, a weekly blog, several Web-only stories, etc. This is significant for two reasons: one, newsrooms will get away from (I believe is) the misguided practice of throwing keywords (“LADY GAGA!”; “HOT PICS!”; “RAW SEX!!!!”)*** on a story just because; and two, it forces advertisers looking to purchase space online to pay less attention to how many clicks their ads are getting and more attention to how many eyeballs of value see their advertisements. One million readers means nothing if your ad is embedded on a website’s “Food” page and those million readers all sit on one story on the website’s “Culture” page; I’ll take 50,000 loyal eyeballs over that, especially if each one of those pairs of eyeballs is spending upwards of four or five minutes on my webpages.

And if the advertisers don’t buy it, just ask them how many clicks they ever received on print advertisements. Or how many of those print advertisements translated directly into a sale.

*I was busy last week readying the Urbanite website for the online launch of our August print publication. While I’m biased, I recommend giving this issue a read: we have a rather humorous account of the origins of Defenders’ Day, as related by local comedian Jim Meyer; a thoughtful reconsideration of why Maryland still allows for the death penalty, by our Crime & Punishment series author Michael Corbin; and what joys accompany liveaboard life, by assistant editor Rebecca Messner. Oh, and I have a few small bylines as well.

**Yes, I did just call Al Jazeera reputable. Unlike Bill O’Reilly (whom, I should add, I watched regularly when I still chose to have a television), I don’t think they’re fighting a secret media jihad for control of my fanatical instincts. If anything, they, more than other people who profess to uphold it, still support a free marketplace of ideas, as well as the idea that shoddy or fanatical ideas will eventually be shouted down.

***Clearly, I’m being hyperbolic. Newsrooms don’t scream “RAW SEX!!!” They scream, “FIRE THE EDITING STAFF! WE NEED TO SAVE MONEY!!!”