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April 20 2011

16:00

Chasing pageviews with values: How the Christian Science Monitor has adjusted to a web-first, SEO’d world

Editor’s note: At the International Symposium on Online Journalism earlier this month, one of my favorite papers presented was by Drury’s Jonathan Groves and Carrie Brown-Smith of the University of Memphis. They’ve been spending a lot of time in the newsroom of the Christian Science Monitor to observe its transition from a daily print newspaper to a web-first newsroom with a weekly print edition. That transition required shifts in operations, in culture, and in the kind of journalism the Monitor produces.

Their full paper (pdf) is worth a read for its analysis of how those changes were made and what was gained and lost. But I’ve asked them to write a summary of their findings for the Lab. As they write, it’s up to you to judge how much this counts as a tragedy or a success for journalism.

We’ve seen a flood of innovations over the past few years in journalism on the web: from technology and the delivery of news to new forms of storytelling and reporting. But making those innovations happen has been neither fast nor easy. How do you manage meaningful change that sticks? That question drives our research.

Since October 2009, we have immersed ourselves in the Christian Science Monitor as it took the “web-first” mantra beyond platitudes and abandoned its daily print edition.

It was a difficult, wrenching process for many journalists used to the rhythm of the daily newspaper and concerned about the fate of the Monitor’s serious take on the news of the day. But the lessons learned along the way are valuable for any legacy news organization.

Like many newspapers, the Monitor faced a critical moment in 2008. Its national circulation had plummeted from 220,000 in 1970 to 52,000. Revenue was dwindling. And its owner, the First Church of Christ, Scientist, told newsroom managers the paper’s $12 million annual subsidy would be slashed to $4 million in five years. Such moments are fear-inducing and disruptive. They are also opportunities for meaningful change.

Monitor editor John Yemma and publisher Jonathan Wells developed a plan: Remove the shackles of the daily print edition, increase pageviews, and aggressively pursue online advertising. The paper also maintained a weekly print edition that allowed it to continue doing some longer-form journalism.

They set a clear five-year newsroom target: Drive pageviews from 3 million per month to 25 million. And they reached it.

Key to the Monitor’s transformation was having strong change agents who were able to challenge deeply embedded cultural assumptions and push the newsroom toward thinking about things differently — even if it sometimes meant ruffling some feathers. Leading the way were Yemma, managing editor Marshall Ingwerson, and particularly online editor Jimmy Orr, whose non-traditional background in the worlds of politics and blogging gave him a fresh perspective on the news ecosystem.

In news organizations we and others have examined, journalists are often skeptical of change efforts, especially when it alters the way news is gathered and disseminated. As one staffer we interviewed in December 2009 said of the web: “Hopefully, we can be in it, but not of it.” Monitor employees had strong ideas about the paper’s values. Here are excerpts from our interviews with three staffers:

The Monitor story before was a very particular kind of story. You always looked for a larger analytical story on any given news point. You just didn’t do the news story, you know. You always did something larger than that, and you always looked for, to be, you know, to be more analytical about it…

We talk about being solution-based journalism. We don’t go into the fray; we try to push the discussion in a new way that is productive…

…seeking solutions to problems, staying away from sensationalism, analysis and thoughtful kind of assessment of what’s going on rather than jumping to snap conclusions and going for, not so much a focus on breaking news, but more on understanding the reasons, the causes behind the news of the day — I mean, that’s what we aspire to…

Over the course of our study, Orr challenged staffers’ ideas about Monitor journalism, and many recoiled. He pushed for more blogs on the site. He encouraged pursuing items about Tiger Woods and other topics that many staffers felt didn’t fit with the original Monitor mission: “To injure no man, but to bless all mankind.”

The newsroom incorporated a four-pronged strategy:

  1. Increase the frequency of updating, writing several posts on a subject rather than one long story.
  2. Use search engine optimization to find key phrases that would improve a post’s ranking in Google.
  3. Monitor Google Trends for hot topics and sometimes assign stories on that basis, allowing the paper to “ride the Google wave,” as one editor put it.
  4. Use social media including Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr to reach new audiences.

In this process, the organization embraced emergent strategy, an idea some referred to at the recent International Conference on Online Journalism as “failing fast.” The Monitor took an iterative approach to innovation, trying new ideas, and dropping those that didn’t work. Over the course of the study period, the newsroom tried many forms of web content, including blogs, live webcasts, and podcasts. And managers weren’t afraid to halt those items that weren’t garnering traffic. Podcasts, a weekly Yemma webcast, and video didn’t generate the return they’d hoped for, so each was stopped or scaled back.

The strategy helped push web numbers to new heights. By July 2010, the site had reached its 25 million pageview goal. And though many staffers expressed concerns about the changes, success reduced tension. Several noted the greater traffic infused the newsroom with a new sense of relevance. “This revival has been a real morale booster for yours truly,” said one staffer who had been with the paper for more than 20 years. “For a long time, I felt like I was on a losing team. Not losing in the sense of — we had a strong product. But it didn’t have much reach.”

A key factor in the success was a new content management system designed for web publishing. It democratized the process of web production and made it easier for anyone to develop and post new content.

But work remains to be done. Though pageviews have climbed, ad revenues have not grown in corresponding fashion, and the church subsidy will continue to diminish. And the hard work continues, as one editor noted in January:

So I have to do it six, seven times (a day), you know — to think of stories that bring what I would consider our Monitor values to a topic that is not where we normally would have been, and we’re doing it because the public is interested in this topic. So, what do we have to say about it that’s interesting, or clearer, or sheds some new perspective on what’s going on here? And it’s hard. You know, we weren’t accustomed to having to be that instantaneously responsive, and we don’t have the luxury of saying, “Well, you know that story is really not for us.” And when we’ve got pageview targets that we’re all assessed to hit every month, you’ve gotta come up with something on what people want to read about.

Whether the Monitor’s transition can be categorized as a tragedy or a success for journalism remains difficult to gauge. “Riding the Google wave” is difficult for the serious, in-depth international news the Monitor has long been known for. But even the greatest journalism has little impact on the world when its readership is small and diminishing. And today, the Monitor is increasingly injecting itself into the national conversation.

September 14 2010

17:30

Why SEO and audience tracking won’t kill journalism as we know it

[I'm happy to introduce Nikki Usher, a new contributor here at the Lab. Nikki is a Ph.D. candidate at USC Annenberg and, before academia, was a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and elsewhere. Here she tackles the question of using metrics in journalism; later today, we'll have a different take on the same topic from C.W. Anderson. —Josh]

Last week, The New York Times featured the scary tale of how some newspapers, including The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, are (shockingly!) changing their coverage after using online metrics to figure out what their audience wants to read. And Gene Weingarten, in an amusing takedown of search engine optimization, insinuated earlier in the summer that just by putting Lady Gaga in his column, he’d get more hits.

Jeremy W. Peters had another Times piece about much the same concern: young journalists doing “anything that will impress Google algorithms and draw readers their way” and the scary “big board” that Gawker keeps in its newsroom tracking the 10 most popular blog posts, along with pageviews per hour.

This concern that audience tracking, writing for Google, and SEO will somehow destroy the ability of news organizations to keep news judgment apart from audience demands is misplaced. Instead, being more attentive to audience demands may actually be the best thing that news organizations can do to remain relevant and vital sources of news.

With monetization tied to clicks, and real-time Omniture data a feature of more and more newsrooms, it’s easy to worry that audiences will dictate news coverage. But how about the opposite argument: that journalists, for too long, have been writing about what they think their readers ought to know, and not enough about what their audiences want to know.

Journalism has always depended on having an audience to consume its work and has spent much of the past century trying to figure out exactly what that audience wants to know. Now, journalists have better tools than ever to figure out who their audiences are, learn what they want, and in real time, track their behaviors in order to be more responsive to their needs. This isn’t a bad thing — it turns journalism away from the elitism of writing for itself and back to writing what people are actually looking for.

But what about the concerns that journalists are going to spend all their time writing about pets, or Lady Gaga? The truth is that many of the newsrooms I’ve spoken with are smarter than that. They aren’t abandoning journalism principles; they see metrics as a way to ensure their journalism will be read.

SEO at the Christian Science Monitor

In my academic work, I’ve been following the evolution of The Christian Science Monitor as it has moved from a print daily to a website with a print weekly. Over the course of this evolution, I’ve watched the newsroom grow increasingly sophisticated about audience tracking. When I asked John Yemma about his views on SEO, he had this to say in an email about its impact on the newsroom:

Search engines remain a powerful and preferred tool for online readers. We have no choice but to become adept at SEO if it helps us reach readers where they are. This is nothing new in the news business. In the pre-Web days, newspapers periodically redesigned and reformatted. Editors frequently admonished reporters to write shorter, to use simple and direct language, to “think art” when they were on an assignment — all in the interest of reaching readers.

SEO, at its essence, is about editors thinking the way readers think when they are searching for news. At the Monitor, as at almost every other publication, we work diligently to emphasize key words. But that is only one tool in the toolkit. We try to respond quickly when a subject we know well (international news, for instance) is trending. This gives us an opportunity to offer related links that invite readers to dive deeper into our content. If SEO is about acquisition, related links are about retention. In the past year, we have tripled our online traffic with this strategy.

Does that mean we just write plain-vanilla headlines or merely follow Google/Trends? No. A clever headline can still be a powerful draw, especially on our home-page or in social media. And we still report stories that we know are important even if readers don’t agree. But we are much more attuned these days to what readers will respond to. If our journalism is not read, our work is not effective.

Trend tracking at TheStreet.com

At TheStreet.com, the organization has hired a full-time “SEO guy,” John DeFeo, to monitor trends on Omniture, watch search terms, and optimize TheStreet’s content after it is written so it can be found via search.

The result: Traffic has improved. When I was in TheStreet’s newsroom conducting field research, I did see DeFeo make a suggestion that someone bang out a quick story on a children’s Tylenol recall after seeing it trend on Yahoo. But should we see that as being overly responsive to audience demands? Or should we see it instead as a chance for TheStreet to provide its unique comment on what such a recall might mean for Johnson & Johnson stockholders — and at the same time know that the story will have a chance at reaching an audience because it is trending?

Glenn Hall, Editor at TheStreet, defends SEO journalism as being the core of the basic principles of journalism itself. In an interview, Hall said:

Good journalism is not mutually exclusive with SEO. We have proven over and over again that our best journalism tends to get the best page views. SEO is a tool to make sure the best stories get noticed…SEO increases visibility where users are looking. People consume content differently than they used to through a newspaper.

Hall explains to his staff that SEO is in line with the best practices of journalism. He believes that simple declarative sentences, clear and to the point, makes good sense for both journalism and SEO. And, as he notes, SEO doesn’t have the final say on a story’s success or failure: “It doesn’t matter how good the SEO is if the content isn’t good.”

The new news is social

Nick Bilton, the Times tech blogger, writes in his new book, I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works about the “consumnivore” — an information-hungry consumer who wants the latest news now. But for this new information consumer, information isn’t just a quest for information. It’s also a social experience, shared with people from Twitter, Facebook, email, or other social media. In other words, if you aren’t looking for news, the news will find you. Good journalism will still be found, even without the high-energy SEO pumping of a daily newsroom — largely, I think, because of the new power of news as a social experience.

This isn’t a myth. At the Pulitzer celebration at The New York Times on April 12, 2010, New York Times Magazine editor Gerald Marzorati noted the following in his celebratory speech for sharing the Pulitzer with Propublica for Investigative Reporting for a story about a New Orleans hospital during Katrina: “[Long form journalism is] our most viewed and most emailed…It does matter to readers. It stops the reader. It slows the reader down.”

Was Memorial Medical Center, the hospital in the story, a hot search term? Probably not. Were 13,000 words likely to produce the quick hits of information that the consumnivore hungers for? No. But the story still reached a substantial audience, person to person. And as it was read by more and more people, it likely climbed up Google’s rankings for those people who were searching for articles about Katrina.

So, if used properly, SEO and audience tracking make newsrooms more accountable to their readers without dictating bad content decisions — and it can help newsrooms focus on reader needs. What is a story if it is never read? SEO won’t kill journalism; it will only enhance how we find and use news.

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