Web traffic: the power of personality

There is a lesson for news sites in the knowledge that two of the 10 most read local stories on myfox8.com for the year involve station employees. The 10th most read is the announcement that meteorologist Emily Byrd had a baby. The second– second! — is a report that photographer Chris Weaver was attacked by a stick-wielding man, which Chris got on tape. (The others are the more typical online fare of death, sex and news of the weird.)

The interest in these two stories isn’t insignificant. I don’t know Fox8.com’s total traffic numbers, but I suspect they are high. The station has nearly 100,000 Facebook fans, easily outpacing every other media website in this market.

What should news websites should learn from this? Sorry to disappoint, but it’s not to get someone on staff pregnant. It is that personal connection sells, particularly on the web. The web is all about connection, and personality helps people connect. Journalists intuitively know this to be true, although many of the “capital J” journalists resist it. People feel they know Emily Byrd through her weather reports, they have watched her through her pregnancy, and they are interested to see the “end of the story,” if you will. They have emotionally connected. People don’t know Chris Weaver — I met him when he interviewed me from behind the camera a couple years ago; he’s a great guy — but the video certainly struck a chord with thousands of visitors.

Let me be the first to point out that I’m late to this realization. Too late, actually, or I would have come up with more effective ways to make the News & Record’s site more personable while I was there. Don’t get me wrong. The site is good; it won first place in General Excellence in last year’s N.C. Press Association contest. But as fans of “Friday Night Lights” know, good reviews don’t necessarily bring in the ratings.

Every newsroom I’ve ever seen is filled with inventive, resourceful and irreverent people. While they may not all be showmen, many can be, if given the chance. Some things I should have done:

* Introduced video editorials with one person serving as anchor.

* Introduced a two-minute “Daily Show” segment having fun with the news of the day, including making fun of N&R gaffs. (I doubt we could have pulled it off every day but maybe two days a week?)

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(This is photo director Rob Brown in tne News & Record newsroom play acting with an app that adds special effects to video.)

* Assigned someone to do interesting, non-journalistic videos around town. We send photographers to find “good art.” Why not good video? I’d start with kiddie kicker soccer “games.” If you don’t think those are funny, one of us needs funny lessons and it ain’t me.

Built some video presence around a pretty female. (Yes, I know that it’s politically incorrect, but it would get traffic. Why do you think so many beauty pageant contestants end up on television?)

* Assigned one of our more charming writers to create an online only column of short, interesting observations. Like a fun Facebook feed. And maybe start a fictional serial.

* Tim Rickard is a multi-talented artist. He does a syndicated comic strip, editorial cartoon, The Jokes on You and a variety of illustrations and graphics. I’m not aware of him ever turning down the opportunity to do something fun and different. I should have turned him loose on the web with Flash and freedom to create. The thought is scary.

* After all this, marketed the heck out of the personalities, just as television does.

There are many more possibilities; I hadn’t even started with engaging people in the community.

I know the reasons all the reasons news sites don’t do things like this. I should; I said them myself many times. Who has the time? Who has the money? What are we going to give up? I wish I had tried harder and made some of the tougher decisions because the myFox8.com website traffic shows it would have made a difference.

4 thoughts on “Web traffic: the power of personality

  1. Experimentation is good, but trying to do a humorous video take on the news? Funny is hard. Even harder than good writing. Do you remember “The Daily Show” before Jon Stewart? How about the last time you heard one of the main news hosts on NPR try to make a joke? Those are what you are more likely to get: The joke falls flat with a nerdy klunk, or you’re almost guaranteed to offend people — and maybe both. If you have a natural comedian on staff, sure, try it, but otherwise, “Danger, John Robinson!”

  2. Agreed. We do have some funny people, but it is tough to translate into a public video.

  3. It doesn’t appear to have made Fox8’s site remarkably successful. The N&R’s sites, Fox8, and WXII all seem to be running pretty much neck-and-neck based on a quick check of a few analytics sites.

    I think they tend to serve slightly different audiences, though there’s obviously a lot of overlap. The kind of “fluff” you’re talking about really turns me off of local TV news sites, personally. It’s just so much more noise to sort through, and I get plenty of that on Facebook, thanks very much.

    And the N&R has some of that stuff in the past with very little success. They need to build on the staff’s strengths, not their weaknesses. If the N&R’s writers wanted to be video personalities, they would have made different career choices. The company doesn’t have enough cashflow to really commit to video in the way they’d have to in order to make it a major part of what they do.

    Turn the writers loose to write. I’d love to see more stories about what truly makes our part of the world unique. More stories about the community and business leaders who make the Triad tick. More stories about our home-grown businesses, more stories about our history. Maybe we’d spend less time dwelling on the City Council’s teapot tempests and more time figuring out who we are as a region and where we want to go.

    I love browsing through the newspapers from the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s: they pack so much on a page (the information density reminds me of Drudge Report, Facebook, feed readers) and it’s such a dynamic mix of content. And they really have a conscious sense of their own identity and of place and of audience. Newspapers today are comparatively bland. I can pick up a paper almost anywhere in the country and it’s going to be the same stale mix of thin, drab content.

    The problem isn’t truly the medium of delivery, be it newspaper or bits in the ether; the problem is the actual product along with the industry’s reluctance to adapt to changing habits of consumption. And it isn’t truly the fault of the folks who create the content: By stripping the newsrooms to the bone — strangling their creative capacity — and failing to really commit to and invest in turning digital media into a money-making venture when they actually had the money to invest (many papers have only recently begun truly integrating their online and print advertising sales teams, and then largely for the wrong reasons), media companies instead committed to the slow, painful death of the industry.

    Anyway. I’m taking over your blog. It just really pains me to see where things are heading.

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