News websites: Are you building traffic or community

In a post about newspaper websites, I mentioned that one question for determining the value of a site is whether the content emphasizes building community or building traffic. Dan Kennedy suggested I elaborate.

I’ll cut to the chase: the days of traffic for traffic’s sake are over. The key for long-term survival of a local news site is a community site that knows, works with and cares deeply for its community.

For years, news websites wanted traffic. They didn’t care where it came from or what it was; the numbers were what counted. It didn’t even have to be humans; it could be bots, for all anyone cared. Consequently, news sites were filled with stories about crime, fires and quirky, non-local stories. Web folks were trained in SEO — anything to get the clicks.

What didn’t get many clicks? Dull-but-important stories about city council and the school board, the passage of tax law at the state capital. In other words, the meat-and-potatoes of newspaper coverage. So, that was a big part of newspaper websites, particularly in the morning before the reporters came in, got their coffee and figured out where they were eating lunch. (Believe me, I’ve been there.) The emphasis on crime and sex came to drive traffic to sell to advertisers. Besides, it’s easy. Law enforcement churns out dozens of crime reports daily. A little rewrite, a little imagination and you have a linkable story.

But advertisers are getting smarter about traffic. Impressions on an ad are great, but they want the same thing they’ve always wanted: results. Technology is getting smarter, too. Google and Facebook and a number of websites can link ads on their pages to items visitors searched for. Ads targeted specifically to the visitor. If a news site doesn’t have this capability, it’s losing.

Traffic for traffic’s sake may be today’s model, but its lifespan is short. Instead, for future viability, news sites must become community hubs – a place where people go for trusted news, information, personality and connection. Publishers likely will see a decline in traffic, but, done right, the site will get the traffic that local advertisers want — local shoppers. And the journalists will be pleased to be contributing to a site that serves the common good.

How? A few ways:

* Focus on stories that matter, stories that solve people’s problems, stories that address jobs to be done, stories that right a wrong. Connect statewide, national and world stories to the local scene. Don’t waste time on George Clooney engagement stories. Give people a reason to come directly to your site.

* Have a personality. Every community has a personality, some characteristics that make it itself. Does the site reflect that personality or is it bland? As part of that, be bold with your voices: The web is a place where you can break with the traditional journalistic objectivity. In North Carolina, we have GOP candidates who say that climate change is bogus. Most of them want to deport all illegal immigrants, without regard to the economic consequences. The leading candidate said some staffers caught in an affair resigned…then he said he fired them. Call them out.

* Create wikis or other web shiny objects that allow visitors to report their own news. During community-wide news events — violent storms, huge fires, crimes that affect the entire city — become a curator in addition to the traditional role of journalist. I teach in Chapel Hill, and one morning I awoke to snow on the ground. I need to be in Chapel Hill by 8 a.m., and I was unable to determine if the roads there were passable. Residents could easily have told me and every other commuter, if there was a community site that enabled and encouraged it.

* Be easy to reach and gracious in response. Too often, it’s hard for people to figure out who should receive a message. Once they do, too many journalists consider reader comments and requests irritants. Reporters have stories to report and write. Editors have stories to find, assign and edit. In my old job as editor, it was commonplace for frustrated people to call me because their calls to reporters were never returned. All you have to be is courteous.

* Better active, engaging and charming on the social networks. Too often the institutional newspaper will tweet a link to a story on its site with the simple headline. No personality. Occasionally, it will ask your opinion on the story. Still, to what end? Be fun and smart and helpful. People appreciate that.

* Know your community better. If your community is racially diverse, is your website? My guess is that it isn’t because, you know, news knows no race. Except that it does, of course. In Greensboro, the population is 45% white, 40% black and 7% Latino. Are all of those represented fairly on the site? If so, excellent. If not, figure out why and make changes.

* Where are you? As commenters have noted, include your city’s name on the site. It should be a point of pride. Greensboro was removed from the newspaper name 20 years ago in an effort to brand itself as a regional paper. The same philosophy carried over to the website. The effort didn’t work then and doesn’t work now. Bring the name back. (It’s not just Greensboro; Raleigh, Durham and Fayetteville don’t either.)

* Before I left the newspaper, I was noodling around an idea that we create a Facebook-like site for Guilford County. It was beyond our reach for a variety of reasons, but the idea behind it is still viable: Get members of the geographic community to connect with and talk with each other. It wouldn’t be curated or monitored by the paper; it would simply be created by the paper’s staff and sit on the paper’s site.

All of this takes money and time — which newspapers have, but won’t use. In many newsrooms, the emphasis is on keeping profit margins in the double-digits and pushing productivity goals. Many newspapers owned by the same chain — BH Media and Gannett for example — use cookie-cutter sites so that appearing unique is difficult.

Newspapers need to start placing new bets on the future. (If they don’t, the competitors are already there, seizing market share.) If you truly believe in the community — and every publisher says he or she does — and you truly believe in public service — and every editor says he or she does — then start making the move.

H/t to Jeff Jarvis for several thoughts here.

4 thoughts on “News websites: Are you building traffic or community

  1. I would disagree with this: “Get members of the geographic community to connect with and talk with each other. It wouldn’t be curated or monitored by the paper; it would simply be created by the paper’s staff and sit on the paper’s site.”

    Tried this idea for numerous years at multiple companies. This is the equivalent of opening a bar with no booze just so people can come talk near you instead of you going to the cool bar that everyone hangs out at and being part of the conversation. Join people where they are, don’t make them come to you. You’ll get the most active people on your forums but won’t meet people who just want to hang out on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram, etc. Folks don’t have patience for multiple social media sites, that’s mostly media folks. Go find your audience.

  2. Thanks for this informed post. It was really useful for me to read, as I am a co-founder of a local news site. I was heartened to see that we tick most of these boxes. Berkeleyside’s community of readers is very engaged with the team and with our reporting — active in providing tips, comments, and coming to the events we organize. The one area we want to explore more is the ‘reader forum’ type platform which you suggest might be a wiki or other “web shiny object.” At the moment, when there’s a big weather-related breaking story, for instance, readers share their experiences and tips with us across several platforms — email, Twitter and Facebook. Has anyone seen a good, live example of the wiki approach?

  3. Pingback: How news sites can do a better job focusing on local communitiesIVOH

  4. Strong post Kev. I would argue that some good b2b brands have been doing much of what you suggest for a while.

    One thing I would add is that taking an active approach to incorporate reader comments back into stories really helps place the community at the heart of the content and gives them a sense of ownership.

    The model I would suggest would be 1) publish bare bones story and invite comment 2) evaluate comments left and seek ‘expert’ reaction to them 3) write a follow up piece based on the comments and reaction.

    Another point I would add is that most publishers are naive in thinking in terms such as “creating community”. The community already exists, the media just plays a role in it. It goes back to basic media theory, starting with the agora and working out through to the fourth and now fifth estates. You once said that the trick of social media was to be social. The trick in community engagement is going out into the community. You don’t create or, you engage with it – which means two-way communication.

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