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.

What Santa Saw

The News & Record started a three-part Christmas fiction series today titled “What Santa Saw” that runs through Sunday. Susan Ladd’s first installment is promising. If it maintains that quality — and knowing the other two writers I believe it will — News & Record readers are in for a wonderful Christmas present. (It isn’t posted. You have to buy a paper or access it from the paper’s e-edition. It’s worth it.)

Before I left the paper, city editor Teresa Prout pitched the idea of a fictionalized serial so I was aware it was coming. I had reservations because there was going to be a different writer on each segment, and there wasn’t a lot of time. But I knew the writers were top notch; I had confidence they could pull it off. Besides, I was going to be gone by then so ultimately, it wasn’t my call.

Yesterday, Teresa, who is now the paper’s acting editor, answered a few questions about the serial.

Me: How did you come up with the idea?

Teresa: We try to offer something special for the holiday – something that will pull people away from their presents and their big meals and make them want to read.

Cathy Frail, the news editor, and I were brainstorming ideas for Christmas content at lunch one day about a month ago. I told her that we had some particularly strong writers on staff and that I thought we should take advantage of that. At the end of the lunch, we went out with the notion of having a seven-part series, by seven reporters, running the week of Christmas.

I brought the idea to our futures meeting, and while everyone seemed intrigued with the proposal, there was also concern that we didn’t have enough time to pull it off. Someone suggested waiting till 2012, but I thought that would doom the idea. I went out of the meeting planning to have three reporters doing a three-part story to run on Christmas weekend.

I picked a writing team with complementary styles. That they also had editing, writing and planning experience was a huge help. I went to them with the notion of working together to come up with a theme, a story arc and a cast of characters. My only requirements: lots of Greensboro touches, a tease at the end of the first and second stories, and a happy ending with Christmas spirit throughout.

Me: Why was the framework of “The Gift of the Magi” chosen?

Teresa: The team – Susan Ladd, Betsi Robinson and Margaret Banks – picked the theme. They chose a take on “The Gift of the Magi” because it’s a holiday classic written by a Greensboro author, O. Henry. This gave them a strong foundation for their work and a nice local touch. They did decide, though, to give their story a little more closure – and a true happy ending.

Me: What do you think the reader reaction will be?

Teresa: I think – I hope –that many readers will enjoy the story, read it aloud and maybe keep a copy.Tim Rickard is illustrating, so the artwork is beautiful. I know that some others will say this is a waste of time and space and that this is not what we should put on our newspaper. But really, serialized fiction has a long history of appearing in newspapers. And it is Christmas.

Me: What advice do you have for other papers that might want to try this?

Teresa: Go for it. Give yourself plenty of time since one writer can’t start till the other finishes. But I have to say that it took less time than I would’ve have expected. One of my writers had her part done in just four hours. Also get the right group of writers. My group was uniformly strong and they worked well as a team – getting together to plan each part, to determine what from the previous part would be brought forward, and to critique each other’s efforts and make suggestions. Last but not least, edit the story in its entirety for inconsistencies. You’ll probably find them, even with the very best of writers.

I really loved how the story turned out,and I think it’s significant that Susan, Betsi and Margaret are already talking about doing this again.