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Bob Cohn

The Newest Journalism

Bob Cohn Editorial - 10/07/2013-15:13 PM

 

Once upon a time, there was old media. It was reported, edited, top-edited, copy-edited, and fact-checked. It was good.
 
And there was new media. It was fast, hungry, loosely edited, quick to fix the mistakes it often made. It was good enough.
 
For a while, readers and journalists alike seemed willing to accept that there might be different standards. People expected less of digital in the early days; it was, everyone said, “just the web." Accuracy and fairness and good writing and smart design—all that mattered, of course, but it was sometimes hard to square those demands with the implications of everyone’s favorite analogy, that the web was “the wild west.”
 
These days, the web seems a bit less wild and more polished. Everywhere you look, there are signs that publishers are importing traditional journalism values to the constantly shifting digital environment. The web continues to do what it does better than print—delivering on-the-minute stories with a conversational tone to an always-connected audience—and the blog post, as one distinct unit of digital journalism, still offers what Andrew Sullivan called in 2008 “the spontaneous expression of instantaneous thought…accountable in immediate and unavoidable ways to readers.” But increasingly, digital journalism does its business while embracing certain core beliefs typically associated with old media.
 
Take design. As recently as five years ago, the web was mostly text. Rivers and rivers of text, without much thought given to breaking up the grey. Over time, digital publishers discovered that even a little bit of old-media design love—a sharp photo or illustration, a crisp chart or map, a well-crafted pull quote—can make a story more appealing (and more shareable in social media).

Then came Snowfall. That, of course, refers to the digital treatment that The New York Times gave to its 10,000-word story in December 2012 on 16 skiers caught in an avalanche in Washington state’s Cascade Mountains, three of whom died. The article, with its panoramic photos, embedded videos, interactive satellite maps, slideshows, and sidebars, set a standard for splashy web treatment of a big story. (Or, as some have argued, not such a big story.)
 
Within weeks, snowfall became, in a kind of comic-desperate way, part of the vocabulary in digital circles, as publishers sought to create their own snowfalls and advertisers asked to be adjacent to (or integrated within) snowfall stories. Of course, few publishers have the multimedia and developer resources to pull off this treatment; even the Times has been understandably stingy about doing the full snowfall for more than a couple of stories. Still, more and more outlets are creating their versions of this type of digital storytelling. From ESPN and Rolling Stone to Pitchfork and The Verge, the results can be impressive.
 
It won’t be possible for digital publishers to bring this kind of ambition to every web story, but of course that’s not the goal. Even the glossiest of magazines reserves the most resourceful design for cover stories and other major features, while front-of-the-book stories rely on templates. The point is that enterprising treatment in the service of storytelling, once the province of print, has edged into the digital mainstream.
 
When it comes to traditional journalism values now trumping hoary digital truisms, it’s also worth looking at the question of velocity. Without paper, printing, or postage costs, the main limitation on how much you publish is how many stories you can wring from the day’s developments, broadly defined, each day. So a lot of us, seeing the success of a Huffington Post, tried to compete on volume. We soon realized that yes, we were running a lot of posts, but relatively few of them were attracting big audiences.
 
During a series of experiments, we played with the quantity-quality matrix: Could we draw more readers by publishing fewer posts, if those posts prized original analysis and creative thinking? The results suggest that, while there’s always the case of that quickie aggregation post that goes viral, readers do reward enterprise. It’s been refreshing to confirm that, on the web, as in print, quality, however it might be defined or measured, is the ultimate driver of success.
 
The changing newsroom culture may be one of the best opportunities for transmitting mainstream journalism values to the new order of things. In the early web days, newsrooms were segregated. You had the digital nerds in one corner and the “regular” journalists at the center. At The Washington Post, digital operations were for years located not in the paper’s massive building near the White House but across the Potomac in suburban Virginia. At Wired, where I worked for seven years on the print side, I learned (to my shame, and only after I left in 2008) that the sometimes-disrespected web team referred to the corridor that separated us as the Berlin Hall. Even as recently as a few years ago, while executives were boasting about their digital-first cultures, a lot of folks on the web continued to feel like second-class citizens.
 
Those days really are over. Change didn’t happen just because people started sitting near each other. At The Atlantic, where the print and digital teams have long shared space, there has recently developed a culture of cross-training. Digital writers are doing stories for the monthly magazine; print editors are running web projects. One of our newest products, The Atlantic Weekly, is a slick magazine-style presentation, on the iPad, of some of our best digital stories that week.

We’re learning each other’s languages—and each other’s tricks. And that old gap between good and good enough is closing fast.

 

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Bob Cohn

Good Comment, Bad Comment: Fixing a Broken System

Bob Cohn Editorial - 08/02/2013-09:29 AM

 

One of the great promises of digital journalism is that it breaks down barriers between publications and readers.

Consider print: You publish a story, wait for the reader emails to arrive, choose the most interesting, run a fraction of those (heavily edited for space) in a letters-to-the-editor section, then wait for readers to see your selections in their next encounters with your magazine or newspaper. (If that sounds cumbersome, recall that as recently as two decades ago those letters came not by email but as dead-tree contributions.) Sometimes even the best letters can be confusing to readers, since they respond to articles that may have been read days or weeks ago—if they were read at all.

Now consider digital: You publish a story, make it possible for readers to write comments that appear directly beneath the article, and encourage them to respond to each other as well as to the author of the piece. All in real-time; at Atlantic sites, as at other web properties, comments typically start appearing minutes after a story is published. The average post may attract a dozen or two comments, but it’s not at all uncommon for a post to have hundreds. Or (less commonly) thousands.

At their best, comment threads can put topics in a new light, stir discussions, create community, even uncover new talent. Richard Lawson, now a senior writer at The Atlantic Wire, rose through the Gawker ranks from anonymous commenter to star writer. At The Atlantic, senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates had a particularly incisive commenter who went by the handle Cynic. We thought his observations in the comments section were so good that we asked him to contribute to the site under his own name. Now Yoni Appelbaum, a doctoral candidate at Brandeis, writes for us on everything from the Civil War to presidential politics to Amtrak.

Of course, commenters frequently are not at their best. Too often, comment sections are cesspools of vitriol, magnets for haters and trolls and spammers. Threads get hijacked so they are only tangentially connected to the topic of the underlying post. The lack of friction—mere seconds elapse between furious keystroking and posting to the world—can privilege snark over enlightenment.

The main issue here is whether comments create such a negative environment that they detract from the reading experience, a proposition to which many would answer yes. But some researchers fear the problem is deeper than that. A study by professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that people who read a neutral article about nanotechnology followed by uncivil comments were more likely to perceive risks with the technology than people who read the exact same article with civil comments appended. The alarming implication here is that the comments affect how readers understand the journalism.

So what’s a publisher supposed to do in the standoff between the world of good and bad comments? Some are, understandably, giving up. The ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C., became so exasperated by the “mean-spirited, and at times hateful comments” that last month it pulled the plug.  “These comments provide no value to our readers and are time-consuming to moderate,” wrote the station’s director of new media.

There’s the rub. It takes a lot of moderating time to foster a positive commenting section. Writers or editors have to jump into the conversation to keep it on track, or to mete out justice by removing comments or even banning the worst offenders. It’s nice to think we’ll just let a thousand flowers bloom; in reality the garden needs to be weeded. But who’s got the resources? Coates says that at one point he was spending as much time moderating his comments section as he was writing posts for the site. That’s untenable—though, it must be said, Coates’s hard work created a terrific environment for readers and for himself. (When Ta-Nehisi won a National Magazine Award earlier this year for his magazine essay, Fear of a Black President, he thanked his commenters for the good suggestions they had made as he reported and wrote the piece.)

So if you believe—as I do—that comment sections can be good when aggressively moderated, but you don’t —as we don’t—have the human resources to undertake that moderating, what’s the answer? There are software solutions out there, like up/down voting systems that privilege the “best” comments by promoting them higher in the thread.  Likewise, publishers have tried various star systems to reward the best commenters and algorithms to identify and promote Most Favored Commenters, so the good stuff stays at the top and the bad stuff recedes. Some sites require commenters to register with their real names, a solution that can certainly promote civility but has its own costs.

At The Atlantic, we’re also trying something more radical. Earlier this year, we deputized two of Coates’s most faithful readers, giving them the keys to the site and assigning them to moderate his comments. They have the power to discipline and even ban. Ta-Nehisi says he chose readers who are “wise” and who had already “done the work of moderating by cooling down threads that were on the cusp of becoming knife fights.” The verdict: So far, so good. We’re watching this experiment closely, wondering if it can scale to other parts of our sites.

There’s an argument, of course, that in the age of social media, traditional commenting threads are archaic. If the purpose of a comments section is to foster discussion by amplifying reader feedback to an article or column, certainly much of the worthwhile discussion is taking place on Facebook and Twitter, not just at the bottom of a post. So a better system might integrate social media with traditional commenting.

New technologies and creative thinking will no doubt combine to build a better commenting system. In the meantime, publishers and readers alike have to decide whether our current imperfect system adds or subtracts to the journalism.

 

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Bob Cohn

The Mystery of Dark Social

Bob Cohn emedia and Technology - 06/04/2013-13:41 PM

 

That rainbow of lines you get from your analytics team in those monthly reports aims to give you a quick snapshot of the different sources of traffic to your websites.

Here's what that graph looked like for TheAtlantic.com in a recent month. At Atlantic sites, the blue line tracks users who type in our Web address or bookmark our site directly; the purple line follows those who arrived via search; the red line reports links from other sites; the green line monitors referrals from social media.

Click to Enlarge

 
That seems clear enough. But it turns out we (and probably you) are only getting part of the picture. What’s missing in this data—or, to be more accurate, what’s captured in this data but not broken out in any useful way—is traffic that comes from sharing but is not generated by the familiar pillars of the so-called sharing economy: Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, LinkedIn, Digg, StumbleUpon.

The stories that fall between the cracks are those that are passed around in casual ways, outside the social media super-structure, millions of times a day. “Most of the time,” writes Alexis Madrigal, “someone Gchatted someone a link, or it came in on a big email distribution list, or your dad sent it to you.”

Alexis, who is the tech editor at TheAtlantic.com, gave a name to this black hole of traffic: dark social. These sorts of referrals are not broken out in the chart above. But they represent a large part of the audiences we all receive. At The Atlantic, our director of analytics, Adam Felder, estimates that dark social accounts for about one-quarter of all referrals to our sites.

So where’s it coming from? Since those four lines in the graph add up to all of our traffic, readers arriving under cover of dark social are stealing market share from one of the other categories. Specifically, dark social is coming out of typed/bookmarked category, which is the catch-all bucket for sources of traffic that can’t really be traced. Adjusting for that fact suggests the true power of user sharing: nearly half of The Atlantic’s traffic, as an example, is coming through the combination of traditional and dark social.

None of this surprised Alexis. Growing up in rural Washington, he spent a lot of time in the pre-Twitter social world: bulletin boards, ICQ, and other virtual hangouts of tech-minded mid-90s adolescents. So more than a decade later, he wasn’t buying the idea that social networks had somehow birthed a new social Web. Sharing was sharing; the tools were just getting better.

Then Alexis saw how Chartbeat was dividing visitors who showed up without referrer data into two categories. The first group was people who were going to a home page or landing page. The second was people going to any other page. This second set, Chartbeat figured, were users following a link, because nobody actually types in http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/05/what-the-man-who-first-summited-everest-thought-of-the-first-american-to-orbit-earth/276305/, for example. Chartbeat called them direct social. Madrigal was ecstatic. “They'd found a way to quantify dark social, even if they'd given it a lamer name!”

So why should we care about dark social? As editors and publishers, we need a clear understanding of where our audiences are coming from. There’s a false sense of security in believing a greater portion of our audience is coming in through typed/bookmarked than is really the case. Our audience, it turns out, may not be loyal repeat visitors after all.

On the other hand, if there are more visitors coming in through the social side door—the Facebook/Twitter axis plus everyday dark social—well, that tells us something about the content we are creating: It works! People are sharing it. People want others to see it. In the sharing economy, quality wins. And if that sharing economy is bigger than we realized, quality matters more than ever.

Our new understanding of dark social comes just as analytics gurus are coming to realize there’s something quirky going on with search referrals. BuzzFeed, in a post titled “Where Did All the Search Traffic Go,” notes that traffic from search engines to digital publishers has dropped 30 percent from September 2012 to April 2013. Some of that is an actual decline in the power of search as the sharing economy takes off. But some, alas, is the result of incomplete data.

As Digiday’s Jack Marshall explains, Safari and Firefox – in certain circumstances—are not passing along accurate referral information when users click through from search. That means search is undercounted, and no one knows quite how much. Danny Sullivan, the search engine expert and consultant, has dubbed this delta, of course, Dark Google.

The challenge now is to find a way out of all this darkness. If we can’t see where we are, we can’t know where we’re going.

 

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Bob Cohn

Don’t Call It a Redesign

Bob Cohn emedia and Technology - 11/15/2012-12:51 PM

 

For much of the last year, my colleagues and I have been working through a redesign of the home page of our flagship site, TheAtlantic.com. From whiteboard sketches and Google docs to Dunkin’ Donuts and the occasional conference-call squabble, we completed the project thanks to the standard tools of 21st-century workplace collaboration.

What was surprising, though, is how quickly the undertaking turned from “sprucing up the home page” to “what is our mission and how should we achieve it?” Midway through the process, in fact, we sought to avoid referring to the project as a redesign at all. That seemed to trivialize it, suggesting a facelift or a fresh coat of paint. The goal, we realized, was more strategic than aesthetic.

As it should be. A lot had changed since we last revamped the home page in early 2010. Perhaps the biggest difference was the size of the audience, which grew from 3.8 million monthly unique visitors in February 2010 to 12.5 million in October 2012 (Omniture). Likewise, we have about three times more daily visits to the home page than we did back then. For all the side-door social and search referrals (which are by far the major drivers of our audience), the home page still claims between 15 and 20 percent of our daily page views. Now that it was attracting nearly 300,000 visits a day, we needed to serve those readers better.

The goals we set out to accomplish, listed below, are hardly unique to The Atlantic. But familiar growing pains are not necessarily any easier to soothe. We tried, quite deliberately, to use the design process to fix problems and improve user experience. The mission included:

• Give the home page more visual oomph. We went with a larger lead photo and lead headline, and allocated more real estate to promoting our visual features, “In Focus” (our photo section) and video. We also adopted new typefaces and a cleaner look. I may sound confused; I just said a few paragraphs ago that the mission of the project was strategic, not aesthetic. That’s true, but one strategic goal was to flex some visual muscle – to reflect the more visual nature of the site, to keep pace with other sites that publish much larger home page photos than we do even now, and to ensure the focus of the page didn’t shift too far toward ever-more sophisticated and visually emphatic ads.

• Drive readers to the interior pages of the site. Six months ago, I wrote in this space that the home page matters, “but not, perhaps, for the reasons you may think.” The argument was that the home page is critical for conveying the sensibility and values of a site, for serving as a statement of the brand. So the page mattered even if it wasn’t triggering very many clicks, at least relative to social and search. True, but why not optimize the page (and all our pages) to drive depth? With the new design, we have introduced skyboxes on all pages as well as what we call the Belt on the second screen of the home page. Now we’re promoting 18 stories on the first screen and a half, compared to 13 before. To our eyes, at least, the page doesn’t seem busier.

• Fight the tyranny of the “right rail.” The clickstream data shows that the standard right column of a page has become easy for readers to overlook. That long gutter is a line that eyeballs just don’t cross. Unhappy about giving up 40 percent of our page, we decided to reclaim that real estate as a place for compelling content. To do that effectively, we got rid of the gutter.

• Make the bottom half of the page more dynamic. In the 2010 redesign, we tried to make the top of the page look sharp. But we failed to require the same ambition of the rest of the page. One exercise we've been going through in the last year: call up a site, scroll down one or two screens, and then ask ourselves, How does that look? More and more we came to admire those sites that put real effort into the second, third, and fourth screens down. So we've tried to bring strong design to the whole page, not just to the top.

• Reflect the important role of social media. The Most Popular box tells readers what stories others are reading. Our social strip at the bottom of the page goes a bit deeper, indicating which stories are popping on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and StumbleUpon. (We’ll be adding more services as our analytics permit.)

• Give more of our on-staff writers regular presence. Our new Writers module promotes the latest posts from a fuller range of journalists on our team.

• Create a higher-impact experience for advertisers. For both the edit and sales teams, clutter is the enemy. To cut down on the noise and give the ads more impact, we reduced the number of spots on our home page from a banner and two boxes to one box and one high-impact pushdown unit. In some circumstances, the page features only one standard ad.  At the same time, we built in flexibility to test new native promotions that will allow us to surface custom advertiser content, labeled as such.

• Promote our sister sites better. Since early 2010, we have added a new site to The Atlantic portfolio (The Atlantic Cities) and to our parent Atlantic Media Company portfolio (Quartz). With the new home page, we’re allocating space, when editorially appropriate, to teasing stories from those sites, as well as creating a footer that features top stories from all our sites at all times.
 
It’s been a week since we introduced our new home page. In the coming months, we’ll be altering article and channel landing pages to reflect the new look out front. Of course, even then we won’t be done. In a constantly changing media environment where data and reader comments are both instantaneous, you’re never done.

 

 

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Bob Cohn

Hiring in the Digital Age

Bob Cohn Editorial - 09/20/2012-10:43 AM

 

Not so long ago, magazine and newspaper editors knew exactly what they were looking for when hiring young journalists. Certain jobs called for certain skills: Reporters had to report, researchers had to research, designers had to design.
 
These days, things are more complicated. Most of the new jobs in journalism are on the digital side, where a broader and somewhat different set of skills is required than we print hires possessed a generation or two ago. What editors need now is a new breed of journalist.
 
Over the last few years at The Atlantic, I’ve played a part in hiring several dozen young digital journalists—into new jobs, thanks to our web expansion, or into open slots created by departing employees. (We have, of course, brought on lots of experienced journalists, too.) What we’re looking for, I’ve come to realize, is people who can do a bit of everything: report and write stories; write headlines and deks; select and crop photos; fact check and copy edit the work of others; make charts and graphs; oversee social media; manage outside writers. (And hey, can you do some coding?)
 
The upshot: Today, everyone is an editor-in-chief.
 
This transition from vertical job descriptions to horizontal job descriptions is perhaps the most profound change in newsrooms that are full of change. I can’t say whether this is a sign of trouble or triumph for journalism. Probably both. But it is definitely a matter of fact.
 
As an industry, we’ve come to the point where we are asking a lot of relatively inexperienced twentysomethings, perhaps too much. The range of duties, combined with the need for speed, can lead to mistakes. But my sense is that there’s no going back. The new platforms and the new business environment demand a shift from more genteel times. The good news is that as much as we expect of these new hires, it’s been my experience that they can do the work. There’s a surprising amount of talent and energy and sophistication out there.
 
Finding this talent marries traditional recruiting methods with an eye toward the new realities. On the traditional side, it still pays to cast a wide net, even if that means sifting through more than a hundred resumes for every opening. And we’re still looking at customary markers of excellence: success in past jobs, intellectual curiosity, dynamic thinking.
 
But the new world prizes other skills, too. The best hires possess a kind of creativity and entrepreneurialism that my peers and I surely didn’t have at that age. Today’s young web journalists are learning to frame and write stories in innovative ways. And as smart at they are, they’re also playful, ready to bring some fun to the game.

We also look for a candidate’s ability to make lateral connections across topics. In interviewing business writers, we might ask about tax policy and retail trends but we’re most interested in how candidates think about non-business topics—and whether they have the instinct to apply a business or economics lens to everyday subjects. Likewise, we look for what Gabriel Snyder, editor of The Atlantic Wire, calls “keyboard presence.” Just as actors can have stage presence and athletes can have field presence, a good web writer is a natural in front of the screen.
 
And then there’s speed. Digital hires ought to be able to move quickly from task to task, keep active multiple windows—on their screens and in their heads. But not, alas, at the expense of accuracy. In a world where there’s typically one layer of editing instead of two or three (or more), you gotta get it right.

In pursuit of journalists with these new skills, we’ve found that it can pay to look in unlikely places. Alan Taylor, who oversees The Atlantic’s crowd-pleasing “In Focus” photo blog, was a web developer at the Boston Globe when he started assembling image galleries on the side. James Hamblin, The Atlantic’s new health editor, is a medical doctor who had just finished his internship in radiology when he joined us as a full-time editor and writer. Neither Alan nor Jim came to us with anything close to a traditional journalism background. But they have the right sensibilities—and the skills to succeed in a new age.

 

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Bob Cohn

The Partnership Puzzle

Bob Cohn emedia and Technology - 07/16/2012-14:48 PM

 

It’s an article of faith among digital publishers that content partnerships are one of the key levers for success. If you’re operating a small site and you want to grow, you need to partner up with big distributors that can serve as megaphones, amplifying your content and, the theory goes, bringing a new audience back to you. If you’re running a big site, you need partners to provide fresh content, and lots of it, to satisfy the millions of eyeballs arriving each day.
 
And so we live in a partnership ecosystem. As a medium-sized player, we at The Atlantic have partnerships going in both directions. We send some of our best stories to sites that have huge traffic. We take smart stories from smaller sites that are happy to share their goods with our strong brand and relatively large audience.
 
All of these partnerships raise the obvious question: Is it really a good idea for publishers to give away their content for free? The arguments cut both ways.
 
The chief argument in favor of sharing content is that you can get direct traffic in return. If the partner site is displaying your logo and linking to other stories on your site, it’s a fine idea to give away a story or two in return. This is a plausible theory that bears out on occasion. If, for example, Yahoo! runs a story from The Atlantic or one of our sister sites, especially on its home page, there can be a surge of traffic from Yahoo! back to our pages. Not always, and often the surge is more like a trickle, but it can be something.
 
But what if The Atlantic’s partner has a particularly strong presence in social media? If it rips an Atlantic article and then uses its social infrastructure to push that piece to the world, the inbound traffic from Facebook or Twitter goes to the partner site, not to us. (This assumes that the partner is linking to our article on its site, not our article on our site.)

We don’t worry much that when Yahoo! posts our story, they’re grabbing readers who would otherwise have read that piece on TheAtlantic.com. Those might be separate audiences. But if our partner was dominating Facebook, Twitter and Reddit with links back to our story on its site, our own social efforts might be drowned out. With social media now generating the plurality of our unique visitors, this could hurt.
 
Now let’s consider branding. This, some say, ought to be the tiebreaker. If you accept that there are gains to be made from direct links but losses to be suffered in social media (and maybe don’t be too quick to accept either of those theories), then the branding benefit could be persuasive. The theory, of course, is that just having your logo on another site, even if there are no clicks back, is good exposure for your brand. Certainly there’s logic in that: A highway road sign provides branding, even if customers are cruising past at 60 mph. Maybe you’ll stop at that pancake house not now, but in the next state over.
 
OK, but there’s a case to be made that people have been trained to tune out the noise when they’re on websites—to avoid the blinking ads and the right-rail modules and the partner logos.  If they’re reading defensively, if they’re tuning out the noise, then you’re not getting exposure after all. And, if you were happily trading exposure for some losses in social media, well, maybe that trade isn’t worth it anymore.
 
I still believe in content partnerships. But we should be honest about the possible tradeoffs, and humble in our certainty about how exactly these arrangements work.

Bob Cohn is editor of Atlantic Digital. In this role, he oversees all editorial components of The Atlantic’s digital and mobile properties, including TheAtlantic.com, TheAtlanticWire.com, and TheAtlanticCities.com, as well as the print publication’s integration on digital platforms.

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Bob Cohn

Misconceptions About the Homepage

Bob Cohn Editorial - 05/01/2012-13:42 PM

Does the homepage really matter? Yes -- but not, perhaps, for the reasons you may think.

The homepage is the single best way for editors to convey the sensibilities and values of their websites. Everything about the page – the design; the selection of stories and images; the treatment of features and widgets; the language and cadence of the headlines; the typeface; the frequency with which the page is updated; even the ads – is a statement about what matters to the publication. With one glance at the page (literally, a 10-second glance), a reader can get answers to these questions:

• What’s this site about? News? Analysis? Service? Gossip?

• What’s the sensibility? Serious? Playful? Quirky? Geeky?

• What are the subject areas that matter most to its editors? Washington? Wall Street? Hollywood? Silicon Valley?

For these reasons, the homepage is, as the marketing team would put it, the ultimate brand statement. And, by the same logic, all this is true for the home screen of a magazine’s tablet app, too.

There’s one thing, though, that the homepage is not much good for: driving traffic. While I don’t have data on this, it’s my sense, anecdotally, that many editors continue to believe that one of the primary goals of the homepage is to guide readers to the articles on the site. I know that’s what I long believed. But the evidence – and here there is data – suggests the homepage is overvalued as a mechanism for generating visits to interior pages.

Across The Atlantic sites, the fraction of visits that begin on the homepage is surprisingly small. About 13 percent of visits to our flagship TheAtlantic.com start on the homepage. That figure is about 8 percent for The Atlantic Wire and 10 percent for The Atlantic Cities. That means, of course, that roughly 9 in 10 sessions begin on an article page or, much less frequently, a channel or author landing page. 

It is the case, of course, that getting promoted to the homepage can give a boost to an article. Just not as much as we might have thought – and not the way we imagined. In the ongoing cubicle game to puzzle out the Google algorithm, our editors have noticed that a story that gets a big burst of traffic in a short period of time tends to fare better in search returns. The overall number of readers to the piece may not be huge, but if they come to the article within a narrow band of time, that may be enough to affect search returns, even days later. And, naturally, a story that does well in search tends to attract a larger audience.

So here’s a traffic lever: a homepage tease can, in certain circumstances, generate a concentrated burst of readers to an article, which can tickle the Google algorithm and improve the story’s performance in search. This peculiar bankshot is one way that a story’s placement on the homepage can bring substantial traffic.

Still, with 90 percent of visits starting on a page not considered the homepage, one conclusion is obvious: Every page is a homepage. However readers arrive at our site – from a Yahoo link or a Facebook post or a Google search or a mention on YourMomsBlog – we need to find ways to keep them there. That means designing article pages to drive the next click: related content headlines, video boxes, most popular modules, most shared modules.

Many sites are good at this, but, paradoxically, being too good can be a problem. I’ve seen article pages on popular and respected sites with pop-ups, oversized social buttons, and right rails that look like Times Square. Don’t forget why the audience came in the first place: to read the article.

For big media companies, all this can be scary. As powerful as the brand may be, it’s disconcerting to realize that each article lives out there by itself and has to succeed on its own. This is more true than ever in the atomized world of social media, where the individual post, photo gallery, and infographic is untethered from the brand and shared as an independent unit.

You can post that unit to your home page – and if it’s good, you should. But that’s not how readers will find it.

Bob Cohn is editor of Atlantic Digital. In this role, he oversees all editorial components of The Atlantic’s digital and mobile properties, including TheAtlantic.com, TheAtlanticWire.com, and TheAtlanticCities.com, as well as the print publication’s integration on digital platforms.

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Bob Cohn

Welcome to the Sharing Economy

Bob Cohn Editorial - 03/01/2012-15:24 PM

A year ago, the main sources of referral traffic to our flagship site, TheAtlantic.com, lined up in this order:

• Typed/Bookmarked (readers who type our url into their browsers or follow their pre-set bookmark);

• Links from aggregators and other content sites;

• Search engines;

• Social media (a roll-up of Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Digg, StumbleUpon, and LinkedIn)

Then something interesting happened. The social line began rising, first passing Search and then flying by Other Sites and finally, in late 2011, moving beyond Typed/Bookmarked. Now, TheAtlantic.com receives more than one-third of its referrals from social media, topping all other sources.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not long ago, optimizing your site for search, and for the algorithms that determine which stories get featured on Google News, was thought to be the key to generating audience. As a result, Web editors were learning to parse metadata and resigning themselves to writing headlines for machines. Companies like Demand Media were on top of the digital world, suggesting a future in which search requests would replace journalists as arbiters of what stories to publish.

SEO still matters, of course, and a Google-friendly headline can still make a post go viral. (We’ve seen it: Try typing Earthquake in Japan into your search bar.) But for so many sites, social sharing has eclipsed the machines. And therein lies a happy story.

The triumph of the sharing economy is good news for publishers. Which is why on so many sites, the social media buttons crowd the pages like logos on a NASCAR jumpsuit. If a site can get you to “Like” a story, it wins. Your network, the theory goes, will follow your recommendations. Peer-to-peer sharing beats any top-down model.

So in a social media ecosystem, what exactly works? Here’s the real good news: quality works. If your editors and writers are smart and creative and original, they can produce stories and photos and lists and charts and interviews that are so compelling that readers are eager to share the content with others. Then you get to harvest the rewards: More Facebook Likes, more tweets, more juice with the Reddit community. More readers.

For publishers, that means there need not be a tradeoff between doing great journalism and driving traffic to your site. In a sharing economy, it’s great journalism – in any of its many forms – that builds audience.

Bob Cohn is editor of Atlantic Digital. In this role, he oversees all editorial components of The Atlantic’s digital and mobile properties, including TheAtlantic.com, TheAtlanticWire.com, and TheAtlanticCities.com, as well as the print publication’s integration on digital platforms.

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