At Small Paper, Breaking News Boosts Audience

September 9th, 2008; 3:20 pm by Ryan Thornburg

The Pilot in Southern Pines, N.C., is small by circulation but not by ambition. In the September newsletter for the N.C. Press Association, president Rick Thames notes that the paper, which circulates 14,584 copies three times a week, boosted the number of daily unique visitors to its Web site from 5,000 to 5,700 in six weeks. How? By posting more stuff more often.

The lesson, Thames writes: “The more you post, the higher your numbers will climb.”

Yes, and there’s a good reason for that.

It’s important for journalists to understand that the way people read news online is fundamentally different from the way they read in print. Put simply, print is appointment content and online is incidental content.

Print is delivered in a package at the same time every day. Online is delivered in drips and drabs in an ongoing process throughout the day. Yahoo News — essentially the AP wire repurposed — is the most popular news site in North Carolina and the United States.

Online news is consumed by an at-work audience. Online news readers sneak quick peeks at news while they should be crunching the latest spreadsheet. They are reading news on the sly, in short undetectable bursts. According to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, online news consumers spend six minutes a day in that medium while newspaper readers spend 15 minutes a day with the dead tree edition. The number one threat to journalism in America isn’t the decline of classified ad revenue, it’s the potential that corporate American will one shut down access to news sites and blogs.

In the great debate about whether the unlimited space of the Internet will encourage more in-depth reporting or whether the bottomless news hole will create a world of news briefs written in 140 characters or less, the latter has won.

Among the online news audience, more people say they go online for “breaking news” than “in-depth coverage,” also according to Pew.

How Did The Pilot do it?

Staff Size: 14

Increase in Online Resources: Made the sports editor the go-to online guy. Gave him a video camera and tape record and made the Web his top filing priority.

Decrease in Print Resources: Eliminated one copy editor position.

Change in Workflow: Stories are now published first online if they break on a day when The Pilot doesn’t print.

That, of course, begs the question — did The Pilot trade a perceptible decrease in quality for a perceptible increase in quantity? Certainly they increased their risk of error, but isn’t that the hallmark of a good business — knowing when to take calculated risk?

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