Five Lessons On The New Science Of News

From this column and hundreds like it, you would be forgiven for having ingested the mantra that journalism as we know it is over and print is dead. Social dominates, but we haven’t yet figured out how to monetize digital. It’s not uncommon to hear the word “dinosaur” in discussions of the Fourth Estate.

Which is why the presentation I attended earlier this week, by Joanna Norris, editor of local Christchurch, New Zealand newspaper The Press, was so interesting. Yes, the news industry has been turned upside down and is going through a transition more replete with confusion than any teenage boy’s puberty. But the fascinating thing about this particular transition is that the people experiencing it have access to more information than ever before. They are moving from a place of dominance through ignorance — and what they can move toward is a place of strength through understanding.

So, Joanna’s story. She’s been a journalist for more than 15 years, getting her start at a time when the primary determinant of a story’s newsworthiness was the tautological act of the editor — “who was probably a man, probably over 50, and definitely a chain-smoker” — putting it in the paper.

Although power started to shift in the late ‘90s with trends like focus groups, what really broke the model open was Web analytics. In Joanna’s words, “The very forces that were undermining our business were unlocking secrets, and we needed to listen.”

Joanna shared five things her paper’s editors learned about news from their audience:

1. We live in villages. We may all be global citizens, but we care most about our home patch. When you ask them, readers say they care most about national news followed by world news. They are lying. Their online and print purchasing behavior tells us that what they really care about is their suburb, their city, their interests.

Two weeks ago there was a day of dramatic news: Boston bombings, a verdict in a grisly murder case, an earthquake in Iran. Oh, and the Christchurch infrastructure repair team announced that a local causeway would close for six months.
Which story was the most-read, most-shared and most-commented on The Press website? Tens of thousands of readers clicked on the piece of news that was new and exclusive: the local causeway.

Local and hyper-local content is king and queen, or, as someone tweeted to Joanna, “Local relevance trumps distant gore.”
2. If it bleeds, it shouldn’t necessarily lead. “If it bleeds, it leads,” is an age-old news maxim that is partly true — but not as true as we once believed. In our city, still actively recovering from the devastating earthquakes of a couple years ago, readers resist crime. Those stories are far outpaced by local politics, weather, and animals.

Does the same hold true in your market? Check your analytics.

3. Our tastes change throughout the day. Most of us don’t have pizza for breakfast or corn flakes for dinner. Likewise our appetite for news changes throughout the day.

Hard news works in the morning. Lifestyle content (especially food) works just before lunch, videos are popular mid-afternoon — don’t you people work? A news update is on the menu just before the commute home, better still if it involves a traffic update.

4. Online stories need different headlines than print ones. Headlines that once worked in print don’t work online. Journalists love puns. Readers don’t. A simple change of a headline often affects the performance of a story dramatically.
Take this headline from the UK-based Mail online: “Celebrity Big Brother star ‘punched and strangled his girlfriend after she refused to stay up listening to music with him.’”

A headline like that would never work in print; there just wouldn’t be room for it. But online, if you can’t immediately tell what a story is about, you’ve moved on.

5. Content has a value and you can measure it. Every day The Press attracts an average of 215,000 readers — incredibly impressive in a city of just 370,000 people. Each day attracts more than 160,000 page impressions, more than one million impressions per week. Joanna and her team know more about these people than ever before, and what they do matters: what they read and for how long, how they got there and what they do next.

This essential information about the paper’s market transforms news from an art to a science.

Joanna’s presentation offered a fascinating insight into the current state of journalism. A dispassionate, data-driven understanding of human behavior can help news organizations remain relevant in a changing world, delivering essential, intelligent content in a way that is accessible and interesting to readers while still being financially sustainable.

By Kaila Colbin
Kaila Colbin is a serial entrepreneur who is fascinated by all things Web and human.
Courtesy of MediaPost

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