Everybody is different from everybody else, and there are lots of ways to group people. But when looking at the audience of a newspaper website, there's one way that I continue to find compelling -- and troubling.
When we group users by frequency, we get something like this:
Our news websites tend to have a huge reach. This is the cumulative monthly unique-user count that we all like to brag about. It's the number newspapers tout when they claim they've grown total audience when print and web users are combined.
But this big reach is made up mostly of occasional users -- once, twice a month. Many come from search engines. Many aren't in the target market at all. And since advertising requires repetition to be effective, these folks don't constitute a very attractive audience from an economic perspective.
There's a much, much smaller component that's radically different from the big group. These are the loyal users, the people who come not once or twice, but 20, 30, 50 or even hundreds of times a month.
There's not much in between. Hardly anybody visits 10 times a month.
Let's set aside the business issues and just look at what this means for the journalism we practice today and tomorrow.
The common form of news storytelling that evolved in print journalism over the last century was shaped by not only the technology and scarcity of print, but also by consumption patterns that differed from what we're seeing today.
Just a generation ago, print was a major supplier of entertainment and diversion. Now attention is increasingly torn away from news by more glittery entertainment.
Many people still read home-delivered print (more than you might think). Print readership isn't directly measurable, but there are plenty of research tools that all report a decline in frequency -- and along with it, engagement with civic life.
On the Web, there's no home delivery -- you have to take an action to visit a website. The results are directly measurable, and painful to look at.
This isn't 1956, but we still typically write like Dwight Eisenhower is president.
That isn't a bad thing for everybody, but it fails for many.
For the people in the small "loyal user" circle, it actually works pretty well. News stories tend to report incremental advances in an underlying tale that unfolds slowly, over time. If you're following along, the incremental story makes perfect sense. You might want more depth, more detail, but you won't want to be told what you already know. You won't want the background.
The problem is with the occasional user, for whom the incremental story may seem to be just so much monkey screech.
The Internet gives us a couple of new tools for dealing with this problem: The beat blog, and the topics page.
They're very different from one another, and ultimately complementary.
The beat blog focuses on the small circle, offering speed, depth and conversation among the reporter and people with high interest in the subject matter. While regular users are the primary beneficiaries, there is a secondary benefit to the casual user: the reporter gets better at his or her job. Better leads, better feedback, better ideas can lead to more interesting journalism.
The topics page is the piece that offers the greatest opportunity to connect with the big circle. A good topics page has several obvious components:
- An editorially crafted synopsis. Who/what is this about? Why should I care? You won't get the answers by throwing together a link barn and calling it a day. This is where a reporter's expertise pays off.
- Images, maps, or infographics. A picture is worth a thousand words, so choose the best that help a casual visitor understand the framework surrounding a story.
- Links to Web resources. Be part of the Web, not just on the Web.
- Links to conversation. If this is significant, won't people be talking about it? Where do I find them?
- Links to multimedia components.
- Links to incremental coverage. Let the drill-down begin.
- Who covers this topic? How can I reach this person?
Done well, the topics page provides the casual, occasional user with a gentle, almost encyclopedic introduction to the topic (public issue, person, place, thing). But the regular, loyal user benefits too.
Done poorly -- and I've looked recently at some topics pages that would curl my hair, if I had enough left to curl -- a topics page leaves both loyal and occasional users with one of those "WTF" moments.
The biggest dangers come from these sources:
- Lack of a synopis that makes sense. Some sites don't even both writing a synopsis. Others seem to have assigned the work to interns from the marketing department.
- Misplaced trust in automation. I found a USA Today topics page about the BBC. A bot had assembled it. Every oblique mention of the BBC was churned up. The page made no sense at all. If I want to run a search, I'll go to Google, thank you.
- Inflexible formatting. A format or template should be a starting point, not an ending point. If your community has an awesome hip-hop culture, your hip-hop page should be awesome and hip-hop.