A tale of two audiences (and beatblogging and topics pages)

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:

two audiences

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Links to Web resources. Be part of the Web, not just on the Web.
  4. Links to conversation. If this is significant, won't people be talking about it? Where do I find them?
  5. Links to multimedia components.
  6. Links to incremental coverage. Let the drill-down begin.
  7. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


I really like your distinction between the niche local-public-affairs-junkie audience and the broader drive-by audience. I'd suggest one more dynamic for your explanation of why traditional newspaper content has fallen in popularity since the Eisenhower era. It's not just that people are now "torn away" from the real news by entertainment news. If writing about celebrities were all it took to succeed, Perez Hilton would have existed in 1956. Now as ever, we're all interested in different things -- as you say, everybody is different from everybody else. And the fewer of us there are interested in something, the more interested we tend to be in that thing. If everybody's interested in something, I'm unlikely to be HIGHLY interested. And these days, we're able to spend our time on things that we find highly interesting, such as a blog written for our particular niche. This doesn't reduce our interest in news content; it just trumps it. There are only so many hours in the day. It's sort of like a third dimension to the long tail: each of the niches in the tail are deeper (in relevance) than the shallow-interest, big-audience head of the curve. In the tail, audiences tend to want beat-blog style coverage with a high time commitment and high payoff. In the head, audiences tend to want evergreen content with a lower time commitment.

All true. So what? What can one person at a newspaper's web site do with this info and make it make money? This is one of those high-minded, absolutely perfectly clear analysis that is nearly perfectly useless for most people. I still own the domain name "addcontext.com," having worked with AP and others several years ago to develop web service that developed contextual links with news articles. The project is dead and buried. The problem, however, remains: Local newspapers need to have a web service everyone comes to every day. It's a dirty little secret that they haven't done it and Steve deserve a salute for saying so. Thank you, Steve. Now, here's how to start building a "every day" local news web network. It's just a start, but it's a good one: Put, one way or another (you figure it out), widgets with news headlines on every local web site. It's amazing how local news seem to add context to any and all local web sites. (The Smithville Book Club? Local news widget has headlines and, it's about Smithville, so, it makes sense...Duh! Absolutely amazing.) As you are doing this, build or buy new and unique web sites that can reach worthwhile niches. (That's what we have done with Wuduplz, a web service we're offering local newspapers. It has zip to do with the news, but we put local headlines on it for users. Think that was an obvious move? Go look as some of the niche web sites local papers have built themselves for local niche audiences and count how many offer news headlines. It's rare.) Take a hint from the best. Context is what Google is about. They very often add news in context to what people search on and they most always add ads in context to their users' search results. Local newspapers can do that: Local news headlines are most always in context to local everything. It's tough making Smithville news be in context to much of what it going on in the world. But, if newspapers can offer local headlines to local readers--even on local knitting, local dog training, local cheerleading, local gardening web sites, local churches, big and small--the news headlines WILL be in context. And newspapers will then have a lot more regular "loyal users." As I said, Steve has aired the local newspaper biz's dirty web laundry. What to do with it? Your choice: 1) Start working with local web sites to include news and offer more niche web sites such as WuduPlz OR, 2) Completely reinvent modern journalism. OK, Steve is right. We do very much need to reinvent internet journalism. But, not today. Let's do more local web news in more local web sites first.

Great list of features for the topics pages, Steve. Can you point to any sites that are doing this well? Thanks!

BBC and USA Today generally do a good job. On the other hand, one of the worst I've found was a USA Today page, auto-generated by a search query -- for "BBC." Some searches can churn up nothing but trash, and that one did.

Not surprisingly, the New York Times does a good job (not necessarily pretty) on its topics pages. A year ago I could easily find some on the NYT site that lacked a synopsis. One in particular I recall: A page about Burt Bacharach that never came out and explained what he did and why he was significant. It looks like NYT has thrown a bunch of manpower at the problem.

Most of us, stripped of staffing, can't do that. I'm recommending to our papers that they make a short list of high-value continuing stories, and supplement that by taking advantage of opportunities when they float by. Example: When the local military base gets a new CO, there's a big ceremony, and the base PIO hands out biographical info. While you've got the info in hand, make a bio page. Ditto for political candidates, etc. Over time you'll build a collection.

I have not found a paper yet that takes proper advantage of the opportunity to tie a topics page back to a reporter's profile or beat blog.

Hello, I totally agree with you that online news delivery needs far better organization and navigation than it currently has. In order for these sites to be more sticky and popular, users need an easy way to separate serial material requiring knowledge of earlier articles from standalone material that all users can follow. In my opinion, the major news organizations are going to be forced to learn this skill. In hard copy, it is easy to skim through the paper and separate the two classes of material, and simply read those articles that suit your reading style. This is impossible on the web without organizing the material in such a way that this is consciously facilitated. In testing right now are foldable monitors that you can scroll up in place in a briefcase. Once these are enabled with wireless capability, and mass marketed, users could obtain news by subscription electronically, saving the newspaper companies billions in newsprint, ink, and delivery expenses. In this environment, the type of navigation I referred to will be a must. I don't completely agree with you that ad dollars are dependent on this smart navigation. Admittedly, the smart navigation will make the sites more sticky, and attract more repeat visitors. But as long as viewership is adequate, the quality of the ad will drive the clickthroughs (not the quality of the site's internal organization).

Steve, you are right on target about our Topics Pages, and I'm on something of a crusade (along with a couple other folks who understand what these pages CAN be) to make them better. We recently switched out the entity extraction engine that was identifying keywords in our stories, and the results are 100% better (not perfect, but better). We've also got our bloggers and community managers all tagging content now (no small feat) and that helps make these pages stronger too. We're also using the flexible template layout options that I built into the pages to deliver different content on different "categories" of pages. I talk about that a bit in a recent blog post on our TechLabs blog, linked from my name on this comment. Hopefully, there will be fewer and fewer messy pages like the BBC page you wrote about.

Read this in response to your tweet of the link earlier today. I am working "hyperlocally" and have been pondering how to make online community news site relevant and interesting -- not only to the local loyals, but that wider circle. This is absolutely the best analysis on how to structure content for those sites I have seen to date. It crystallizes a lot of my thinking on the subject. Thank you for sharing it.

Just quoting this post in some research I'm doing and realised I wrote a similar list back in 2007, but expressed it in terms of the 5 Ws and a H and as something that might be done more generally - there was even a Knight News Challenge bid for a plugin to do this: Who can I connect with? What did the journalist read to write this? Where did this happen? When are events coming up that I need to be aware of? Why should I care? How can I make a difference? Nice to have the idea of topic pages to focus it further. Anyway, more details here: http://onlinejournalismblog.com/2007/11/12/five-ws-and-a-h-that-should-come-after-every-story-a-model-for-the-21st-century-newsroom-pt3/