Are online news sites good at giving readers what they want?

My colleague and friend, Reuben Schwarz, posted an excellent piece last weekend in response to a published transcript of a presentation from Pablo Boczkowski, where he talks about “the gap between what reporters write and readers read threatens news orgs’ future“.

Reuben’s view was that the observation of editorially promoted stories versus those in the most popular boxes as a proxy of demand (actual story clicks) versus supply (promoted stories), and how that relates to how news organisations are reconciling (or not in this case) the demands of their readers with their own reporting, is a pretty one dimensional story.

There are many other factors at play that those numbers, or that dataset in particular, don’t really reveal or address. Reuben talks about these dynamics, such as the scarcity of real estate on the homepage, satisfying reader demands for “quick scans”, thinking about audience segments and associated values, public interest vs personal interests and also commercial factors such as monetisation of the audience and content. I’m not going to go into Reuben’s critique in detail (you should read it yourself as it’s pretty good).

I do however want to pick up on an essential point that he brings up, which is that what it all boils down to really, are the considerations that editors take into account when making decisions on what stories to promote. The “most popular” box is in fact, part of that consideration set, as Reuben alludes to again and again, and rightly so. Editors do make decisions based on the knowledge that some stories will still be discovered and popular no matter where you put them, and these stories will eventually find their way to the most popular box, displayed in front of hundreds of thousands of users to see.

Now, given the above, what exactly does this mean for the “what readers want vs what reporters write/promote” debate? Is the difference between what’s ranking in the “most popular” box and what’s being promoted on the homepage a sign of news organisations losing touch of what their readers want to read? Will it spell the demise of news organisations as we continually produce things which no one wants?

Headlines, editor’s picks and the “Most Popular” stories

Looking at Stuff’s homepage, you’ll see that the “Most Popular” box is placed above the fold. The same goes for most news sites out there (as Reuben pointed out also). There’s a reason for this that’s very much in line with the objective of the homepage, which is to serve as a gateway for the discovery of content across the site.

In Stuff’s case, about 70% of all visits to the site starts from our homepage (I imagine this stat to be similar across most news websites). This means that the homepage is absolutely crucial to us in terms making the most important and relevant content easily discoverable to a wide cross-section of the New Zealand public. You can imagine how difficult it can be to appeal to everyone, but over time good news websites (like Stuff) have fine-tuned the ways in which we do this.

The “Most Popular” box is just one of those ‘ways’. It is a navigational point on a space-starved homepage, in the same way that sectional tabs, editorial picks or headlines are all navigational points themselves. Their purpose are all the same, which is to allow our users to get to content across our site. What differs among them is how they get there. Headlines and editor’s picks display content curated by professionals for the audience, while the “most popular” box actually displays content curated by the audience for others (ie. it’s social aggregation at work).

So, the “Most Popular” box doesn’t operate in a vacuum. It’s very much a tool for making content discoverable that editors are well aware of. Knowing what will get aggregated in this space means that you can maximise the remaining space to promote other stories, which may not get ranked in the box. This leads me to the next question…

Doesn’t this mean that “unranked” stories aren’t relevant to readers? Isn’t this proof of the disconnect between what readers want and what’s actually being promoted?

In a word, no.

We’ve shown before how the common perception that stories of celebrity, or tabloid nature, account for a large chunk of news traffic online to be wrong.

In that same vein, thinking that stories from the “Most Popular” box, which more often than not includes controversial, scandalous, celebrity or oddstuff stories, is the be all and end all of our news traffic, is just simply wrong. All it is, really, is like taking a pulse of what everyone’s suddenly looking at, at one point in time. It does not always dictate the wider agenda, nor does it always drive traffic.

As Reuben mentioned in his own posts, one-off visitors are of low value to news organisations like ourselves. In addition to that, simply only having “celebrity” stories will only work to satisfy search engines and reduce our credibility or attractiveness as a “destination site”.

Stuff is not a content farm. It’s the nation’s most visited news website (according to both Nielsen Online and ComScore… unified, I might add). 75% of traffic to Stuff is direct, which is a strong indicator of user and brand loyalty.

We are a destination site.

We didn’t achieve that by simply plugging celeb-stuff all over the place in a bid to inflate search referrals (actually, as Reuben has pointed out before, our SEO isn’t even that great compared to others). Quite the contrary, actually.

We understand that “editorially promoted” stories that don’t appear in the Most Popular box may not be relevant to everyone, but it certainly doesn’t mean that it’s not important to anyone. We became a trusted news source by constantly building our credibility (and understanding the importance of credibility itself). We got to where we are by giving our audience reasons to keep coming back.

OK, all fine and dandy, but what does the data tell us?

Right, so I’ve blah-blah’d a lot about how the Most Popular box works in tandem with editorially promoted stories as well as other navigational points, and how this is all being worked, milked and leveraged by news organisations for the betterment of all.

I threw around some pretty general stats, but that might not be enough to convince the skeptics. So let’s look at a couple of other stats, perhaps those that aren’t very publicly available (not unless you ask one of your Fairfax Media Consultants).

  • 7 out of 10 users will enter Stuff via the homepage.
  • 5 out of those 7 users will click to view something else from the homepage.
  • 4 of those users will actually be clicking on a story, while 1 may click on a sectional tab, quiz page or other content type.
  • Of the 4 who’re viewing a story now, 2 will choose to go back to the homepage, while another 2 will go on to view another story.
  • Users get from story-to-story largely by using 1 of 4 elements; section headlines, Stuff headlines, related stories and the Most Popular box. The former 3 are “editorially promoted” stories.

Now, scale that to about 450,000 visitors a day, or 1.5 million visitors a week. On and on it goes. That’s the cycle of how stories are displayed, discovered and consumed.

The homepage, along with other “editorially promoted” elements on a story, features prominently in the cycle, as does the Most Popular box, but it does put the role and importance of the Most Popular box into perspective.

So, it’s true that the Most Popular box is a reflection of what’s being viewed the most at a specific point in time and it’s also true that the stories on the Most Popular box can often, not always, be quite different to those promoted  on the homepage’s headlines. What is not true, however, is the argument that news organisations should use their Most Popular stories as an arbiter for what the public’s reading appetite or general news interest.

If as a news organisation we were to simply let the “Most Popular” box set our agenda, we’d be stymied at every turn because we’d be producing nothing fresh for people to choose to be next on the Most Popular list. If Most Popular box was the be all and end all of what readers want, then there would be simply no need for 1 in every 2 users to return to the homepage to find more stories to read when the Most Popular box is available on every page. The fact that they do is proof that not all of what they want to read is contained within that Most Popular list alone.

What do the readers want?

Extending from another point that Reuben alluded to when questioning whether a reader’s click vs reader’s wants, one of the main criticisms to the theory of revealed preferences is that you can never be definite about what the user discarded in favour for their “preference”. That unless you know for sure what the full set of options were to the user at that time, both in terms of stories and behavioural factors (such as preference or non-preference towards a genre), then you will never know what has been “sacrificed” in favour of the “preferred option”. In not knowing what’s to be sacrificed or chose and by what conditions, you end up having to make available the fullest extent of options anyway, which in this case means everything that isn’t the Most Popular.

(In our case at least, we’ve done research studies with focus groups to identify their news demands and needs. This isn’t new to any news organisations, but what online has brought to the table is an abundance of data that allows us to reconcile the differences between the user’s stated and revealed preferences – ie what they say they want vs what they actually end up reading).

So, in conclusion

Readers want different things and they want a lot of things, all at the same time. What they need though, is essentially an abundance of choice delivered in a focused manner. To feel like they have access to everything, yet having to do very little to “access everything”.

Consider the integral part the homepage plays for users just starting on the site or coming back from a story to look for something else and then consider the space that editors actually have to focus a reader’s attention to what’s important or relevant to them. It is an ongoing challenge to deliver “what reader want”.

Online editors have met these challenges well by using a variety of elements to optimise the way they display content on one single page and make what seems like limited space to look like an abundance in story choice. Given this fact, why would we expect each differing element, used to optimise space and maximise choice, to always be displaying the same thing? Is it not the diversity in choice here that is the key benefit, not the other way around?

It seems to me that Boczkowski positions these differences between the “most popular” box and editorial picks as an impending threat to the future of news organisations, because of the apparent “disconnect” between reader and writer that it reflects.

I however view it as quite the opposite. To me, it’s a great example of how news organisations have both accepted and integrated the display of professionally and socially curated content to our audience. We recognise that interests are diverse and relevance is a moving target when you’re serving a few hundred thousand users every day. So being able to use both the wisdom of professional editors, as well as the wisdom of the crowd to determine what’s relevant, is in fact a good thing and can only work to benefit news organisations who know how to leverage it.

So to answer the question in the title: Yes, I think we’re doing a good job right now. But as all things are, we can and will definitely do better.

Follow me on Twitter (@feibiangoh)

One Response to Are online news sites good at giving readers what they want?

  1. Omer says:

    very beneficial article

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