Thursday, September 17, 2009

Size doesn't matter: Why metrics are no longer important to my beat blog

John Ensslin and I were talking over lunch at the National Journalism Conference last month in Indianapolis, pondering why the numbers on our news blogs weren't soaring as they did on the daily stories we posted off the crime beat.

We're both courthouse reporters. John produces " for the Colorado Springs Gazette. I do "What the Judge Ate for Breakfast for the Wichita Eagle. Like most news sites, we get metrics reports each day -- the kind that can drive old newspaper reporters nuts.

"Most of my stories are usually in the top three each day, but my blog isn't getting that kind of traffic," John said.

Neither was mine.

We discussed ways we might drive more traffic to our blogs.  Then when I returned to the home newsroom, I asked web guru Katie for advice.

"Stop looking at the numbers," she said.

Katie does know best.

Used to be, back when we banged on typewriters, circulation was the only number that counted. We just figured people were reading, because we were providing important information. Now that we know who is clicking on each story, and how long they're staying, we've become disciples of pageviews. We've also learned that the weird or salacious stories get the numbers -- not always our best work.

John and I both had revelatory experiences since our visit in Indy

A courthouse source called me with a story tip. This is someone I like and value, who had never called me with a story tip in my 10 years on the beat.

"I love your videos," the caller said, talking about the 2-minute documentaries from the courthouse I produce several times a week.

I received an email from an acquaintance from the Criminal Justice Department at Wichita State University saying a professor there was using those same videos in class.

I'd call that useful content.

John had a similar story, when we reconnected via email:

I was watching a verdict in a drug trial. It wasn't a big enough case to make the print paper, so I went ahead and posted it on my blog within a minute of the verdict.

Within one minute of posting, the judge in the case stepped out of his chambers and says "I see you've posted the verdict on your blog."

That made me realize that, in a very immediate way, the blog is my connection to the court house beat. Sure, it has all the candlepower of a kitchen nightlight (to borrow a line from David Carr) but it's also my way to own this beat online.

Not that we've given up on numbers: I'm confident that the people who read daily stories off the news pages will eventually find the little extras we do. Lori O'Toole Buselt, our web content editor at the Eagle, began linking to my blog from my daily stories and printing refers to the blog in the print edition. I'm also working to add some of the best practices I've read on

But I'm also reminded what a good friend of mine, Michael "Supe" Granda told me years ago about his life as songwriter in Nashville. In any given club, on any stage, Mike said you'll see singers and bands playing their souls out, even if there's only a handful of people in the audience.
"Because in Nashville, you never know who's out there," he said. That small audience might include the music reviewer for the Tennessean or the executive with a major-label recording contract.

Sometimes it's who's paying attention, not how many.


  1. Excellent point Ron. This hits home because my newspaper just started posting blogs. They are pretty popular so far, and I'm guessing because they are on the main page.

    Keep up the great work.

  2. Thanks, Kate: It was kind of funny that John and I came to the same conclusion about the same time. He said it better than I could have.