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The Danger of Free

August 16, 2012

This column might ramble. I apologize in advance.

One of the fun things about running a blog is looking at your stats. Seeing which posts are popular, and competing against yourself to get more and more views is kind of fun.

But it can also be idiotic—not that idiocy has never stopped a newspaper company (or a blogger). Let me explain.

Newspaper companies are relying more and more on web-based metrics of readership. For free papers, this move has its roots in the cost—or lack thereof—of their product.

The fact that most community newspapers are free has insulated them from (some of) the Internet-caused tumult that has been so damaging to dailies. There have always been downsides, of course, the most obvious being the lack of revenue that accompanies the word “free.” Ads in free papers are also cheaper than those in similar circulation paid-for papers. After all, 30,000 papers distributed free to 30,000 homes, whether they really want the paper or not, do not have the same readership as 30,000 papers bought by people willing to pay for their news.

But the rise of the free community paper has presented another problem, one that has a direct affect on the journalism the papers produce.

Free papers have a difficult time measuring their readership. The question has always been: how many of those 30,000 papers get tossed straight in the recycling? And also: if a person does pick up a paper, how much of it does a person read?

Many newspapers will survey their community in order to try to answer such questions. But the surveys are infrequent and tainted by the fact that their primary function of the results is to sell advertisers a readership. The infrequency of the surveys makes it impossible for publishers and editors to analyze the numbers and determine whether people like the paper more than they did last week, last month or last year.

The Internet means that the circulation of paid papers is decreasing at a rate far exceeding the decline of the journalism they produce.  So measuring success and quality isn’t as easy as seeing if the numbers are going up or down; they require comparisons with other papers. But the beauty is that circulation numbers permit this, and thus they offer the simplest way of answering the question: “How much do readers value this paper?”

Those numbers provide crucial data that the publishers of community papers don’t have. At least, that is, for the printed product.

The focus on growing online readership isn’t a bad thing. The world is headed away from paper and companies have to respond to that shift. For free community papers, that means that they can finally accumulate the same sort of data that paid papers have. They can also now measure their readership over time and against others in their chains.

Predictably, editors find ways to game the system. the Vancouver Sun is the most famous practitioner, with its regular sex-themed photo galleries, but community papers have tried the trick too.

To their credit, Black Press has backed away from photo galleries and Glacier is also showing less enthusiasm than their predecessors. (Feel free to disagree with me in the comments on both counts).  Social media—Twitter and especially Facebook—is now the order of the day in the quest for more and more online clicks. It makes more sense: advertisers will eventually catch on to the fact that half of the Sun’s hits comes from people hitting the “next” button hoping to finally see some nipple.

But even without photo gallery cheating, the main problem with web numbers is that they usually only reflect the ability of a journalist to drive traffic to a story, rather than actually write and research a good article in the first place.

Earlier this year, I had 10,000 hits in one day on this blog. That was more than 30 times any previous day. More than half the hits (5,037) came via Facebook, but readers weren’t pointing to any outstanding bit of commentary or reportage I had produced. Rather, they came because I had posted Osoyoos Times editor Keith Lacey’s anti-RCMP column and the Mounties’ subsequent response. I think I wrote, in total, around 200 words. But people were interested (and outraged) in the story and so this blog was flooded by visitors.

All those visitors have leaked away. Today, when I don’t post, I usually get around 40 to 90 visits. On days with new posts, I get between 150 and 300 visitors, many of them by way of Twitter. (This is actually quite good in my mind; I aim this blog solely at local journalists in B.C. and there aren’t thousands of us out there). Looking at my stats, that 10,000-visitor day swamps all. If I relied upon it as a metric of quality or readership, it would skew how I write this blog—and not in a good way.

When community newspapers look at their web numbers to gauge success—because, after all, the paper version is free and difficult to measure—they see a similarly distorted picture. Stories that contain hot button words like “guns,” “marijuana” and “teen sex” might be the most popular on the website, but the articles themselves might be shit.
Web numbers don’t care, though. Hypothetically an egregious piece of journalism might be passed from one outraged person to the next. You could rack up the hits, while losing hundreds of future readers.

Even for advertisers, not all hits are created equal. Most advertisements on community newspaper sites are for local businesses. When someone from Kyrgyzstan reads a random story about climate change on the Kelowna Capital News website, that page view is next to useless for the Cap News’s advertisers.

But I doubt that anybody’s paying attention to that.

All papers—both paid and free—need to use the data they have better. And the data is out there. You can tell where someone is from when they visit your website. With a good stats program, you can also tell how long they spend on your site and where they go after they’re done with you.

I’d like to think that Black Press and Glacier are doing so as I write this. One can dream after all.

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