Keeping track of readers’ tracks

The evolution from the 24-hour ink-on-paper news cycle into the immediacy of the Internet Age has become so ingrained in America’s newsrooms that it is sometimes easy to forget how quickly this phenomenon has changed the way we operate — and how quickly it has grown., The Plain Dealer’s Web affiliate, has been around for 15 years. But until only a few years ago, the paper’s newsroom still considered it to be so foreign that we often resisted putting our best stories on the website until after they had appeared in print. Didn’t want to tip our hand.

By contrast, today’s competition for breaking news is measured by the stopwatch rather than the calendar, so now our reporters operate under a “Four in Five” rule. That means a reporter who gets a breaking news story is expected to post at least four paragraphs on within five minutes of getting the news.
The story is then updated throughout the day.

The partnership seems to be working for readers. A current study by the Scarborough Research company identified the Cleveland-Akron region as the top combined print-Web newspaper audience in the country, with 84.7 percent reporting that they read a newspaper or visit a newspaper website weekly. That’s 1 percentage point ahead of Boston.

Editors can measure their online audience in ways that their print-only predecessors never could. In the “Front Page” days, the only numbers editors had were how many papers they sold each day, so they relied on their gut, the ringing telephone and peering over the shoulders at the lunch counter.

But today’s online editors are awash in numbers. They know how many readers they have ( is the dominant news website in Ohio), what they read and how long they read it.

For example, the folks at know that during the month of July, more than 4 million people came calling on their website. They know this because for the last 18 months they have been using a measuring device called Omniture, which plants a piece of code into every page that’s built on the site, and counts every time there’s a call on that page.

The technology has only been available since January 2009, but even in that short time, the increase has been dramatic: up about a million over the January 2009 number. Since newspapers and websites stay in business by selling advertising, that’s a lot of eyes to lure website advertisers.

We know not only how many, but we know when.

On a typical day, says Jean Dubail, who has been The Plain Dealer’s assistant managing editor/online since 2006, traffic on starts picking up about 6 a.m., peaks at about 9 a.m., drops off a bit, peaks again at about noon, experiences an early-afternoon trough and then peaks again between 3 and 5 p.m.

After that, it drops off steadily through the evening. (Hmmm. No problem if that seems to coincide with the normal workday, including a midday siesta . . . we’ll take our readers in whatever cubicles we can find them.)
Of course, what’s in the news sometimes drives the traffic. On July 8, the pattern began as usual, with the number of visitors climbing through the morning and hovering around 200,000 through the afternoon. Then at 9 p.m. — right around the time LeBron James was announcing “The Decision” — the number shot up to nearly a half-million and stayed there for a couple of hours.

Speaking of sports — not only do we know how many and when, but we know what. And what people seem to be most interested in is sports, specifically the Browns.

The daily reports on which stories drew the most online interest almost always show the biggest numbers coming from sports, which accounts for a full 40 percent of the website traffic. Some of us have joked that if life were discovered on Mars the same day the Browns signed a backup offensive tackle, the Martians would finish sixth in the website ranking, behind five Browns stories.

Last weekend, for example, the most popular story on the website was about Charles Barkley criticizing James for his decision, followed by a Bud Shaw column on the subject. The two pieces totaled almost 100,000 views. The next seven on the list were about the Browns, before a news story broke through: a story about a police dog dying in a hot car.

So we know how many, when and what. Why people click on the stories they do is a bit trickier. We’ll try to unravel that mystery a bit next week.

This column was originally published in the Cleveland Pain Dealer on Aug. 22, 2010.

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