Adam T. Vaccaro

Occasional musings on journalism and media

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The Hit Counter: A New Dawn

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Remember this guy?

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Why, it’s the page view counter (perhaps best known by its colloquial name, the hit counter)! A staple along the early roadways of the World Wide Web, this beacon let weary Internet travelers know how many souls had set digital foot in the area before them. The hit counter was generally placed on a home or landing page and looked like a car odometer, keeping track of the number of times the page had been accessed.

When Web 2.0 came to be last decade and “interaction” and “engagement” became the buzzwords by which we judged a web property’s success, the hit counter fell to far less prominence. Instead, comment counts and later social media shares shares became the important gauges.

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Of course, proprietors still cared how many folks were reading their content. But much, much more sophisticated data analysis products had already been available on the backend to publishers. And around the turn of the millennium various products made this data cheaply and widely available, culminating in the release of market leader Google Analytics. And like the toys in Toy Story 3, the hit counter was displaced.

But wait! Something’s happening at some of the more popular new media companies out there. The hit counter has come a’roarin’ back!

Look, here it is at BuzzFeed:

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And here, at Gawker:

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And, for good measure, here it is at Business Insider:

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So, it would appear as though the hit counter is back in style. After all, these three sites are hip and trendy and all that jazz, and have some level of say, at least for the time being, in where digital media will go.

This new generation of page counts doesn’t look like the old one. First, these are used on individual pieces of content, not on homepages like we saw in the late ’90s.

Also: they look different, probably to their benefit. That fire icon is suggests something very different than the old odometer-based counter I introduced up top. The odometer suggests, “Hey, this is how many miles are on this page thus far.” It makes it look old. A page that’s been viewed a lot comes off looking like a car with 150,000 miles on it. The fire (and I’m not really intending this pun but I see it coming and I’m going to walk right into it) is much hotter. It means, “This story is blowing up.” And, I’d suggest, that’s a whole lot more attractive to readers (and thus advertisers).

I haven’t done a study and intensive Google searching suggests no one else has either. So I’m not speaking as an analyst, just as a consumer. But something interesting I’ve noticed about myself: when I see something has more views, I’m more compelled to click. I want to be in on the joke, or to know what people are talking about. It’s the same as a blockbuster movie I might not have had interest in seeing. But suddenly it has a chance of setting some sort of revenue record? Well, damn! I want in on that too!

I’ve also noticed that when a publisher announces over social media that some of their content has gone viral, urging me to click on their link (not sure what the scientific measure for viral-ness is, but I tend to take their word for it), I’m all the more likely to click, with the thinking again being that I want to get in on whatever it is that’s blowing up the web. BuzzFeed does this a lot. Here’s what that looks like:

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So, hit counters. I’m wondering if the strategy here is to attract readers to click on or share a page by showing them that however many other people have as well. (Gawker’s properties and Business Insider show each piece of content’s views on the home page, but you can’t see BuzzFeed’s until you click on the given article, so maybe not.)

I reached out to BuzzFeed, Business Insider and Gawker to ask about why they are using these new generation hit counters. Only Business Insider CEO and editor Henry Blodget responded. He didn’t have a ton to say, except that readers seem to enjoy the numbers and they help make the site look “more lively and fun.” He also added:

They’re also helpful to our writers and editors, who use metrics like these to make sure they’re producing work that our readers like.

(Of course, analytics software does that with much more depth, but requires a little more time to delve into the numbers, and is more useful for understanding how and why people are clicking. So I can buy that it’s beneficial to the publisher to see right there on the site what’s getting read the most in realtime.)

No philosophizing or psychologizing from Blodget about the value of letting the audience know about an article’s popularity to influence them to click on it as well. Maybe it never crossed their mind. And I haven’t done the social science or surveying or anything like that to show that there even is such an effect.

But speaking simply as a reader and a consumer, I can say the new generation of the hit counter does have that effect on me. If I see something’s got the Internet’s attention then I want it to capture mine as well.

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Written by Adam T. Vaccaro

January 20, 2013 at 2:03 pm

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Out With the New

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Having posted disappointing October revenue, the Providence Journal will cut jobs — 16 of them, to be precise.

Which jobs will go? The most recently occupied. From the link:

Layoffs will be determined by seniority within job classifications and employees will once again have the option of taking a buyout, Hill said. Executives will decide how many employees they want to cut in different positions and then eliminate the newest hires first in each position, he said. More senior employees can “bump” newer ones out of a lower-ranking job if they can demonstrate they have the skills to do that job instead, he said.

My italics.

That doesn’t say tenure will be a factor in making a decision based on who’s most valuable to the organization. It says seniority will be the deciding factor. And it’s not just that the longest-tenured get to keep their jobs within the departments the paper intends to cut from. That last sentence above says that your position might be safe, but if a more senior employee from a different “job classification” was told they would be let go from that gig they could conceivably just take yours. I’d be curious to know if any jobs are lost in that manner, and which ones.

I’m a 24-year-old reporter, so I’m obviously biased. And there’s union issues at play here, so to some extent I’m sure hands are tied. But…who does it benefit to keep the folks who have been in place while the paper has gotten into financial troubles? If the longest-tenured employees presumably got the paper into this mess, what makes them so qualified to get them out? This reads to me like a system that will incubate old thinking. I don’t see how that can be good for business.

Coming out of today’s journalism schools, we’re encouraged to think entrepreneurial, to think innovative, because the nature of the industry is changing. The news went digital a long time ago. Most newspapers famously took too long to get there, and are stuck playing catch-up.

Because we grew up online, the thinking goes, my generation of journalists is supposedly well-suited to help institute these necessary changes. But all the same, as the Journal apparently sees it, we’re the most expendable.

Written by Adam T. Vaccaro

October 28, 2012 at 9:30 pm

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Denying Google

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Last week:

Brazil’s National Association of Newspapers says all 154 members had followed its recommendation to ban the search engine aggregator from using their content.

The papers say Google News refused to pay for content and was driving traffic away from their websites.

This week:

According to the National Association of Newspapers in Brazil (or ANJ in Portuguese), members that followed the association’s recommendation to abandon Google News have seen a decrease in web traffic of only 5 percent.

“The (newspapers) themselves believed that the 5-percent loss was a price worth paying to defend our authors’ rights and our brands,” said Ricardo Pedreira, ANJ’s executive director in a phone interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

The papers apparently see the small loss of traffic — 5 percent — as encouraging, but I don’t see how a loss of any traffic can be considered a good thing. But they said lost traffic was the reason they were making the change in the first place and are now saying a minimal loss of traffic is a success. I’m confused. What exactly was the point?

If Google News hurt journalism, it happened years ago and we’re not going back. I don’t see how this is a winning proposition unless traffic were to somehow go up. If it’s going down, then the publishers were wrong. I fail to see the value of the principle the papers are standing on — that by getting off Google News they’re protecting their claim to their work. If it means less people ultimately see the work, then what’s the point?

Imagine a football team losing by seven with 15 seconds left, and it’s fourth down. The team punts because it is against going for fourth down conversions on principle. Okay, they stood up for what they believed in. But they still lose. (And are open to bloggers’ criticisms as a result.) It’s not just a lost game, either. It’s hard to see any longterm benefit to punting there — except possibly to realize the futility of the decision and not make it again.

Small sample size, though. We’ll need a lot more data before anyone can say what the decision to scorn the almighty Church of Search means or accomplishes. Perhaps the benefits of dropping Google News, if there are any, will be seen down the road.

I guess the intention might be to ultimately leverage Google into having to pay to list the headline and summary, but I have a hard time believing Google values Google News as a portal to the point that they’d put a lot of money into it.

Written by Adam T. Vaccaro

October 28, 2012 at 8:51 pm

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Why Are Social Media Accounts Used Only for Editorial Purposes?

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Here’s a question for the media-types.

Why do news organizations only treat their social media accounts for editorial purposes?

Social is the buzzword in advertising, and most every news organization has itself at least a Twitter and a Facebook page, with a decent number of followers.

Why shouldn’t advertisers pay to have links to their websites or products or what have you blasted via those accounts? Newspapers, magazines have always been editorial and ads. If a Facebook feed and a Twitter stream are going to be considered a vessel for news organizations to spread their content, why can’t they equally be seen as an advertising source?

Without having done any kind of study, but I bet advertising services as disbursed via social media would be a hell of a lot more effective than simple banner or display ads. Or popup ads. It is shocking to me that some sites are still employing popups. Seriously. If I see a product advertised via popup, there’s a decent chance I’ll go out of my way to not buy it.

Two things. First, you would not put your editorial staff in charge of these advertising blasts. You would most indeed want to keep that line between editorial and advertising steadfast, for the same reason you don’t want your editorial staff writing ads — it comes as a threat of credibility, etc. So you’d need to make sure your advertising staff has access to post those ads. And there would likely need to be some agreed to quota between advertiser and organization as to the amount of times an ad can run per day, as well as an internal agreement at the organization about the ratio of ads posted to news content. The editorial content should probably be posted at a much higher ratio, so as to not irritate readers and risk the dreaded unfollow.

Second, also in keeping with the traditions of news organizations, I imagine you’d need to make it clear that a social ad is indeed an ad. I don’t know if that’s as simple as writing AD: (You’re only losing 4 of your 140 Twitter characters that way if you include the space bar) ahead of the Tweet, but I feel like this could be easily worked around.

It just strikes me as obvious. News sites are being accessed via social media. Readers ignore display ads. Advertising is the lifeblood of the industry. And editorial and advertising have always shared the page and the airwaves. Why can’t they share a newsfeed? Who says a news organization’s social networking account should be purely editorial?

I’ve never run a business and have never attempted to sell an ad, so I may be missing something. If so, please tell me why this wouldn’t work. Or are there places it’s already being done? I haven’t seen it, and I have a hard time understanding why not.

Written by Adam T. Vaccaro

October 25, 2012 at 7:55 pm

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Sandwich’s Attempt to Attempt at Social Media

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I spent my Labor Day weekend in my hometown of Sandwich, Mass.

The small Cape Cod town is both charming and boring in its slow, somewhat antiquated style. Its general resistance to new business and industry is attributed to its having the highest property tax rates on Cape Cod despite not possessing anything near the tourist appeal of Wellfleet, Provincetown or Dennis.

Anyway, that sort of sets the stage for this mostly benign but puzzling article I saw in the town’s free weekly, The Sandwich Broadsider last weekend: (The Broadsider is owned by Gatehouse Media, which also owns The Patriot Ledger, my current journalistic home base.) Here it is online.

Headline: “Selectmen explore social media options”

Key sentence:

Town Manager Bud Dunham said a municipal Facebook page is not the way to go and is something that [the town’s I.T. director] would likely not support.

The town wants to inform folks of going-ons, meetings and Town Hall news through social media. Sounds smart to me. And several other municipalities, too, seeing how social media usage by local governments is not uncommon. But Sandwich wants to do this without with Facebook.

Let me state again: this is mostly benign. Not really a big deal. In a faster news cycle than the week before Labor Day, it might not make the paper.

BUT…

How on earth do you say you want to get into social media but take Facebook out of the discussion? You can’t “do” social media without including Facebook. It’s not a matter of finding the right platform and saying, “Here we go! Now we’re in social media!”

Having a social media strategy is about using as many forms of social media as possible, or at least, as many that are relevant and applicable to your brand. (So no, the town doesn’t need a Spotify account. An Instagram account might work out pretty well, though.)

A social media strategy is diverse. And let’s be real: it includes Facebook. You wouldn’t say you want to build a house and not include a foundation. You wouldn’t say you want to build a baseball team and not have a pitcher. So don’t say you’re going to have a social media strategy and not include Facebook.

But selectwoman Linell Grundman doesn’t see it that way. “There are other social media. I think we need to do some research,” she said, according to The Broadsider.

There are indeed other forms of social media. That’s why the town should use them all if they’re serious about enacting a social media strategy.

The other town complaint from the meeting is that a Facebook page would require staff time to update. I don’t get how that would be any different than it is with any other form of communication. And with Twitter, for instance, you need to put in a lot more work to stay near the top of someone’s feed than is required by Facebook.

Okay. Like I’ve already said twice, not really a big deal. In truth, the selectmen should be focused on getting those property taxes down and finding ways to develop the town’s stagnant commercial sector, not Facebook.

But their comments on social media in The Broadsider, to me, reflect a lack of understanding about social media itself. And with social media such a key element of business growth today, perhaps that lack of understanding is indicative of a more general lack of understanding about today’s economy.

That would represent a far more significant problem for Sandwich. For now, the selectmen just look silly by saying they want a balanced diet but refusing to eat protein.

Written by Adam T. Vaccaro

September 8, 2012 at 4:06 pm

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Lost In a Magazine Article

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Two weeks ago tonight, I completed a two-month binge of the epic ABC program, Lost.

There are criticisms of the show I buy into. But the positives, I can list off quickly:

  1. It is built on a rich history and myth…
  2. Its narrative, while wild and all over the place, seamlessly transitions from one segment to the next…
  3. It is told with a lot of heart…
  4. It’s addicting as all hell.

This Boston Globe Magazine article, written by Neil Swidey, captivated me in a way no article has in some time. Or any media at all, for that matter, except Lost. It tells the history of the Boston-New York rivalry, from early settlement stand-offishness to 19th century infrastructure wars to baseball battles to the future fight for tech-minded smartypants.

I can’t tell if it’s the unapologetic first person storytelling, the snapshot-in-time to snapshot-in-time storytelling, the rich history mixed with right-now reporting (and looking-forward speculation), or engaging writing that did it for me, but through all its twists and turns and right up to its last sentence, I kept wanting more. When my fiancee, Deirdre, attempted to ask me a question while I was reading the last few sentences, I said, “Hold on a second. It’s the season finale.” Not joking.

And like Lost, for the first few days since reading it, I can’t stop thinking about it.

I grew up a diehard Red Sox fan and have lived in Boston for six years, but I don’t think I’d have felt differently if I had read it as a Detroit native or from out of the country.

I think, more than anything, it restored my recently-wavering faith in long form journalism. In the age of the web — and it’s worth noting I read the article in its entirety from my laptop — it’s easy to love a three paragraph story that tells you what you need to know, fast. At SomervilleScout.com, the highest viewed story of all time was an extremely quick hit that got around, fast. A long-form and expensive investigative story that I worked on, published in the same month, didn’t even get a fifth of the attention.

But this story did something different from those sorts of traditional investigative stories to keep me reading. Swidey was funny and engaging throughout, knew how to keep the stakes way up with each developing storyline, and had multiple moments of rising and falling action. In journalism, the term story is stock. Everything from a recap of a town meeting to a list of most purchased groceries is considered a story. Swidey, though, told a story. And I couldn’t keep my eyes from it.

I emailed Swidey to tell him how much I enjoyed the piece, and I decided — why not — that I’d make the Lost comparison. His response was just spectacular to receive, in part thanks to this sentence:

As a devoted Lost fan — it was the last show that my wife and I were clinically addicted to — I especially appreciated that comparison.

Written by Adam T. Vaccaro

July 8, 2012 at 9:40 pm

Jesse Carlson and Berlin Patch: Hyperlocals and Pro and/or Big-Time Sports

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I don’t know a lot about Berlin Patch.

I’ve written and/or edited for its cousins in West Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, the South End, Falmouth, Newton, Norwood…I think there are a few more…over the last couple of years, but I can’t imagine I’d even visited Berlin, CT’s site until today.

Having just completed a hard day’s work, I headed over to my favorite source for sports news — Rotoworld — to learn about what’s gone on today at baseball’s winter meetings in Dallas. Only a little bit of Red Sox news awaited me — they signed Jessie Carlson to a split major/minor league contract. Nifty enough, I suppose. He’s had his injuries, but if they want Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves in the rotation, bullpen bodies are in demand.

What caught my eye was the source: you’ve got it, Berlin Patch. The site, which covers Berlin High School, Carlson’s alma mater, broke this news.

Again, I get it, in the grand world of Red Sox Internet-fandom, from Sons of Sam Horn to Boston Dirt Dogs, not that big of a big deal. Especially on the same day Albert Pujols became a quarter-billionaire.

But in the small town of Berlin, it probably is. Having broken the news, the story will probably get the links and clicks to keep it as the site’s most viewed page for a week or so (that’s just a guess; again, I don’t know much about the Berlin site). Carlson’s brother tipped Patch off.

Where else can hyperlocals get this kind of traffic from national sports stories? Obviously, they’re not in the best position to break major sports news, especially when it comes to free agency and trades, and even if they were, they need to justify their reporting it with a local twist. But what about if they have recruits at their local high school planning to go play for Penn State next year? Get on that. See if they’re still planning on heading into a post-Paterno Nittany Lions experience. For that matter, any local recruit headed to a major program really should be pushed on the site; some of these colleges have big-time followings (like the Red Sox have in New England) and will want to know about these guys. And if a major athlete makes an appearance in town, make sure you’re on it. If you can somehow score an interview at the autograph session, I think even talk about the team and their season is worth publishing, since it was said there, in town. If you get something remotely juicy, you also figure to get the traffic.

These are just a couple of thoughts from my end; feel free to pipe in with your own.

Written by Adam T. Vaccaro

December 8, 2011 at 5:38 pm