Traffic is undeniably big news in L.A. (Carmageddon, anyone?), so it’s only fitting that the Los Angeles Times, the city’s paper of record, is racking up some fairly impressive traffic numbers of its own.
In the last several months, latimes.com has seen record traffic numbers, outpacing its own internal numbers and marking pageview gains while other news organizations have seen slight decreases. In March the site had over 160 million pageviews; in May it was 189 million. And according to numbers supplied by Nielsen and comScore, latimes.com was one of the few top newspaper sites to see a year-over-year increase in uniques in June, up 5.4 percent compared to decreases of 9 percent for the Washington Post, 18.8 percent for The New York Times, and 20.5 percent for the Wall Street Journal.
That doesn’t mean the L.A. Times is going to lap The New York Times or the Huffington Post when it comes to reader counts. But the numbers are still impressive, and more so when you consider the secret sauce at the heart of it all: a full embrace of blogging that adds voice in some corners, emphasizes timeliness in others, and has opened new doors for reader engagement. On latimes.com, news is geting the blog treatment and blogs are getting the news treatment. “Most of our blogs are reported stories,” said Jimmy Orr, managing editor/online for the Times. “What we’re seeing is big increases in our blogs, and that’s where a lot of the breaking news is.”
The Times’ traffic numbers are one chapter in the larger story of the paper’s continual adaptation to the web, even in the face of staff reductions. The Times has recently added an SEO chief, who works on the copy desk to optimize headlines; it also plans to expand its use of Facebook as a commenting system because of encouraging results it’s seen so far. The goal is a virtuous circle: A bigger community leads to more traffic leads to more impact for the Times’ journalism.
“If we can get more of our stories and blog posts read, we know that the quality of our journalism is such that once they’re discovered, one way or another, they’ll get shared,” Orr said.
If we were to look at the Times’ website as a house, its owners have been doing lots of remodeling over the last year, from changing some of their display elements on the homepage and story pages, to trying to improve sharing tools. One of the newest changes is the site’s approach to breaking news and other events: It’s been experimenting with replacing the traditional write-through concept with a more iterative approach that breaks out updates as individual stories as they develop. It may be more akin to SBNation’s StoryStream concept than, say, the typical AP article, giving readers the latest story updates without the supporting (and often redundant) context. At the forefront of those experiments is LA Now, which looks like a blog, but is actually a driver for breaking news. When a group of hikers died at Yosemite in July, the news unfolded through LA Now. The steady stream of updates helps keep the homepage from looking stagnant, which is what readers expect, Orr said.
Readers, ultimately, want “to know that you’re there,” he said. And if they come to your site “and see the same story from three hours ago, they’re wondering if anyone’s home.”
But the Times’ traffic gains have also come off the work of its blogs, including Politics Now, Hero Complex (on “movies, comics, fanboy fare”), and a Technology blog. Orr attributes that to the high posting frequency from the blogs’ writers, as well as their writing style. It’s writing that has voice and knowledge, but is also reported out, Orr said. So when you read an item on Politics Now about the Iowa straw poll, say, or an item about Pixar on Hero Complex, those posts are actually more akin to article-length stories.
Another reason for success on the blogs is, again, the integration of the Facebook commenting platform, which Orr said started out as a test and will be expanded to the rest of the site. Post-integration, the quality of the commenting has gone up, he said, as have referrals from Facebook, which increased 450 percent from this time last year. At the moment, Facebook comments are on about 50 percent of the site, including most blogs. Which makes sense, since they’re a promising place to try and hold a conversation with readers. The Times engaged in some A/B testing of sorts on a story earlier this year about a Giants fan assaulted at a Dodgers game: The blog posts about the story used Facebook comments and the articles used the Times’ existing system.
Not surprisingly, Orr said, the regular comments got ugly and required heavy moderation. Orr said he knows some people have misgivings about Facebook and using real names in online discussions, but for the Times, which readily admitted to a problem with comments, it’s the right choice. “There’s always going to be some dissenters, but what we’ve decided is that the quality of discourse trumps quantity,” he said. The difference for the Times between the standard system and Facebook’s has been “night and day.”
That insight suggests that, by better adapting to some of the native elements of online media, the Times could see even more traffic success. Orr pointed to the Times’ new SEO chief, Amy Hubbard, who helps massage headlines from their print underpinnings to something more search-friendly. And there, too, the Times has seen increases, a 65 percent rise in traffic from search and a 41 percent jump in traffic from Google as compared to this time last year. The Times is still adapting and experimenting, but Orr said the paper’s results show promise and are telling for news organizations that feel like they’re struggling with the web. “There is a misperception that when you put something up on the web, it’s a crapshoot whether people are going to see this or not going to see this,” he said. In reality, “you are much more in control of whether your story is read than many people think.”
Image from the Metro Transportation Library and Archive used under a Creative Commons license.