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Nov. 9, 2012, 9:30 a.m.
Reporting & Production
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Election night traffic, trends and strategies from The New York Times, CNN, BuzzFeed, and more

The Times, Washington Post, and others saw record numbers for mobile traffic. Others, like CNN, used election night to experiment with their design.

Video, data, and mobile news were the big themes for election night coverage in 2012. Though it’s no longer unusual to see a media outlet blur the lines between TV, online news, and social media conversation, news sites were aggressive in trying to challenge the primacy of broadcast and cable news for results in the presidential race.

Some, like The New York Times, made upgrades to their news apps in hopes of grabbing a larger audience watching results on their smartphones. For HuffPost Live, the emphasis was placed on providing a mix of persistent information mixed with conversation. CNN made changes to its website to offer readers some utility on election day, including a new look for CNN.com and a responsive-design results page. For many more, a combination of interactive graphics and live data resulted in high traffic numbers. As journalists recover from their campaign hangovers, here’s a quick survey of traffic stats, strategies, and trends from election night.

By the numbers

A caveat to keep in mind: News organizations measure, and share, traffic differently for mobile and desktop. The information they provided may not be the best for comparison, but it does offer a sense of what data is important to them.

For the 24-hour period around election day, both the Times and The Wall Street Journal dropped their paywalls, which contributed to both seeing higher number of visitors. Sara Blask, a spokeswoman for Dow Jones, said unique visitors were 50 percent higher than for the 2010 midterm elections, while pageviews increased 20 percent. For video, WSJ Live in particular, Blask said they reached a new single day record with 1 million streams across WSJ.com, apps for platforms like Apple TV and Roku, and on sites like Hulu and YouTube.

At the Times, traffic to NYTimes.com was 75 percent higher than the 2008 election, according to Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokeswoman for the company. It was also a record day in terms of traffic to the Times mobile apps. Rhoades Ha said app sessions were four times greater than the 2010 midterm election.

The Washington Post also saw a surge in mobile traffic. Cory Haik, executive producer for digital news at the Post, told me over email that visits to the paper’s mobile site increased 40 percent over their previous record. Traffic to the Post’s politics iPad app were up 177 percent from its previous best traffic day, she said. Overall, for the regular desktop site, visits were up 62 percent from 2008.

Politico achieved historic traffic numbers, 54 million pageviews, and 9.4 million unique visitors, making election night 2012 the biggest traffic day in the site’s history, said spokeswoman Sara Olson. By comparison, Politico saw 5.5 million pageviews and 977,000 uniques during the 2010 midterms. Politico Live, their live video component, had more than 108,000 streams, Olson said.

At NPR, pageviews to the mobile site were five times larger than normal, said spokeswoman Danielle Deabler. Over email, Deabler told me, “A typical day gets about 100k visits and we had over half a million to the mobile website and the responsive version of the election apps page that replaced our mobile homepage.”

A utility-based approach to news

CNN also broke traffic records on Tuesday night, with more than 203 million pageviews and 23 million uniques. Presidential elections are predictably high traffic days, which makes CNN’s decision to experiment with its homepage more interesting. On Tuesday and Wednesday, CNN went with a stripped down, election-focused homepage and a responsive results page. The latest election stories, liveblogs, data, and video were given prominence over the rest of the news. They’ve since reverted the site back to its pre-election design, but Marisa Gallagher, CNN’s vice president for design, photography, and multimedia, told me it was a valuable experiment.

Gallagher said they wanted the homepage to have an informational utility for readers. Gallagher calls it purpose-based design, a combination of time- or event-critical content, built to work on a variety of platforms. “What we wanted that day, and [Wednesday] as well, was to have that page feel like something that was a dashboard,” she said.

The idea was for the site to have flexibility to swap in different types of content to meet reader expectations at different parts of the day. On an election day, Gallagher said, the audience has competing desires to stay current with the election and find distractions from the election. From a programming perspective, she said, that means giving users news in the morning, video and photo galleries in the afternoon, interactive features in the early evening, and video at night. One constant thing readers want, she said, is data on the the race, which is why they went with an adaptive look for the results page, making it easy to navigate on any device. “You see different media usage changing throughout the day based on where the user is and what kind of information is relevant in those scenarios,” Gallagher said.

Social engagement, BuzzFeed, and HuffPost Live

One of BuzzFeed’s most popular election-related posts is “28 Things That Are Worse Than Talking About Politics on Facebook.” While it may be attracting more attention than their original writing on the new, liberal America, BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith says both are important to the site’s success because they represent what people are talking about. “We want to make ourselves central to the conversation and create the things people want to share,” Smith said.

In some ways, election night was the culmination of Phase One of the newsification of BuzzFeed. It’s been almost a year since Smith joined the site to help build a news operation. As the site has branched out into new editorial verticals, politics was at the center, and on election night it showed: Smith told me BuzzFeed had correspondents at campaigns around the country. Rosie Gray was with the Elizabeth Warren campaign in Massachusetts, Michael Hastings with Obama in Chicago. While BuzzFeed is flexing its reporting muscles with straight political news, Smith said their methods, which stress conversation and engaging with readers on their preferred social platforms, are paying off. On election night, Smith said, people were coming to BuzzFeed for that approach to politics. “We had this front-page audience coming to BuzzFeed around a major news event, which is gratifying and fun,” Smith said. Unique visitors to BuzzFeed were up 20 percent from an average day, according to Smith.

For places like BuzzFeed and HuffPost Live, the recently launched streaming video network from The Huffington Post, the challenge is emulating the style, but not necessarily the substance, of traditional media. For BuzzFeed, that means setting up bureaus and putting reporters on the trail. For HuffPost Live, that means reports from the field, check-ins with bureaus, and empaneling a group of experts.

But the coverage was less frenetic than the cable or TV networks, said Roy Sekoff, who heads HuffPost Live. The emphasis was on delivering up-to-date information and conversation between the hosts and viewers, he said. “We did over 12 hours of live coverage that, I say, truly stood up to what anyone else was doing,” Sekoff said.

Between its main site and embedded video players on other parts of the Huffington Post, HuffPost Live saw more than 1.5 million viewers, with 300,000 uniques to HuffPost Live itself. At its peak, Sekoff said, HuffPost live had 212,000 concurrent streams. On election night, the average length of visit for HuffPost Live was around 12 minutes, Sekoff said.

Sekoff said people came to the site because of its different approach to news, which aims to put hosts, reporters, experts, and the audience all on the same level. “We weren’t trying, as we never have tried, to replicate the TV experience,” he said.

HuffPost Live recently launched its first iPad app, and Sekoff said it was too early to release data from the app. But he expects the audience on mobile to grow. People are already using tablets and smartphones to watch live video, but also repackaged clips from the streaming network, he said. During the second presidential debate, 44,000 people came to HuffPost Live on a mobile device, according to Sekoff. “We’re three months old — 12 weeks. The whole thing is a learning process,” he said. “I approached this with understanding and excitement that this would be an iterative process.”

Nights like election night are important to gaining familiarity for the network, but also getting viewers to establish new habits, Sekoff said. Big news events were part of what drove the growth of the Huffington Post in its early days, and he expects to see a similar trend with HuffPost Live. “It attracts people, gets them to try something new, it gets new visitors to experience it,” he said. “Hopefully, they like it and make it a part of their media diet.”

Image from willivolt used under a Creative Commons License. Ben Smith photo courtesy of Macey J. Foronda for BuzzFeed.

POSTED     Nov. 9, 2012, 9:30 a.m.
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