Sunday, February 3, 2008

Who Reads What? Numbers Can Help

I was never very good at numbers. Not so surprising really for someone who, as a child, would spend hours in the local library, sitting cross-legged on the floor reading as many books as she could before she had to go home.

It wasn't until I was a newspaper editor that I began to actually care about numbers. That's because you're bombarded by them every day -- numbers for the budget, circulation, deadlines, you name it. You learn to live by them. Increasing them, decreasing them, balancing them -- at least as much as you can given newsroom numbers never really seemed exact. No matter. In an industry that's struggling, exact or not those numbers could make the difference between a fully-staffed newsroom or reporting jobs that remained opened for months or longer or simply were cut out of the budget altogether.

When I left newspapers about six months ago to take a job as editor at an Internet startup company, I thought I'd left those numbers behind. Silly woman. The truth is, at this job, the numbers are even more important. Why? Because they can tell you where readers are going, what they're reading and how often they're coming back.

Every day, I get a report from Google that tells me everything I need to know as the editor of a new Internet site. I can tell you, for instance, which story has gotten the most hits on our two-month old site. And I'm able to pass that along to the reporter, who has been able to write more stories on that particular topic so that readers can get their fill. I can tell you which words get attention from readers, who will automatically click on stories with that particular word in the headline. And I can even tell you which region readers are coming from and how long they spend on the site, so if I wanted to I can target them with geographical content.

I'm amazed by the amount of information I can get, what it tells me and how I've used it to shape our online content to drive more traffic to the Web site. Whenever I talk to traditional print reporters and editors about this, they're always fascinated by this part of my job. And they always want to know more about how it works, what I do with the information, how can they learn more. And our conversations always end the same way....with a little wishful thinking.

If newspapers had has this kind of information years ago, would that have made a difference today?

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