West Lebanon — We all know that song in the musical RENT that goes, “Five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes / How do you measure, measure a year?”
I’m not a huge fan of musicals, but when I think about measuring readership on our website, I can’t help but picture a bunch of geeky millennial web editors dancing around a stage, wearing hipster jeans and business-casual sweaters, swinging their iPhones in the air while they livestream the whole thing on Instagram.
In case anyone is wondering, this is me who I’m roasting here.
One million, one hundred four thousand, four hundred ninety-seven seconds, I sing. How do you measure, measure the Valley News’ top story of 2016?
Yes, as of Friday afternoon, that’s the total amount of time — working out to about 19,000 minutes — that visitors to our website spent reading our September scoop on Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s plans to lay off between 270 and 460 employees. (When the medical center announced the final number of layoffs the following month, it had been rolled back to the mid-80s.)
The turbulent Digital Age has brought a host of unknowns to the practice and business of journalism, but, for better or worse, it has also dropped a pretty black-and-white doozy on our doorstep: metrics.
Used wisely, metrics — available in real time on my laptop and iPhone — help someone like me decide how to prioritize my attention during the day: how to arrange and rearrange the Valley News website, which averaged about 1 million views per month during 2016, and which stories to beef up with web-extra features. I can also identify which stories aren’t getting read as much as I think they should, and try to give them a boost.
But good web editors know that metrics must be handled with caution. Let hits on the website dictate your news coverage without any editorial judgment, and soon you’ll be running the world’s largest collection of cat videos, briefs on low-level drug arrests and salacious filth.
Around this time of year, metrics also offer an opportunity for reflection, if, for nothing else, a little bit of fun. Last year, for the first time, we shared our website’s top 10 stories of the year based on page views — the number of visits to each story.
Going back to my RENT allusion, another important metric we can look at is the total and average engaged time per story. The program we use for these analytics counts each second that a reader is viewing a story. The clock keeps ticking as long as she scrolls, clicks or otherwise interacts with the page every few seconds.
For 2016, the top of the field in the “total engaged time” category closely reflected our top page views, which I will get to later.
More interesting to me is the “average engaged time” category, which, for 2016, was dominated by in-depth, well-reported stories by Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon and reporter Matt Hongoltz-Hetling, known for filing stories which, measured in column inches, are almost as tall as he is.
Although most of these stories didn’t break the top 10 in page views — going “Upper Valley viral,” as I say — they all averaged more than 2:20 per reader, which is quite a time commitment in today’s rapid click-click-click digital atmosphere, underscoring the depth of the reporting, photography and editing that went into them.
Topping the list at an average of 3:27 per reader was Kenyon’s story, in July, about the homicide of 15-year-old Rob Briggs in Hartford 20 years ago, which remains unsolved. Based on Facebook traffic, it appeared to resonate with readers, many of whom remember Briggs and his unexplained death when he was walking home one night, because of their empathy for his family, who still live and work in the Upper Valley.
Next up, at an average of about one second for every two town residents, was Hongoltz-Hetling’s story of the contentious termination of the road agent in Dorchester, population 318, and the ensuing drama. That one was read an average of more than three minutes per reader.
Also in the top 10 were two stories, one by Kenyon and one by reporter Rob Wolfe, about Rennie Farm, where Dartmouth dumped animal carcasses and lab waste decades ago that neighbors say is now contaminating their wells and affecting their health, and part of a three-part series by Hongoltz-Hetling and staff photographer James M. Patterson about the handing-off of a dairy farm in Randolph.
—Top 10 Stories: Average Engagement Time
1. After 20 Years, Same Questions About Rob Briggs’ Death; 3:27
2. In Tiny Dorchester, Big Disputes Threaten Idyllic Atmosphere; 3:05
3. Rethinking Sentence of Small-Time Dealer Who Killed Cop; 3:00
4. Complications of Contamination in Hanover; 2:54
5. 70 Years Distant, Claremont Veteran’s War Memories Are Vivid; 2:43
6. Fate of a Farm, Part 2: Out to Pasture; 2:43
7. Members of Class of ’71 Urge Dartmouth to Do Right by Stricken Classmate; 2:43
8. Roots of Rennie Farm’s Contamination Go Back Decades; 2:38
9. Hartford Board to Discuss Possible Wilder School Investments; 2:28
10. As Drugs Fray Community, Wells River Takes a Stand; 2:21
(In cases where more than one story had the same engagement time, they were ordered based on pageviews.)
If average engagement is the high-brow metric, highlighting difficult investigations and enterprise reporting, then page views, frankly, are holding down the other end of the spectrum: fires, car crashes, deaths, arrests, lawsuits – in short, bad news, and usually of the breaking online variety, so keep the word count low, please.
Topping the list is a recent effort — the devastating fire at the First Baptist Church in downtown Lebanon. As of Friday afternoon, the story had more than 21,000 reads, climbing higher every minute.
Why that story attracted so many readers is obvious: The church, a prominent landmark in the heart of our coverage area, was beloved among several generations, including many who visited its sanctuary to pray, get married, attend funerals or otherwise be present for the memorable events of our lives.
Interesting, too, is that our website is the only place where you will find that story: The fire broke out Wednesday night far too late to make it into the paper, which was about to start rolling off the presses.
After night desk editor Amanda Newman headed to the scene to report, we were able to get on the website within an hour, about 12:30 a.m., and into our email subscribers’ inboxes soon after that, and had a full story on the website by the time we signed off at 5 a.m.
As we’ve beefed up our video efforts in the past year, our coverage at the First Baptist Church also marked our first Upper Valley very viral video: One clip of the fire on our Facebook page shot by sports reporter Josh Weinreb has been viewed more than 116,000 times, not counting the thousands of views on a second Facebook clip, our YouTube views or the many times that it was played on TV outlets (who used it with permission).
The clip instantly portrayed the gravity of the situation and gave a sense of immediacy to the event while directing readers’ attention to the deeper coverage.
Also high up in the page views were stories about the Upper Valley’s biggest employer, Dartmouth-Hitchcock, including the aforementioned layoffs story, which we broke online on a Friday afternoon, garnering more than 20,000 views and topping the list for total engaged time, and a story about the former head of the Norris Cotton Cancer Center suing the institution, alleging he was pushed out and that Prouty funds were misused.
—Top 10 Stories: Page Views
1. First Baptist Church in Lebanon Consumed by Fire; 21,160*
2. Dartmouth-Hitchcock May Lay Off As Many As 460 Employees; 20,976*
3. One Killed in Claremont Crash; Driver Faces Charges; 18,424*
4. Hartford Man Dies in Three-Vehicle Crash on Route 4; 11,201
5. Former Norris Cotton Cancer Center Director Sues Dartmouth-Hitchcock Over Prouty Funds; 10,911
6. Colby-Sawyer Eliminates Five Majors to Stay Afloat; 10,785
7. Former Hanover Elementary School Principal Charged in Canaan Prostitution Sting; 9,275*
8. 62-Year-Old Hartford Resident Killed in Route 4 Crash; 9,121*
9. Owners Mourn Slain Dog After He Was Shot by an Officer During a Dog Fight; 8,541
10. Parents Plead for Weathersfield Teen’s Safe Return; 8,079
*Web-first breaking stories.
Perhaps the types of stories that rank high in page views can seem sensationalistic or tawdry on their surface, but the reporting of them nevertheless serves a vital purpose: The public has a right to know what’s going on in the Upper Valley, and platforms such as Facebook have made it all the easier for rumors to fly fast and furiously.
My mantra is that the Valley News doesn’t need to be the first website to get the news; it needs to be the first website to get the news right — that is, accurately, fairly, and done well — and the stories on our top 10 list for page views did that for readers.
The 2016 takeaway for me, both in average engaged time and page views, is if you don’t follow the hits — lay off the cat videos, focus on the good journalism — then, more often than not, the hits will come to you.Maggie Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3220.