Why wordsmiths matter more than ever in 21st century digital journalism

Behind Local News
May 25, 2018 · 12 min read
Jill Nicholson of Chartbeat

Perhaps the biggest change brought about by digital journalism has been the advent of analytics which track the performance of articles. It has transformed the way many newsrooms treat news. But what are 2018’s big lessons from analytics?

At the Behind Local News conference, Jill Nicholson, head of customer education at audience analytics firm Chartbeat, shared insights with delegates from a privilged position — that of being able to see what goes on on over 50,000 websites globally.

It’s often suggested that the huge array of audience data, combined with a regimented requirements of getting a story to appear in search has killed the art of a good headline.

Jill Nicholson disagrees — it’s just changed. And, this being the era of digital journalism, she has data proof to back up her assessment.

She told the conference: “Chartbeat has a tool that allows home page managers to write multiple different headlines for the same story and then run a test to see not only which one gets more clicks but which one gets more people to read the story after they click.

“So we looked at the results of more than 100,000 tests run around the world and did a linguistic analysis to start to see what are the types of words in home page headlines that can make a headline more or less successful.”

Things which work include:

  • Demonstrative pronouns like ‘this’ and ‘these’ — seems like a small thing but it actually can help headline performance.
  • Negative words like ‘horrible’ and ‘worst’ do a great job at getting people to click. It is unfortunate but part of the human condition. In fact we also saw that stories that have a negative sentiment in the lead have a higher completion rate than stories with neutral sentiment or positive sentiment. I don’t want that to make us all doom and gloom with everything that we report.
  • Questioning words like ‘what,’ ‘when’ and ‘where’ can also help headline performance but interestingly we found that using the question mark itself can often hurt which seems silly. How can we ask a question but not necessarily use the question mark. What’s the difference between where can you go to vote and where you can go to vote. Both use the interrogative word but one is a little bit more declarative than the other.
  • Numbers, adjectives and quotations can also help in a lot of situations
  • Short but powerful quotes can really convey the value of a story and get more readers to click and engage.

Jill also believes data demonstrates that clickbait no longer works — something to give those critics who claim data analysis led to the rise of clickbait something to chew over.

“When I look at the actual results of the tests that frontline journalists are running I often see that vague questions also do incredibly poorly — clickbait just doesn’t work anymore.

“If you ask a vague question and I feel like you’re gonna trick me by not answering it I’m probably not going to click on that story. So when we ask questions it needs to be perfectly clear that we intend to at least help guide you towards an answer.

“It’s more of a hypothesis that helps us think differently about our headlines. You know when I wrote headlines for a newspaper what were the words we stripped out to get it to fit in that one column?

“Demonstrative pronouns, interrogative words and so on. What does it make it sound like? It makes it sound a little robotic and hard to digest. But by adding in some of these words that make it more conversational and more human. We’re often seeing that for some newsrooms it’s really increasing the performance of content that’s posted on their home page.

“When we delve deeper into engagement we saw that language really does matter and subtle changes in our approach can have a big impact on our performance and connection with readers and major implications for our audience growth.”


Jill also took aim at another well-worn adage about digital journalism: That the homepage is dead.

This adage is born from the fact most local news websites get most of their visitors from Facebook or Google. But that stat masks the fact that loyal visitors tend to consume far content than one-off visitors from Facebook or Google, and are more likely to rely on the homepage to find their way around.

Jill said: “Loyal readers tend to snack on content. They spend a lot of time on a site, but not on a single article.

“As they become more loyal, they are more likely to visit the home page than they are to go directly to an article. This makes the homepage a critical channel for helping them discover and read the content that they’re looking for. I always love every few years there’s a spate of articles that says the home page is dead is the home page dead.

“The page is not dead by any means. It’s just that like everything else its role has changed. So we need to think about it as the best way we can connect with the loyal readers that are actually sustaining the largest part of both our journalism and our business.”


Just how mobile are you?

Perhaps the biggest opportunity presented by Jill for local newsrooms was the mobile one. Her advice? Don’t just be mobile first, be mobile only in 2018.

She said: “When we look the proportion of traffic coming from mobile phones versus desktop in 2016, the big story was it was the first time we tracked more traffic on mobile from Google than any other platform.

“And in just a single year that mobile percentage jumped to 60 percent. And that’s not counting the gains that we have already seen in 2013.

“Now in Facebook in 2016 it was already 78 percent mobile. It jumped to 87 percent and our data scientists are predicting that this trend will continue so that by the end of this year more than 95 percent of readers coming to news sites through Facebook will be reading on a phone.

“It’s not so much about being mobile first so much as mobile only. If that’s the experience they’re having, that’s the experience we need to be building content for and thinking about as we curate content.

“I spent many years as a copy editor and a page designer at a local newspaper before jumping to digital. When we were curating our site we were looking at a desktop or laptop experience but we have to ask ourselves what is our what our readers seeing and are there things that look great and are wonderful experience on our desktop computers that may be disrupting readers on mobile.

“Mobile readers just don’t read as deeply as desktop readers but it doesn’t mean we can’t get them to read for a long time. But again that mobile experience needs more careful curation in order to get people reading as deeply as we would like.”

So what would being mobile only mean? Jill added: “Thinking about our article pages as a portal deeper into the site can really help us grow that article. On desktop, we get all those side widgets like ‘most read.’ On mobile, they get stripped out or they get pushed all the way to the bottom.

“So when you look at your key stories your most important stories pick up your phone and ask yourself if I was reading on a mobile phone. How far would I have to scroll before I saw a single other story from your own newsroom and it can show you we’re not giving them as many opportunities as we should be to choose to read a second article.”


Data, data everywhere

Asked for her advice for journalists in a newsroom trying to balance audience growth with journalism, Jill perhaps not surprisingly pointed the room towards wider use of data — with a compelling argument:

Every journalist needs to think about data.

Not surprisingly, Jill is an advocate for all journalists spending time with data — but it doesn’t need to be a lot of time.

“I would say it has to be a balance. I worked in a reasonably small newsroom so I’m aware that every day they add more responsibilities but they don’t add more time.

“By looking at some of the data you can make faster decisions about what you promote on social what to lobby for a home page position and we’re hoping that it frees up a little bit more time so that you don’t have to shortchange your reporting in writing in order to also think about audience growth.

“We’ve definitely seen in newsrooms around the world if everybody in the newsroom just thinks about data for a small piece of their day or maybe raises their hand when something unusual is happening then overall we just get a little bit more efficient and hopefully we can find that balance between producing good journalism and giving it a little bit of extra help to find that audience.

“Because frankly if you write a great story and nobody reads it it doesn’t have an impact on your community. So I don’t want to say you know tip the scale and all you should be thinking about is promotion but find that balance that works with your particular role in the newsroom.”


Here are some other highlights from Jill’s talk:

60% of readers won’t return in a week — here’s what to do about that

“At Chartbeat, we track readers as new, returning or loyal readers. We consider a new visitor someone who’s on your site for the first time in 30 days. Google drives the most new readers but only about six and a half percent of them will actually come back to your site within the month.

“Facebook does a little bit better with loyalty getting about 11 percent of readers to come back but direct people tend to come back much more often. So there are certain things we can do in how we present our content to try to get those casual, once a month readers to start to come in through the front door and just start to really think about us as their main source for information.

“But in order to do that we need to think about engagement. And that means thinking beyond the page view. Across our network 45% of people who land on an article leave within the first 15 seconds. And this is a problem. 60% of those new readers won’t be back next week. So we’re constantly having to build a new audience.

“There are many recall studies that show if someone didn’t read for at least 15 seconds they don’t retain the information. So if our goal is to create a more educated, more informed populace we need to make sure that we’re actually getting them to read the content once they get to the page.

“But there is good news. Studies have repeatedly proven that the longer a reader engages with content the more likely that reader is to come back to the site. So engagement and what happens on your pages really does matter and it can be the difference between a fly by visitor and someone who is incredibly loyal.

“So anything that you can do in your day to day life that increases that engagement is helping move them down this graph and become more loyal.

How to get people to stay with a story

“We worked with Cornell University in New York to build an algorithm that looked at how often certain articles get completed and when they figured out which articles were the most likely to be completed.

“They looked at the content itself to start understanding what’s happening on those pages that make readers want to dive deeper and they came up with some really interesting insights.

“The first one is slightly obvious: Longer stories are less likely to be completed. When we publish longer pieces they often need more help after they’re published than before because we have to make adjustments that will get people as deep into that story as possible. The research also found that the more complex the language used, the less likely people were to stick with a story. We need to make sure we’re being as straightforward as possible.”

Readers want quotes

“Stories with quotes in them were more likely to be completed. Readers like hearing voices, and quotes in the text keep people in the story. So thinking about how we use quotations both in our articles in our social postings and in all the ways we interact with readers it can be the difference between someone who reads and someone who leaves.

Why stories which are popular on search and social are a big opportunity

Jill presents to the conference

“Search and Social visitors are much more likely to finish the article they land on than someone who comes from your home page. Why is that? Well if I go to Google because I have a question and choose an article that I think is likely to ask answer my question.

“There’s a lot of intent. I really want to know that information so I’m likely to read that article all the way to the bottom but I’m not as likely to read a second article while I’m there whereas if I’m a home page visitor and I come back a lot I’m probably a lot more familiar with what you do and what you’ve published so I’ll probably read only part of certain articles. But they actually read about two and a half times more stories every time they come to your site.

“When we actually looked at the readers themselves we found that our most popular articles were the ones that were the most likely to get completed. So the stories which you see resonating with readers are the ones you need to focus on getting people to the end of to ensure the time you spend has the greatest impact on readers.

“When we think about winning new readers we really need targeted strategies for Facebook and Google because that’s where most of those folks are coming from and if we’re going to think about those new readers, we have to be thinking about mobile but once we get them we can’t just assume that they read like we saw almost half of them don’t.

“How can we have better conversations in our newsroom about engaging those readers and starting to build that journey?. Journalists have a much broader toolbox than you ever have before to help couple metrics with the all too important news judgment to really understand these audience consumption trends mine the patterns and data.”

Treat video as a way to promote loyalty to your site

“We’ve seen with a lot of publishers they just push all their video to the Web site and hope that people find it.

“We found that the greatest success comes in very clear pairing of video content and written content. And that video is a great driver of loyalty. If you can get someone to watch one to two videos in their first visit to the site they’re almost twice as likely to come back as someone who didn’t watch video at all. So asking questions like Where did we place video on a page. What does that thumbnail look like.

“We can make some small adjustments that I’ve seen first hand can greatly increase the amount of video that’s being consumed across our sites and making sure that that expensive and time consuming content is really performing as well as we need to we need it to in order to continue investing in it.

Curate your links — don’t rely on automated lists

“It is absolutely critical if you can get them onto that second article. Again it’s more likely that you can win them back.

“We’ve found that editorially curated links within the story are a great way to boost that recirculation. Using some of Cheartbeat’s tools you can see where readers were naturally leaving that page anyway and it’s a great opportunity to throw a link in there and let them leave for one of your other articles.

“When you think about search and social visitors, who are coming for a specific story, they aren’t visiting the homepage, they’re landing on an article, so you have to take the opportunity to show off what else you have.

The missing platform

Jill demonstrated how Google had pulled away from Facebook as a referrer of traffic — but what about Twitter?

Jill said: “Now there’s a major platform missing when we talk about Google and Facebook and that’s Twitter. Twitter drives less than 1 percent of the traffic across the Chartbeat network. So what does that tell us?

“Twitter is very valuable for breaking news, sourcing information, building personal relationships and having public conversations. But if we really want someone to click back to the site and read a story it can be very difficult to get them to click a link on Twitter.

“So when we think about our Twitter strategy it should be about awareness and engagement whereas when we’re ready to drive traffic it is much easier to do that through Facebook because the mentality of those readers is that they’re more likely to see something and come back and read. “

Behind Local News UK

The stories behind the stories, from the regional press in the UK

Behind Local News

Written by

A place to share the stories behind the stories

Behind Local News UK

The stories behind the stories, from the regional press in the UK

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade