Thinking of online readers as more than ‘clicks’

Don Watkins Mid-Career Scholarship report

NOTE: The Don Watkins Mid-Career Scholarship allows an Idaho journalist to receive $500 toward professional development or a reporting project – on the condition that they share the results with the Idaho Press Club membership. Here’s a report from one of our winners, Alison Smith of the Times-News. Our next issue will include a report from winner Ben Olson of the Sandpoint Reader.

By Alison Smith

In October, I was lucky enough to be accepted to the Poynter Leadership Academy in St. Petersburg, Fla. There I met and worked with journalists from all over the world. There were managers from as close as Ogden, Utah, and as far as Adelaide, Australia. Classes had titles like “Difficult Conversations,” “How to Get Promoted” and “Ethical Leadership in a Real-time News Cycle.”

One of my favorites was “Obsessing over Your Audience” by Sona Patel, the Senior Social Strategy and User Generated Content Editor at the New York Times.

It’s easy to become jaded and think of online audience as “clicks,” but really, they’re our readers and viewers. Patel made the point over and over that it’s vital to remember our audience at every step, from story planning to headline writing and presentation of the final work.

Readers can be involved in story telling through social media, reader comments, user-generated content and through daily newsletters. Patel encouraged us to use these avenues to pose questions to readers on their perspectives.

One example she shared from the NYT was asking, “If you gave birth outside the U.S., what was your experience?” While a reporter did more in-depth interviews with some of the women who replied, other answers were simply put in a slideshow of responses.

Another fantastic idea she had was to make a Facebook group of people who answered those questions to talk more with them in a virtual group setting. Then, you can return to those people who are already likely to answer a question on a certain subject.


Reader comments have a tendency to get reporters down. But Patel was insistent that comments are a goldmine of story ideas. While the NYT is unusual in that it has staff dedicated to moderating its comments, I think paying more attention to comments and encouraging your best commenters is a good strategy.

She shared how the NYT regularly highlights reader comments on its social media pages. In one instance, they took a particularly good comment on a story about sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein, made it into its own article asset on their website and tweeted it out, saying “An NYT reader’s reaction to Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie and others saying Harvey Weinstein harassed them.”

Social media is a great chance to interact with readers in positive ways. Liking and replying to comments, and being more casual your language when you post online, gives your organization a more human feel, rather than seeming like a cold, unfeeling news robot.

Search Engine Optimization

Think: What are people searching for, and how can we help?

Patel used the example of the mass shooting in Las Vegas. People were searching not just for what happened but questions like how the shooting happened, what gun was used, and why the gunman did it. They noticed searches for “bumpstock” were skyrocketing, and the resulting article was titled, “What is a bump stock and how does it work?”

She also pointed out how slight tweaks in headlines can improve how a story pops up in Google. For example, when a passenger was dragged off a United Airlines flight, the first headline simply said, in part, “United passenger.” Later, staff changed it to “United Airlines passenger,” and saw improved results.

Patel suggested A/B testing headlines to see which one works better to get an idea of the language your audience responds to. Depending on your content management system, you may also be able to make custom URLs and add keywords to your posts.

Reader generated content

Patel also shared several ways the NYT gathers reader stories. During the summer’s California wildfires, the paper set up a Google Voice line and asked affected readers to call and leave a message with their story and a way for a reporter to contact them. Reporters then called to verify the stories and the paper had audio recordings that shared readers’ stories in their own voices.

In covering the Affordable Care Act, the paper posted on its website a form asking readers to fill out a series of questions about their experiences signing up for the ACA, then regularly changed the intro and questions based on their reporting needs.

While the NYT has a vast set of resources, I can see many Idaho papers putting these methods to use.

Patel also gave a talk on Twitter and had some good tips for live Tweeting:

  • Mix your play-by-play tweets with larger context.
  • Include color – moments you catch only because you’re there; things people might even miss on TV.
  • Tweet pictures and video clips
  • Not sure if you should tweet something? Imagine an editor standing over your shoulder looking at your phone.
  • Use threaded tweets to keep your thoughts together.
  • Use everyday language. Avoid writing in headline style or using news jargon
  • Avoid “my take” type tweets.
  • Avoid gratuitous hashtags. Hashtags are most useful at an event or if they’re one regularly used (like #idpol here in Idaho for tweets about state politics.)

One more idea:

Before the conference, we all took the Meyers Briggs personality type test. We all took the tests before the conference, and while I don’t think they explain a person’s complete personality, they give a good outline of how someone approaches conflict, challenges and how they’re likely to tackle a project. I think they’re especially useful at work, and knowing everyone’s types might help you better understand how to approach them with a suggestion or avoid miscommunication. Have your staff take online Meyers Briggs tests and chat about it. I’m an ISFJ, by the way.

Alison Smith is the managing editor of the Twin Falls Times-News. She is one of the Idaho Press Club’s Don Watkins Mid-Career Scholarship winners. For more information on the scholarship, go to the Idaho Press Club Scholarships page.