Should newspapers give reporters access to their traffic stats?

A few years after Nick Denton stopped shelling out bonuses based on Gawker Media pageview tallies, USA Today has decided that such a strategy is a grand idea. The Big Lead reports that the paper “outlined a plan in which it will pay annual bonuses to writers based on page views.” It used to be that Gawker allowed anyone to view the individual monthly traffic stats broken down by author, so media nerds could follow along at home (I’m too lazy to check if they still do this), and a New Yorker profile of Denton revealed that he keeps a large television leader board displaying the most-viewed articles across Gawker Media sites. But Denton later closed down the pageview bonus system, voicing what many who have access to traffic stats have come to learn: focusing on raw page views often brings in crap traffic, which isn’t easily monetizable. Denton said he’d begin focusing more on growing Gawker’s core readership, which could be measured by return readers, RSS subscribers, and other indicators of longtime loyalty.

The Washington Post seems to have realized this with the launch of its new traffic dashboard. At first glance it seems that they are falling victim to the same pageview-chasing mentality, but as Ken Doctor outlines in a Nieman Lab piece, the traffic analysis they’ll be sending out hourly to 120 employees will focus on multiple layers of engagement:

For instance, the Post now knows that less than 10 percent of its audience accounts for more than a third of its traffic, paralleling similar trends I’ve picked up at The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. It knows that Facebook referrals increased 238 percent in 2010 over 2009, while Twitter referrals jumped 123 percent. Following the trail, it has discerned that Twitter is best at multiplying traffic on big breaking stories, while Facebook referrals — so far converting to almost double the pageviews of Twitter referrals — will relay the trend stories better. Such knowledge can help in deciding which stories to feed most heavily to which social networks.

The Post is starting to get a handle on its core customers, as the news business increasingly groks — witness much paywall strategy — that those core readers are the building blocks of the new business, while Google-fed fly-by traffic is paling in value. Now tracked: percentages of visitors who read two-plus pages (34 percent on a recent day) and those whose sessions lasted five minutes or more (19.6 percent on that same day).

There are always grumbles from older reporters when a newsroom adopts these tactics, but as a journalist I’ve always been fascinated with this data. It’s often frustrating when I submit an article somewhere and my only metrics for its success are based on retweets and Facebook likes.

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