I’ll admit it. Sometimes I long for the old days, when The News Tribune published a bunch of stories, and readers came to us once a day to read them.
It sounds so simple.
Most readers appreciated having editors curate the news for them. We sifted through the myriad stories available and put the best ones in a neat package readers could browse through. Some readers started on Page 1 of the printed paper, and others started at the homepage of thenewstribune.com. It provided a common set of daily news stories for a community to consider.
Our most loyal readers are still like that, but the majority of news consumers today are a different breed.
Never miss a local story.
First, fewer people every year read the paper in print. (Like many of you, I still think a printed paper and a cup of coffee are the perfect way to start a day.)
It’s true that as readers become more digitally savvy, more of them read the TNT online. Our website’s local readership in April was up 18 percent over April 2015; it has been up by double digits every month this year.
What has changed, however, is that fewer of those online readers start at our homepage and browse through the day’s headlines as they would with a printed paper.
Instead, more of them read only a single TNT story, and then only if it crosses in front of them on their Facebook feed or comes up in a Google search.
The change has big implications for how we focus our efforts in the newsroom.
The newsroom no longer can simply market The News Tribune as an all-around source of today’s news. We also must market every single story on its own, finding ways to extend its audience online by sharing it with people who will share it with their friends.
The numbers help tell the story.
Last month, more than 1.3 million people came to the TNT online. Only 178,000 or 14 percent, even saw our homepage, and that percentage has been dropping for years. Most readers clicked directly into a single story, having seen no other headlines.
Of the online readers who come to thenewstribune.com homepage, most are using a desktop computer, some from home and some from work.
But most of our individual story readership — 61 percent last month — comes from mobile devices. A small portion of those readers use a tablet; most use a cellphone.
Nearly a third of our story readers come to us from Facebook.
As a herd of news junkies, we have a hard time grasping this readership style.
A month ago, we tried an experiment.
For a week, we forbade ourselves from reading our stories in the printed paper. An enterprising photographer even laid crime-scene tape across the newspaper stack in the newsroom so no one would touch them. We also banned reading thenewstribune.com on our computers, something most of us do all day long.
Instead, we asked everyone in the newsroom to read the news like our readers do — on their phones.
For a few in the newsroom, that was a first. For a few at the other end of the spectrum, that came quite naturally.
At the end of the week, we compared notes.
Strikingly, even during the test, we behaved more like our most loyal readers — worried about the order of the headlines and the quality of the site search — than the single-story experience of most readers.
To help us focus, we’re trying a new strategy. We’re picking one story a day and working together to help it reach a wider audience. We even have a cheat sheet titled: “Five ways to help your story find its readers.”
Some of the audience-boosting techniques include:
▪ Writing a headline that entices a reader without giving away too much. It shouldn’t be sensational, but it doesn’t have to be boring.
▪ Adding “keywords” in the summary field. These are words we know online readers search for when they’re trolling Google for stories (Tacoma, local news, Russell Wilson).
▪ Ensuring it has a photo or video. Visuals make a reader want to click.
▪ Adding links to past stories on this topic or to related stories.
▪ Sharing the story on Facebook and Twitter, and imagining other social media audiences that might be interested. Last week’s story on the deterioration of Tacoma’s historic Washington Building, for instance, was a good one to share on Facebook pages of historic preservation organizations.
We learn more every day about how to reach more people online and share our news with them.
This quest was inspired, in part, by the hullabaloo over the recently withdrawn proposal to build a methanol plant in the Port of Tacoma.
Months after the TNT published a number of front-page stories about the plant, we heard over and over from activists how the plant was kept secret. They faulted officials and the press for not trying harder to get the news to them. I wagged my figurative finger at them in a column earlier this year.
I still believe if they care so deeply about the environment, they have a responsibility to seek out the news and participate in public meetings where these decisions are made.
The methanol proposal has, indeed, prompted many of them to do that.
And we at the paper have to accept that fewer people are reading our front pages or seeking out the news. Especially on the stories that really matter to our community, we are working harder than ever to be sure people read them.