2:03 pm Jan. 22, 20132
The New York Times, in defiance of a growing media trend, doesn't generally expose much about the size and character of its audience to the reading public.
It was only grudgingly that the Times even revealed its most popular online stories on a running basis, preferring initially to tell us which stories were being emailed the most (starting in early 2001), and which ones the Times' editors thought were most important. But even here, the Times is a traditionalist: The raw numbers aren't there; i.e., how many people read these articles?
But you can bet the company pays close attention to the numbers internally. The Times' Web Analytics Group, late last week, produced a top 10 list of the site's articles and blog posts, and another of its multimedia and interactive pieces for internal distribution.
The Times let us have a look, too. (Our version doesn't have raw numbers, though the internal version may have.)
You can see for yourself which stories brought home the bacon for New York Times digital by looking at the list here (or scrolling down to the bottom of this post), but here's a little analysis of what types of pieces tended to do well.
Breaking national news:
There's not much of a secret to the kinds of articles that are mainstays for Times traffic: Sober, exhaustive accounts of breaking news stories. While lots of places are competing for clicks in incremental developments to a developing story like Hurricane Sandy or the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School (including the Times itself), the world can be relied upon to show up the next day to read the whole story in the Times.
And so James Barron gets two of the top three articles of the year. Barron's Dec. 14 lede-all about the events in Newtown, Conn. the day before was the top article for traffic in 2012, despite only having two weeks to clock up visits before the end of the calendar year. Headline: "Nation Reels After Gunman Massacres 20 Children at School in Connecticut."
And writing just after the last gusts whipped away to the north from New York City, Barron's Oct. 29 lede-all about Hurricane Sandy accomplished the same feat. "Storm Barrels Through Region, Leaving Destructive Path" is not, in my opinion, the best headline ("destructive path" is a phrase I've never thought quite made sense, if I'm to be technical about it) but that's not why people were reading it, anyway. Topped by a slideshow of 20 photos, the article leads thusly:
Hurricane Sandy battered the mid-Atlantic region on Monday, its powerful gusts and storm surges causing once-in-a-generation flooding in coastal communities, knocking down trees and power lines and leaving more than five million people — including a large swath of Manhattan — in the rain-soaked dark. At least seven deaths in the New York region were tied to the storm."
This is New York Times exceptionalism at its most crystal clear. I mean, I sat through the storm myself, and saw it with my own eyes, but I read that article anyway. Didn't you?
While media wonks continue to admonish news outlets that reproduce their own version of a story that everyone's working on, the Times continues, by virtue of its authority over the news cycle, to win with them consistently.
Also in the top 10: the Times lede-all on the day after election day (No. 7). Not quite in this category is the article page in which Nate Silver tracked results through the night on his blog, FiveThirtyEight. Plenty's already been said about what a boon Silver has been to theTimes. One question: When Silver's contract is up, what will he ask for? And will the Times give it to him? Or can they continue without him?
Stunts: They're not just for the little guys and internet pea-shooters, apparently.
The Times decided in March to publish a first-person Op Ed piece by Goldman Sachs executive Greg Smith, in which he announced he was leaving the firm because its integrity was in free fall. Not common, is it, to quit your high-level banking job in an Op Ed piece!
The piece was published to applause in all those circles where people are ready for inside dirt on the 1 percent, and though his former employer dampened the enthusiasm somewhat when it revealed that Smith had asked for his salary to be doubled to $1 million before he left (a charge Smith does not dispute), that didn't mean any fewer clicks. The article is the second-most read in the Times in 2012.
Of course stunts can be ripping good fun. Pete Wells' review of Guy Fieri's Times Square restaurant clocked in at no. 4, even though it was only published in mid-November. The review, written daringly as a series of incredulous and mostly nasty questions to Fieri about Guy's American Kitchen & Bar, went viral. "The response to the Fieri review bowled me over," Wells said later in a Q&A with Times readers. "Some of the reaction was a bit nasty, but as my grandmother used to say, if you’re going to dish it out you have to know how to take it."
"The exuberant pan should be an arrow in the critic’s quiver, but reached for only rarely," Times public editor Margaret Sullivan warned, at the end of an article rather joyfully recounting some of her favorite entries in the genre in recent Times history. Culture editor Jon Landman, who coined the phrase "exuberant pan" in the Times newsroom, is, however, on his way out. Which, combined with the success of the piece, raises the question whether we'll see more of them.
Health, wellness and whatever: What's perhaps funniest to me about the Times "Most Emailed List" is its tendency to square up with what many of my older relatives most like to post on Facebook. (My theory: Young people just copy the URL and paste it into their email client, making them untrackable; the Silver Surfers use the internal "E-mail this" function.)
This early form of virality tended to reward the most recent opinion columnists in the paper, with a smattering of news and "wellness" stories. So it shouldn't be much of a surprise that "The 'Busy' Trap," an article about how busy we all say we are, and "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body" make the top 10 list. But the interesting principle here is the following: anything that works for anybody else will also work at the Times, if its editors are willing to do it.
And that's why I'll mention No. 10 on the list. It's really a multi-contributor package deal, called "The 45 Places to Go in 2012." It already sounds like a million people are reading it, right?
Business!: This actually isn't a winning category for the Times. "How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work" is an exception that proves a whole bunch of smaller rules. It's a Business Day article from Jan. 2012. But it's a lot besides. It's a reflection on why Steve Jobs moved so many Apple manufacturing jobs overseas—the labor wasn't just cheaper, it was better organized, more flexible, and better trained.
This is all introduced with a lede graf that puts Barack Obama and Steve Jobs in the same room. The story is magic, really. Apple is audience gold: America's most consumer-facing technological product line, with one of its most historically worshipped C.E.O.'s, takes us into the story of American jobs, the single biggest hot-button issue of the developing presidential campaign cycle. So toss in Obama, and report the daylights out of it, and you get a once-a-year special. It's No. 9 for no reason really other than that it was very, very good, very, very topical and had everything else going for it besides.
Multimedia and interactive: These are broken out in a separate list, so I'll group all of my observations here. Because there aren't many.
Most close watchers agree that the biggest organizations often have the best and most robust multimedia operations. It's one thing that a small, easily maneuverable startup can't quite do without maintaining a relatively high headcount of talented people to keep churning this stuff out. There's a barrier to entry here.
Since the Times breaks these out into a separate list, it's hard to judge how much traffic justifies the Times' aggressive development of these kinds of features. But for the ones it does, it's easy to see what works best—and funnily enough, it's not that different from what works best for regular old articles and blog posts.
Of the top 10 Multimedia and Interactive features published on the Times site, fully seven dealt with Hurricane Sandy or the presidential election. Sandy is more surprising than the elections in that respect. Since many of the Times' election related features were up and running (though constantly updated) from the beginning of the calendar year, they had plenty of time to build up steam. Hurricane Sandy came in with little notice comparatively, but interactive features covering it occupied three of the top 10 multimedia items.
Two others were also a bit obvious (though as the late genius editor Clay Felker once admonished his editors, "Don't fear the obvious!"), and win simply by virtue of being better by a mile than anything similar. One was an interactive showing how Usain Bolt's record-setting 100-meter sprint during the Olympics compared to every Olympic medalist in the history of the sport; another wasn't even published in 2012, but is an evergreen and fantastic reference visualization showing the 2010 census in maps and allowing readers to track changes in demographics over the country's long history of census-taking.
So, for a buzzy category, the rules are actually quite straightforward: Be completely awesome and give the readers what we already know they want.
The most popular interactive feature the Times produced in 2012 was "Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek." It was, obviously, a success, and not just in cultural or psychological terms for the media industry (within weeks, the template was being adapted by other outlets to other stories, with mixed but usually good results). The Times has a nice narrative here: The gray lady, leading the way in digital storytelling! But with only 11 days on the boards in calendar year 2012, Snow Fall reached the No. 9 slot. Expect a lot more where this came from in 2013.
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