In the era of pageview journalism, the pitch doesn’t end when the story is published

Posted on December 27, 2012 9:00 am by | Content | Media | PR | Web

Pageview Journalism

(c) Can Stock Photo
Earning coverage in the mainstream press is harder than ever for two reasons.

First is the reduced opportunity for coverage. By 2010, newsrooms had 30% less staff than they had at the turn of the century. The reporter who used to cover your company is gone; now there’s a reporter who covers your industry, or several industries. He has less time for you and your pitch. Newspapers have fewer pages than before. A 2008 study showed that 34% of newspapers had reduced business coverage; only 17% had increased it. High-priced veteran reporters are being replaced with younger tech-savvy journalists who have no long-standing relationships with PR sources.

Second is the shift to the web. Whether digital newspapers could still turn a profit was a key concern, although The New York Times will earn $91 million from digital subscriptions this year, representing 12% of subscription sales. Newspapers that produce content people actually want to read can, apparently, thrive behind paywalls.

It’s that notion of content people want to read that should perplex PR practitioenrs. In the bygone world of journalism, publishers measured success by total subscriptions and newsstand purchases. Readers might be as likely to read an article on an obscure topic—as long as the headline was enticing—as they were a story about something in which they were already interested. Today, every click on every article counts. Journalists are under intense pressure to produce content that will generate those clicks, increasing the challenge of getting a reporter to cover your company’s or client’s story.

“Pageview journalism,” as tech reporter Tom Foremski calls it, has resulted in some bad reporting. Being first to report can means hundreds of thousands of extra clicks, even for a paper that beats the competition by mere seconds. As a resuilt, CNN and Fox News both reported that the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned the individual mandate of the Affordable Health Care Act, only issue retractions later. But with news sites like Gawker paying reporters based on the page views. In 2009, Gawker Publisher Nick Denton said in a memo to his staff:

Each writer on a site will have a (pretty demanding) individual pageview target…That target will be proportional to a writer’s base compensation. i.e. the more your monthly pay, the more people you’re expected to reach. If you go 10% over target, you get a 10% bump in pay. The target will rise as the traffic of the site as a whole increases. Your site’s editor-in-chief will be in touch to discuss the details later this week.

So, even with the proliferation of online news channels (from Techcrunch and Mashable to Buzzfeed and The Huffington Post), a story that doesn’t promise boatloads of clicks isn’t likely to appeal to a reporter or editor.

Foremski, author of the Silicon Valley Watcher blog and a ZD Net columnist, points out in recent column that he has been writing about pageview journalism for 2-1/2 years, “noting that reporters are increasingly rewarded based on the traffic they bring, either through direct cash compensation or by a boost up the editorial ladder, which is essentially the same thing.” Others have referred to the practice as “checkbook journalism.”

Some believe the practice isn’t sustainable. Chip Oglesby opined a couple years ago that a publisher would be better off to have fewer page views with a lower bounce rate. “Using goals, outcomes and conversion rates, you’ll be able to increase your visitor loyalty, depth of visit and recency,” he wrote, suggesting these metrics would convince advertisers to buy ads on your news site even if page views were lower.

If only advertisers thought that deeply. Two years later, page view journalism has only become more deeply entrenched as the norm. As a result, Foremsky writes, today’s journalism is “a bland me-too media landscape which publishes huge numbers of the same stories.”

So what would it take to get a reporter to cover your company’s or client’s story if it’s not one of those sure-fire attracters of page views? Melissa Cafiero, writing on the communiquepr blog, advises that pitching strategies need to evolve to highlight the story’s appeal, drama and relevance. But Foremski is looking for more.

“Can PR companies drive traffic to a story that I write?” he asks. “If they can, they are golden. Reporters will take their calls over any others.”

Not that it hasn’t happened, but I’m not aware of a PR practitioner who has included traffic as part of a pitch. But, as long as it’s done ethically, why not? Why does the pitch have to end with the story’s publication?

There should be two components to the pitch in the era of pageview journalism. First, we have to sell the reporter or editor on the value of the story. Even if it’s not the big story any idiot knows will drive page views, we need to make a compelling case for why the story should be produced anyway. We need to hone our storytelling skills to demonstrate why this story is more than just another thinly-veiled press release.

Second, we need to outline the steps we’ll take once the story has been published to drive traffic to it. Some of the techniques to employ include…

  • Having done your homework upfront, sharing keywords with the reporter he can build into his article that will drive traffic
  • Referencing the article on the client’s corporate blog
  • Having the client tweet the link and include it in an update on their Facebook page
  • Promoting the link in communities whose members have an intrinsic interest in the subject
  • Sharing the link in the agency’s channels
  • Pointing the story out to influencers within that subject matter area
  • On behalf of the client, buying keywords that lift the link above organic search results

There’s no immutable law of the web that says only big stories everybody’s covering will earn page views. Doing the hard work of attracting visits can also pay off. It certainly complicates the idea of the pitch—you’ll wind up spending considerably more time—but the payoff should be demonstrably better, too. In the old days, we told clients the pitch worked because the article was published; the number of eyeballs we reported as a metric was based on subscription rates with no real means of determining who viewed the article. By working with reporters to drive views of the articles we’ve placed, we can provide better metrics and even correlate those views to more tangible, meaningful outcomes.

PR doesn’t have to lament the rise of pageview journalism. Enhancing the pitch to include efforts to drive traffic will produce better results than ever. And, as Foremski suggests, reporters will be happy to take our calls.

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