How the NYT neglects business journalism

By Felix Salmon
November 15, 2013

Brian Abelson has a fantastic post about the performance of NYT articles. The main gist is that it’s possible to predict with surprising accuracy how many pageviews any given NYT article is going to receive, given just a few variables like the amount of time that article spent on the home page, and whether or not it was tweeted by the main @nytimes Twitter account.

There’s a lot of information in the post, however, and a couple of other things jumped out at me, seeing as how I’m a business journalist for a wire service. The first is the almost hilarious way in which the NYT seems to go out of its way to ensure that readers do not read wire stories on the NYT site, despite the fact that they make up the overwhelming majority of the content on the site.

Abelson put together a database, for this post, of 21,006 stories published on nytimes.com between July and August of this year. Of those 21,006 stories, 15,269 — or 73% — came from wire services (either Reuters or the AP); the other 5,737 were original content. But get this: any given piece of original content had a 21% chance of being tweeted out by @nytimes. A wire story, on the other hand, had only a 0.6% chance of being tweeted by @nytimes. Or, to put it another way, @nytimes tweeted out 1,273 different articles over the course of those two months — and of those articles, just 89 came from wire services.

Abelson says that these numbers make intuitive sense, on the grounds that “stories from the wire should not receive the same promotional energies as those that come from journalists working at the Times”. But I’m not sure what kind of work the word “should” is doing in that sentence. Is he saying that wire stories don’t deserve to be brought to the attention of the NYT’s readers? That, to a first approximation, only 0.6% of wire stories are likely to rise the exalted standards of @nytimes, while a full 21% of original stories do? Is he saying that the NYT has a good business reason to promote its own stories over those which originated elsewhere? Or is he just saying that news organizations should look after their own, and that it would be somehow disloyal for @nytimes to tweet out many stories which were written by wire journalists, even if those tweets were links to the NYT website?

Instead of trying to guess what Abelson means, though, we can just look at this chart that he put together instead.

pred-vs-actual.png

What you’re looking here is a scatter chart of actual pageviews, on the y-axis, against the number of views that you’d predict any given story would receive, given variables like how much time it spent on the home page, whether it was tweeted by @nytimes, the number of section fronts it appeared on, etc. By using nine such variables, Abelson is able to explain 90% of the variance in pageviews. He explains one way to read this chart:

In the graph, the straight gray line signifies the threshold of a perfect prediction. Articles that fall above this line can be thought to have exceeded their expected number of pageviews while those below the line have underperformed. Computing the error of the model, or the difference between actual and predicted pageviews, allows us to calculate the degree to which any given article has performed in relationship to its “replacement”  —  or a hypothetically similar article which received the same level of promotion.

The interesting thing for me, looking at the chart, is the large number of outliers in the bottom-left-hand corner. This grouping is overwhelmingly wire stories which, according to Abelson’s formula, should get very few pageviews — and yet, despite that, and despite the fact that they were receiving no real promotion at all from the NYT, they did surprisingly well on the actual-pageview front. Indeed, it seems pretty clear from eyeballing the chart that wire stories are, in aggregate, significant outperformers when it comes to what Abelson calls his “pageviews above replacement” metric, which is an attempt to judge how many pageviews a story gets after controlling for the amount of promotional oomph it received from the NYT.

One way of looking at this is that the readers have spoken — and they’ve shown, quite clearly, that the NYT has made the right choice to pay Reuters and the AP for the right to run their wire stories. Another way of looking at this, however, is that the NYT systematically underutlilizes the wire stories it’s paying for. To be sure, those stories are available elsewhere on the internet: they’re not exclusive to the NYT. But readers don’t care about exclusives — even if they’re genuine exclusives, which, most of the time, they’re not. Readers just want to know what’s going on in the world — and the wires can do a very good job of telling the thousands of stories that a newsroom with finite resources can’t cover.

What’s more, from a business perspective, it would make sense for the NYT to put more promotional muscle behind the stories above the grey line. When a wire story starts performing surprisingly well — something which seems to happen quite frequently, according to this chart — then that’s a pretty good sign that the NYT should start putting it on more section fronts, tweeting it out, and generally giving it substantially more prominence. Given the limited space available on section fronts and in the NYT’s Twitter feeds, doing so would help to maximize pageviews and would deliver more of what the NYT’s readership is demonstrating that it wants to read. One of the great weaknesses of news organizations in general is that they don’t give nearly enough respect to stories they didn’t write themselves. That weakness costs valuable pageviews, if you’re already paying to be able to run those stories on your own website.

And then there’s the business-news perspective. Here’s another of Abelson’s charts:

par-by-section.png

This one’s a bit harder to read, but in the first instance, just look at the blue circles. The size of the circle shows how many articles there are in each section, while the position of the circle, from left to right, shows how many pageviews the average story in that section receives. The magazine and the dining section, for instance, don’t run a lot of stories, but the stories which do run tend to get a lot of pageviews. And then there’s the business section — which runs a large number of stories, but whose articles get fewer pageviews, on average, than any other section.

Now it’s not that the NYT’s readers don’t want to read business stories. The left-right positioning of the red circles shows how well each section’s stories are doing, given how much promotion they receive. On this basis, the magazine outperforms; the dining section does the worst. And the business section is right there in the middle, performing just as well as any other section. Give business stories a bit of promotion on the home page and on Twitter, in other words, and they’ll get you just as many pageviews as anything else, on average. But it turns out that the business section is systematically shortchanged by the people making those promotional decisions. Maybe (I’m not sure) because it has a higher concentration of wire stories.

Again, this looks like strategic short-sightedness. Business-news pages are some of the most valuable on the website, in terms of the amount that the NYT ad-sales team can charge for them. (They’re so valuable, in fact, that the entire Dealbook section remains outside the NYT paywall, in an attempt to garner it as many pageviews as possible.) By promoting more business stories, even if they are (horrors!) wire stories, the NYT could make more money, and everybody wants that — including the readers, who have shown that they have more interest in such things than the NYT’s editors think that they do.

What would be lost by such an approach? Very little: a few dining and metro stories might get viewed less often, if their promotional muscle started getting transferred to the business section. And maybe a few NYT egos might get a little bruised, if they discovered that their snowflakes weren’t quite as precious, to the outside world, as they liked to think, at least in comparison to the wire. But the website should be run for readers, not for journalists. And improbable as it might sound, it looks very much as though those readers would be best served if the NYT made it significantly easier to find wire stories, business stories, and — especially — business wire stories.

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