Treat news sites with care of a chef

The traffic numbers for Sterling Student Publications, the site operated by my journalism students, is abysmal. This is especially true for our homepage, so I started to look around for tips and tricks of improving those numbers. I stumbled across a Feb. 15, 2016, article on jeadigitalmedia.org written by Jonathan Rogers. The article highlights an in-depth look Rogers took at the traffic numbers of his students’ online news site.

He found social media was killing their homepage.

That is an interesting conclusion. I think the problem my students are facing is much deeper than social media and more toward the fact I haven’t got my staff of 10 total students to invest time and energy into making our website more than a place where we shovel content from our magazine and yearbook.

Most significantly, the article makes me think about how news websites are viewed and constructed. No staff should be satisfied with simply throwing their content online and calling it good. They need to approach their websites like a chef. Each piece needs to be constructed with care and consideration, treating each component as a hugely important ingredient that must be platted just so.

First, the content is king. Articles need to be well-written and thoroughly reported. They should be filled with voices of people the news is impacting. There should be photo galleries and videos segments. And there should be interactive infographics. There should be so much information that a reader can navigate away from the page and know everything there is to know about the subject being reported on.

Second, analytics are important. There has to be a way to track how many readers are coming to the site, how they are getting to the site, what content they are viewing, and how long any one person spends at the site. Traffic numbers shouldn’t drive what is posted because we don’t want to get into a situation where we only cover the latest cate video on YouTube, but knowing the type of coverage our readers desire can help us better serve them and build the health of the site.

Third, the structure of the website is important, especially the visual appeal of individual stories. They need to be loaded with engaging content displaying a fashion that is easy to navigate and interact with. Real design needs to be used and focused upon. This is even more important if readers are only landing on the site to view one article at a time via links shared via social media.

Fourth, the readers should feel like they are part of the process and can contribute to the story. This could take on the form of polls, comments or a myriad of other methods. No matter what shape it ends up taking, readers should be engaged and ready to share the story with their friends.

Fifth, the site should be flexible to handle anything else that comes its way. The structure of how the site is created and maintained needs to be in thought out, but it any plans — the recipe, if you will — can’t be so rigid they don’t allow for response to breaking news and the debut of new technologies. It must always be evolving and growing. If it stagnates, it spoils and rots.

So, like a chef, the student journalist must handle all these ingredients with thoughtful care. Online journalism, like cooking, is an art. The recipe is a guide, but a truly great chef knows how to throw in his or her own ingredients. There is room for creativity, as long as the customers are being served.

Of course, the idea of social media killing the website homepage also creates many questions. Engagement via social media is clearly important because it builds relationships with readers to keep them turning to your outlet for their news. However, how does the fact readers are skipping past the front page to the stories affect the business model? Only so many ads can be on an article without it become obtrusive. Furthermore, how do you get more readers to see more of the content available? A single tweet can only direct a reader to one story at a time, and sending out even more tweets could feel a bit spammy.

The home page is still important. It should still be designed with care, but it is the plate where the meal of journalism is served. With the focus being on individual story pages, maybe the homepage doesn’t need as many bells and whistles. Maybe the entire concept of a front page should be rethought to keep the focus on the delicious content being served.