In the days before the Internet, news stories didn’t have much more shelf life than the newspaper they were printed in. Other than microfilm, your mother’s scrapbook or the occasional restaurant wall, most content in the paper died as the pages hit the trash can, replaced by the offerings printed in the next day’s edition.
Today, we have the Internet to archive, reserve and promote our content 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It seems we’re only a Facebook share or a Google search away from finding an endless stream of new readers to consume our content. So assuming your story isn’t overtaken by current events, how long is it actually remaining relevant in the etherworld of the Web.
In 2013, the app Pocket found that it wasn’t all that uncommon for an article to enjoy a life span of 37 days. But in the two years since that study, the constant publishing and pushing of content seems to have only gotten more prolific, and 37 days seems way too long a timeframe for readers to still be engaged with your content. So how long do articles really remain relevant online? The team over at Parse.ly, which supplies an analytics platform to top media companies such as The Atlantic and Reuters, was curious as well. So they embarked on a study focusing on page views, visitors, engaged time and social sharing metrics from a couple of hundred premium media publishers. So how long does a story “last” online? The short answer is about two days. The long answer is it’s complicated. “Writers can assume that after the first day, traffic to their story is going to drop,” said Andrew Montalenti, co-founder and chief technology officer at Parse.ly. “But in some cases, editors have opportunities to continue to drive traffic to posts they would otherwise abandon.” Examining the top 5,000 posts from each of Parse.ly’s publishers over a two month period, the team calculated the median life span of articles was 2.6 days. To put it another way, half of the articles that were studied reached 90 percent of its page views in less than 2.6 days, while the other half lasted longer than 2.6 days. Obviously, there will always be outliers. Take “In The Crosshairs,” Nicholas Schmidel’s 13,000-word investigation into the murder of famed ex-Navy SEAL Chris Kyle for The New Yorker. The piece was published in 2013, but started to gain traction a year later thanks to two factors: being featured in Google’s In-Depth Articles feature (where it was the top result for several keywords) and the theatrical release of “American Sniper,” which created newfound interest (and search queries) about Kyle and his life. Based on Parse.ly data from their Google traffic surge, The New Yorker re-featured Schmidel’s story on their homepage, where it was shared more than 5,000 times on Facebook and more than 900 times on Twitter. “All of this new activity happened without writing a single new word of content,” said Montalenti. “It was simply recognizing an opportunity emerging out of the archive and acting on it.” Extending the life of your story It’s both obvious and true—social media can help extend the life of your story. Parse.ly found stories that do well on social media extend their life to a third day, but not all social media is created equal. Facebook is the key to longevity—stories that did well there enjoyed a median life span of 3.2 days, compared to the quick attention spans on Twitter. In fact, in a study of 12 major news organization researchers from the University of Arizona found that news article life spans on Twitter dissipate fairly quickly, lasting between 10-72 hours. “Forty Portraits in Forty Years,” a New York Times photo essay featuring photographs showcasing the aging of a group of four sisters, was originally published in October 2014. A couple months later, editors wanted to bring the essay back, so they made the decision to purchase Facebook traffic against keywords that would likely garner the interest of Times’ subscribers. Months later, the essay was once again a traffic hit, thanks to keywords chosen by media start-up Keywee, which analyzed the story and determined related keywords like “empowering women” and the movie “Boyhood” would have the more success on Facebook than more obvious choices. “It’s a little like a Facebook hack,” Mat Yurow, the director of audience development at the Times, told Digiday. “But I think it’s a smart marketing play. It’s unlocking those audiences nobody else is thinking about.” Purchasing Facebook traffic isn’t the only way of extending your reach on the social network. Something as simple as a headline tweak can have huge ramifications in terms of traffic. Over at The Atlantic, editors going over story analytics noticed that political stories using the word “Republican” in the headline far outperformed similar stories that used the term “GOP.” Once they began only using “Republican” in the headlines, stories had better click-through rates, search traffic and increased relevance, leading to a complete change in their editorial guidelines. “My suspicion is ‘GOP’ is more of a provincial term used by beltway insiders, whereas ‘Republican’ is something even non-political readers understand and look for,” said Montalenti. Another way to increase the relevance of a story is to piggy back off a success. Take Ars Technica, where a story about the embattled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter getting creamed in a test dogfight with an 1990s-era F-16D went viral. As editors saw the post continuing to draw in significant traffic over several days, they set about writing breakout stories, including reaching out to the F-35 team to tell their side of the story. Editors added timely links to the new stories onto the still-popular original, which enabled Ars Technica to seed traffic through the site and generate more search traffic to the overall package. Through it all, analytics are the key to figuring out how to maximize the lifespan and popularity of a writer’s story. While newspapers have a reputation of dragging their feet out of fear of being forced to write lighter, “clickier” stories, Montalenti sees things changing in the newsrooms Parse.ly partners with. “Maybe a couple of years ago, pushback to this type of data was much more frequent,” he said. “Now, it seems reporters, as well as editors, are actually driven to the data a lot more by curiosity, which can only help benefit their newsrooms and storytelling.” Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.