By: Steve Outing
As most regional newspaper Web sites have discovered, the greatest gains in audience traffic come during special events or significant news happenings in their back yards. For the Detroit News, the big event for the moment is the professional hockey playoffs leading up to the Stanley Cup.
The Detroit News site is making a big deal out of the success of the hometown Detroit Red Wings, with special areas for hockey news, discussion forums and interactive games. The Red Wings are in the middle of the Western Conference Finals against the Colorado Avalanche, to see who goes to the Stanley Cup championship. (The Avs knocked the Red Wings out of the race this time last year, so the competition on the ice is intense.)
Nancy Malitz, director of the News’ Internet projects and an assistant managing editor for the newspaper, says that the Web site has been seeing an incredible amount of traffic above normal levels because of hockey fans visiting the News’ online pages. Hence, they stepped up their hockey offerings online “because we wanted to go with a good thing.”
Currently, during the height of hockey-mania, hockey-related content on the News site represents the most visited pages — surpassing the usual top performers, horoscopes and comics. Seven of the top 10 most visited pages on the site are related to the Red Wings, and 15 of the top 20. The News site’s recent traffic counts overall are about 3 million page views per month.
Wing Nuts speak out
User interactivity is a big part of the hockey pages, and a good number of fans (affectionately known as Wing Nuts) are taking part in a Web-based discussion forum on the site. Malitz points out that of the approximately 1,100 entries logged into the forum in recent weeks, about 150 were from people outside the U.S.; only 300 of the forum participants were from Michigan. This is fairly typical of when a hometown newspaper covers a major local event with national/international interest, she says. The News’ coverage of the Red Wings contains much more detail than far-flung Internet users will find on sites like CNN or ESPNet, hence the high numbers of non-local visitors to the News site. The Red Wings, of course, have many fans outside the Detroit region.
The Red Wings forum is being handled by a sysop (or moderator) — the site’s sports producer, Ken Klavon — who personally answers the posts to the forum, usually with a dose of wit and good humor. Rather than displaying just subject headings for the public messages, the forum is set up to display the 25 most recent posts. Malitz says they decided to take a hands-on approach to the public messages, not editing the content but going into the messages and adding hyperlinks when appropriate. For example, when a letter-writer includes a reference to a past News article, the sysop will insert a hyperlink to the archived story. If something is obscene, it’s not going to make it onto the forum, of course.
“We think this makes it a little more personal,” Malitz says, and the technique seems to be popular with forum users. The ratio of lurkers (those who just read others’ messages) to participants (those who post to the forum) is about 10-to-1, she says.
The News has fostered visitors from other parts of the U.S. by negotiating crosslinking with other newspaper sites in cities of the Red Wings’ opposing teams. Currently on the News site is a suggestion that users visit the Rocky Mountain News’ Web site, to “scope out the enemy.” The Denver daily is doing likewise on its site. A similar arrangement was made earlier in the playoffs with the Los Angeles Times and Dallas Morning News Web sites.
Hockey is not serious business, so the News’ staff has added some fun elements. There’s a “PunchOut” game that lets Web visitors go up against the Red Wings’ Darren McCarty or Avalanche star Claude Lemieux. The games are Shockwave animations that allow you to “punch it out” (using your keyboard to throw a punch) with either of the hockey legends. Before you try them out, be warned that it’s easier to knock out Lemieux; you’ll have a much harder time beating McCarty. “We’re totally objective,” says Malitz (wink, wink).
The Shockwave game was developed by the Virginia-based company Kaizen, and licensed for use on the Web by the News. Malitz says her modest staff (6 to 10 people, depending on how you count newsroom personnel who also work on the Web site) wouldn’t have the time to concoct such tomfoolery from scratch. The game is popular, with 1,600 people playing the games on one day late last week.
The site also allows visitors to send animated e-mail postcards to other Internet users, who choose from among various animations: McCarty or Lemieux throwing punches, animated Red Wing mascots, or TV star Xena doing her infamous Star Spangled Banner performance at a recent game. The latter has proved quite popular, says Malitz. In case you missed it, the Fox series star inadvertently exposed her breasts before hockey fans while singing the U.S. national anthem. The News’ animated Xena digital postcard immortalizes the moment with a photo of Xena, her bosom disguised by moving pixels.
On a more serious note, Malitz says that the popularity of the Detroit News’ hockey site is beginning to get advertisers interested, and new advertisers were expected to come on board soon. Indeed, she notes that sports-related advertisements on the site historically have gotten the best clickthrough rates.
She acknowledges that like many news sites, the editorial side has not been able to give the ad sales department sufficient advance warning to sell a temporary site like the Red Wings pages. “Our idea of working in advance is working two days in advance,” Malitz says. “That’s a killer for the advertising department.”
Because temporary Web sites related to news events represent such a lucrative advertising opportunity, Malitz says she plans to have several seasonal sites planned each year — such as for holidays (Halloween, Mother’s Day) and major sporting events (Super Bowl, NCAA championships) — so ad sales representatives will know what they have to sell well in advance. The reps will have one of the past temporary event sites loaded into their laptops so that they can show advertisers what they’ll be getting.
Contact: Nancy Malitz, email@example.com
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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at firstname.lastname@example.org
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