Current Thinking

WBUR’s crisis coverage reveals potential of ‘on-air and online’ news

Analysis by Mark Fuerst

For more than a decade, public broadcasters have been debating whether local stations can harness the power of the Internet in a sustainable and effective manner.

There has been no shortage of naysayers in this ongoing exchange, and, for a time, that side of the discussion seemed to be winning, for good reason.

With a few exceptions, digital content services in public broadcasting require high levels of subsidy, although their volume of public service — by broadcast standards — can look a bit thin. Station web teams would report monthly unique visitor counts in the tens of thousands without mentioning that most of the visits lasted 30 seconds or less from visitors who never returned. Very few stations even bothered to recalculate their web analytics into weekly totals, such as those provided by Arbitron or Nielsen.

People who did probe into the details of online service would see that a news story slotted into Morning Edition on a midsized station was reaching 5,000 to 10,000 listeners — or more — in a single day, while that same story, repurposed and posted on the station’s site, was attracting 500 to 1,000 pageviews — even on websites as well-designed and consistently updated as that of WBUR in Boston.

One can hardly fault the managers who asked: Is all of this effort a good investment in our time, technology and staffing?

But three weeks ago, the digital news coverage produced by WBUR during and after the Boston Marathon bombing generated a volume of service that, I think, should make everyone in this discussion step back and reconsider their positions. It may be time to reset the default assumptions about what can be achieved online.

The analytics of a crisis

In the week of April 14 — from the day before the marathon bombing to the following Sunday — web traffic at wbur.org reached levels that are, as far as I know, unprecedented for a public radio or TV station website. In seven days wbur.org attracted 870,000 unique visitors, 1.2 million visits and 2.3 million pageviews. In a single week, the site attracted the level of traffic that it usually accrues over a month.

A large portion of this traffic was to streams of WBUR’s on-air coverage. But a larger portion of web users were attracted to online news stories, blogs and crisis-related program pages.

WBUR's online audience quadruples in four years.  After a July 2009 redesign put WBUR.org on a growth trajectory, traffic spiked when the station's news team produced crisis coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. News visitors flocked to the site for live audio streaming and webpages providing text-based news. The chart presents weekly visits to WBUR.org from April 2009 to April 2013 as running 3-week averages recorded by Google Analytics.

WBUR’s online audience quadruples in four years. After a July 2009 redesign put WBUR.org on a growth trajectory, traffic spiked when the station’s news team produced crisis coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. News visitors flocked to the site for live audio streaming and webpages providing text-based news. The chart presents weekly visits to WBUR.org from April 2009 to April 2013 as running 3-week averages recorded by Google Analytics.


Thirty-nine percent of the visits came from within the Boston metro area. Another half came from other U.S. states, apportioned more or less by the size of the state (7 percent from California, 6 percent from New York) and a state’s proximity to Massachusetts.

Of course, the stimulus for all of this activity was an extraordinary moment: five days of crisis coverage of the bombing, its victims and perpetrators, and a manhunt that shut down the entire city of Boston. These tragic and dramatic events put the WBUR news team on a story of intense local, national and international interest. Public radio stations around the country carried the coverage live, and NPR frequently turned to WBUR’s journalists for reportage.

In that setting, WBUR delivered on the oft-repeated positioning phrase for news providers, “on-air and online.” The service the news team delivered will, I think, be remembered as a historic achievement for the station — and for public broadcasting —that was built on years of investments, insight and risks.

Five years in the making

By my estimate, WBUR’s journalists and digital staff spent at least five years preparing for the marathon crisis.

But the evolution of wbur.org actually goes much further back — to decisions by former General Manager Jane Christo to build WBUR-FM into “Boston’s NPR news station” during her 25 years at the station.

By focusing the station’s broadcast schedule almost entirely on news and public affairs, Christo charted a path that many pubradio stations followed with great success. Christo’s basic formula — combining NPR news magazines and local talk programs — became the most powerful format in public radio, responsible for much of the field’s financial and audience growth over the last two decades.

Decisions about WBUR’s broadcast service only set the stage for what the station’s newsroom accomplished last month. Under Paul LaCamera, who succeeded Christo as general manager, WBUR began building its capacity as a multiplatform news organization. The next major turning point came on his watch, in late 2008, when the station embarked on a total reworking of wbur.org.

Their new site design was heavily influenced by the look and layout of the New York Times website. The Times, and websites of most leading newspapers, use a three-column layout that allocates almost all of the “space above the fold” to news stories, news-related photos and ads. In adapting that design, WBUR’s digital team reduced the space allocated to radio features and other broadcast-related functions, converting them to small elements in the horizontal navigation bar.

The red line mapping traffic to all WBUR.org news pages between April 2009 and April 2013 — including blogs and websites of the station’s news shows — displays the role that original web-based coverage played in attracting audiences to the site. The blue line includes only traffic to news-landing and news-story pages. Note: Traffic to the website for On Point, a nationally syndicated show, is excluded from this analysis.[/caption]

When “the new wbur.org” launched in July 2009, it was a “news site.” At that time, NPR.org was the only major news site in public broadcasting that utilized this approach. The digital team at WBUR was convinced that their change would increase traffic, and soon their digital analytics confirmed that view.

Growth driven by news traffic

On a typical radio station site, the stream-launch page is far and away the most visited page, apart from the homepage. This was still true for wbur.org, even during the bombing coverage. Where the new wbur.org distinguished itself from other station sites was in the volume of traffic drawn to non-audio news and blog pages.

In a three-week period of April 2009 that surrounded the Boston Marathon, the wbur.org listen page was the most visited page on the site, attracting 37 percent of all pageviews. In contrast, news-story pages and landing pages attracted just 14 percent of total activity (57,927 pageviews).

That news usage is total activity for three full weeks, so daily news-story use was about 3,000 pageviews per day. Even at that level, news traffic at WBUR was comparatively high for a public radio station in 2009.

As an indicator that the 2009 redesign worked: By April 2011 news use had more than tripled to 201,500 pageviews for this same three-week period in April, approaching 10,000 news pageviews per day.

As the news redesign gained traction, other changes at the site helped to build on the growth of news traffic. In fall 2010, WBUR launched Commonhealth, an NPR Argo Network blog on health issues. As part of the overall redesign, the web team brought all of the activity from Onpoint.org, the website for WBUR’s national midday talk show, into the main station website. The station launched a new late-afternoon public affairs show, Radio Boston, with some strong web interactivity, and increased online support for Here & Now, its midday show.

Between April 2011 and 2012, news-page use at wbur.org jumped again to 14,200 news-story pageviews a day. This is total views for all news stories on the site.

This is an outstanding level of online news on a public radio site but still relatively low when measured against the audience reach of broadcast, where 20,000 to 30,000 listeners hear each and every radio news story carried on WBUR’s Morning Edition.

Text-based news elevates usage

This April, as events swirled around the marathon bombing, the streaming page continued to be the single most-visited page at wbur.org apart from the home page: The “listen” page was viewed 558,506 times in the weeks before, during and after April 15, and drew 14 percent of total pageviews (pgv) in that three-week span. For comparison: The wbur.org home page attracted 691,190 pageviews, or 18 percent of total pageviews.

But now the use of text-based news content was playing a far larger role in service delivery than WBUR had ever experienced before. News traffic tripled to just under a million news-story page views—25 percent of total site activity—in the 21 days from April 7 to April 27, 2013. At the peak, on Friday, April 19, with the capture of the second bombing suspect, wbur.org delivered slightly under 200,000 news-page views in a single day, with the average duration of those news visits running between two-and-a-half to five minutes.

Web-original news coverage boosts traffic. The red line mapping traffic to all WBUR.org news pages -- including blogs and websites of the station's news shows -- displays the role that web-first reporting played in attracting news audiences to the site. The blue line includes only traffic to news-landing and news-story pages. Traffic to the website for On Point, a nationally syndicated show, is excluded from this analysis.

Web-original news coverage boosts traffic. The red line mapping traffic to all WBUR.org news pages — including blogs and websites of the station’s news shows — displays the role that web-first reporting played in attracting news audiences to the site. The blue line includes only traffic to news-landing and news-story pages. Traffic to the website for On Point, a nationally syndicated show, is excluded from this analysis.


The “live news blog” received the biggest portion of local news traffic — 10 percent of total site views. The rest of the news-story traffic spread across single-item local news and NPR news stories reposted to the ’BUR site. A second wave of one million pageviews accumulated at the Commonhealth and Cognoscenti blogs and at story pages associated with Here & Now and Radio Boston.

Much of the credit for this extraordinary performance goes to the WBUR broadcast staff, who brought coverage of the events to their fellow citizens in and around Boston, and to the 13 stations that rebroadcast the WBUR coverage.

But some of this surge in traffic can be traced to technology, social factors and even sheer luck well beyond the control of WBUR. For example, in the three-week period in April:

  • 590,288 visits were generated by mobile devices, an increase of 426 percent over the same period in 2012.
  • This expansion in cell phone and tablet connectivity supported a sharp rise in digital streaming that crested with 23,000 simultaneous streams.
  • Social media platforms that were just emerging when WBUR embarked on its 2009 redesign generated more than 400,000 visits: 267,713 visits from Facebook; another 122,238 from Twitter. (For reference: In the same period in April 2009, wbur.org got 335 Facebook referrals; Twitter was a bit more important, with 472 referred visits.)

Once the crisis coverage was over, traffic to wbur.org fell, as one would expect, but to higher levels than the previous norms. In the week after the bombing (April 21–27), wbur.org recorded 566,000 visits, 383,000 visitors and just under a million pageviews.

Narrowing the gap

To a public broadcasting system accustomed to tracking Arbitron and Nielsen ratings — and that hasn’t formally adopted web analytics as a metric for demonstrating audience service — these numbers will be hard to evaluate.

But we should recognize that, after five years of concentrated effort, the team at WBUR narrowed the gap between on-air and online; the vast difference in the volume of service that stations can deliver through their different platforms appears to be smaller. These web analytics provide additional evidence about the potential for competitive online news within public media. They show that WBUR and a handful of other stations are making significant progress in harnessing some of the most important elements of new-media service: text-based news, blogs, social media support.

This article was first published in Current, May 13, 2013.
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