Advice from Orange County’s science journalism blogger

Gary Robbins heard that a local jeweler had bought Albert Einstein’s wristwatch and put it on display in Newport, Calif. Robbins finished his reporting on the story by about noon that Saturday. Normally he would have held on to the story — not posting it on his blog at the Orange County (Calif.) Register Web site until later in the day — because site traffic is very, very low between noon and 5 p.m. on Saturdays. Why? Because people are outdoors, enjoying the perfect weather of southern California!

But that Saturday was different. A storm was moving in. Robbins knew that the rain would drive people indoors — and he also knew that site traffic typically shot up on rainy Saturdays.

Robbins told this to a gathering of science journalists from around the world yesterday at MIT, in Cambridge, Mass., as one example of how his knowledge of audience traffic patterns helps him manage his blog, Sciencedude, effectively. Time of day matters, he said. So does the position of the post on the home page. The idea that “people will find it” is a vestige of the old journalism, Robbins said — no, they won’t find it, unless you play it correctly.

The OC Register, like many news sites, uses Omniture for tracking site stats and traffic. Unlike a lot of news organizations, however, the Register gives everyone in the newsroom access to their own stats, which they can check at any time, Robbins said. He logged onto Omniture in the conference room and showed everyone how it works.

The blogs at The OC Register account for 1 million pageviews per month, Robbins said.

He told us how he first realized that “local, local, local” is what matters most: He used to write in his blog about science matters — anything at all — that interested him. One day he heard that an Airbus A380, the world’s biggest airplane, would be landing at LAX, the airport serving Orange County. At the time, his blog was receiving about 500 pageviews a day, Robbin said. That day there were 6,000 pageviews. Why? “It was something they could actually see,” he said, referring to his readers.

Recently Robbins has been posting messages about his blog posts on various Facebook groups to attract a wider audience. As a result of watching the conversations in Facebook groups about topics related to those he blogs about, “I have a better sense of what my readers are talking about,” he said.

A few more highlights:

  • The shortness of blog posts does not mean they lack depth. In the middle of a blog post you might find a link to a PDF file of an extensive scientific paper — no lack of depth there. Layering the information is part of being an effective blogger, Robbins said.
  • Of the 300 people working in the OC Register newsroom, 200 now work for the Web full time, and the remaining 100 repackage the Web content for the print product, Robbins said. He added: “I work for the Web site 110 percent of the time.”
  • He moderates the comments readers post to his blog only in the sense that “I look at the blog several times a day.” The only time he takes a comment down, he said, is when it is libelous or racist.

Robbins was one of four participants on a blogging panel at the Future of Science Journalism Symposium. For more posts about the presentations there, see Alf Hermida’s blog Alf has also posted a nice cheat sheet for reporting multimedia stories.

One Comment on “Advice from Orange County’s science journalism blogger

  1. Great advice from Robbins.

    I think giving everyone access to site stats in the newsroom is a great idea. Journalists really need to pay more attention to some parts of the business side of things, like site analytics. If you’re going to spend hours creating content, you want people to find it. Right?

    I’m one of the few people at my paper who has access to the stats, and I think if more people had access we could leverage our content better. Honestly, what’s the downside of letting everyone see site analytics?

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