Digital transformation

How a newsroom solved the mystery of an old story that resurfaced

Sometimes an old story you posted online pops up and your website traffic explodes, which is welcome, but you’re left with a little mystery. Why is this story doing so well now? Actually, why is it doing even better than it did originally?

The Repository in Canton, Ohio, had such a mystery last week. A story about a man sentenced for killing a police dog, Jethro, was outpacing every other story on its site. The story was almost a year old.

Canton’s online news editor Dwight Kier reached out to see if we could help solve the mystery. I used to read a lot of Nancy Drew mysteries when I was a kid, so I was excited to be on the case. Let’s call it “The Secret of the Old Story.”

In this case, you might wonder if there was a legal development: Was he eligible for parole? The man was sentenced to 45 years, so that wasn’t possible.

Clue No. 1: Analytics showed where traffic came from
Kier knew traffic from the post was coming from social media. In fact, about 85 percent of the traffic was coming from Facebook, according to Parse.ly, an analytics tool. Facebook doesn’t tell Parse.ly which posts might be driving the traffic, but Twitter does (thank you, Twitter).

Clue No. 2: Twitter pinpointed a comparison
A quick look at the tweets showed that people were comparing the sentencing of the man who killed Jethro to the acquittal of the police officer who shot and killed Philando Castile. A jury found the Minnesota police officer, Jeronimo Yanez, not guilty June 16, and a dashcam video was made public June 20. Traffic started to spike on The Repository’s website June 21.

Clue No. 3: Facebook confirmed it
A Facebook search also found people making that comparison and linking to Canton’s original story. In fact, the reporter who wrote last year’s story, Alison Matas, wrote a follow-up story that confirmed what we found and what Canton’s Jessica Holbrook also discovered: People were comparing the fact that the Minnesota officer was acquitted for killing a black man, while a black man got 45 years for killing a police dog.

Here’s one example:

As the reporter reveals in her story, people got the facts wrong. The man who killed Jethro was sentenced for several offenses that added up to 45 years. He also pleaded guilty, while the officer in the Castile case was acquitted.

Canton did a lot of things right:

1. They solved the mystery of why an old story was doing so well using analytics that were then confirmed by the reporter, who was receiving emails and calls from readers.
2. They published a new story that explained that people were looking at the headline, “Man who shot police dog Jethro gets 45 years in prison,” and thinking the sentence was just for shooting the dog and not for the other offenses.
3. They linked from the old story to the new one and the other way around to guide readers to the truth.

The key to solving “The Secret of the Old Story” was analytics.

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