There's a lot that has been going right at the Los Angeles Times in recent months. New hires and bureaus, kick-ass stories, and a fresh sense of optimism about the future as my colleague Bill Boyarsky explained in a recent series of columns for Truthdig. What is apparently not going as well are the website metrics.
As anyone who regularly visits the Times website knows, finding news you want on the poorly organized and tagged pages can be challenging. Now a memo from deputy managing editor Sewell Chan graphs just how dire the situation is in one key category: searches that draw readers to the site and keep them around to get counted as visitors for the advertisers. Searches — not newsletters or podcasts or Twitter — are the biggest traffic drivers at most news websites, including at LATimes.com.
"In the last year, search traffic — the largest source of traffic to latimes.com — has fallen significantly," the memo to all newsroom hands begins. A chart shows the ugly trend line (see below) that no newsroom manager likes to see. The issue is partly technical, Chan acknowledges, but what readers will notice (and the journalists in the newsroom will have to execute) is more Times links placed in stories to influence the Google rankings, more keywords stuffed into headlines and summaries, and a greater emphasis on "search engine optimization" or SEO.
Here's Chan's full memo. As usual, we redacted personal email addresses.
From: "Chan, Sewell"
Date: January 7, 2019
Subject: SEO — please read
In the last year, search traffic — the largest source of traffic to latimes.com — has fallen significantly.
There are several reasons for this — some technical, some editorial.
We are working on several fronts to try to reverse this trend. We’re auditing our technology, and reviewing our use of live blogs. (More on this soon.) We’re making SEO a priority as we plan the evolution of our content management systems. We’ve posted a job for a newsroom SEO editor, and in the meantime, Seth Liss from the Hub and Warren Wolfswinkel from the AM copy desk will take the lead on helping to improve SEO performance day to day.
Meanwhile, we need the help of our reporters and editors, who use SNAP every day. Here’s how:
• Headlines: Place key words into the headline field, preferably near the beginning.
When writing about a well-known phenomenon, event or person, include the most commonly used, complete name or description for that item. Use Google Trends to compare phrases and words, if you’re not sure which to use (e.g. Camp Fire vs. Paradise Fire vs. California Fires).
Search engines and social shares only display 60 characters before cutting off. Aim for a headline count no longer than 85 characters. With few exceptions, headlines need to get shorter. We have too many two-sentence headlines; they should be the exception, not the standard.
Please use the #headline-workshops channel in Slack to test out headlines. Drop a link in the channel, propose a headline, and see if your colleagues can help you refine and improve it. We need reporters, line editors and copy editors to all participate in this channel.
• Slug: Include two to three keywords in the slug of the story. Make sure the date in the slug reflects the date of publication online.
• SEO description: Make sure key search terms are in this field in SNAP. The description should be about 135 to 160 characters in length. Search engines generally cut these off after 160 characters. Write publishable copy, as this text will be visible to readers in search and on social platforms.
Good SEO descriptions are short blurbs that describe accurately the content of the page. They are like a pitch that convinces the user that the page is exactly what they’re looking for.
If you are in the habit of copying your lede into this field, please stop. Think of this text more as a deck, or a combination of a deck and lead. If the headline states the news, the deck should provide keyword-rich additional context — not repeat the headline.
• Keywords: Here’s something we’re taking off your plates. For those who fill out the keyword field in SNAP, don’t. This no longer helps with Google search.
• In-line linking: Inline links help establish our online authority on a topic. This is critical: No story should go to the copy desk without at least two or three inline links to relevant Los Angeles Times content. To link: Highlight a key phrase, click the link button in the SNAP text editor, and paste in the URL of the story you’re linking to.
We are taking urgent steps to rebuild our audience and acquire digital subscriptions to support our investments in journalism. We’re grateful for your help and cooperation.
If it all seems rather 2010, it kinda is. Sounds like blogs are coming back too. [No, actually it's a call to cut back on blogs since they don't help much with SEO - ed.] But I guess it's a needed reminder there in El Segundo, where they have been busy on other things since the Patrick Soon-Shiong era began. Let's hope this new focus on fine-tuning the website also leads to some streamlining of the section architecture and maybe even a working internal search function and better printing templates. Please?
Also in El Segundo:
On Tuesday the Times named Millie Quan, a senior enterprise editor, to oversee coverage of the 2020 presidential campaign. It's a sensitive position, and with the race kicking into gear right now, and with Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti and California Senator Kamala Harris possibly involved, now is the time. Quan has done it before at the LAT, in 2000. Cathleen Decker, who had key roles in the last few national elections, jumped recently to the Washington Post. Here's the memo on Quan from executive editor Norm Pearlstine.
We are pleased to announce that Millie Quan, senior enterprise editor who ran the 2000 presidential campaign coverage as well as the just-completed midterms, will lead The Times’ coverage of the 2020 presidential campaign.
Millie will work closely with Washington Bureau Chief David Lauter, as well as others in Washington, National and Metro, to shape the strategy, build our coverage team and generate smart daily and enterprise stories for our readers. As in the past, our coverage will go well beyond the horse race to include issues of greatest interest to our readers and viewers. Any list of issues would include all aspects of immigration policy, as well as the courting of Latino voters; climate change and other important issues related to the environment; agriculture; income inequality; data security and privacy; and international relations, including trade and tariffs. We shall also focus on those Californians likely to be running; the money being poured into the campaign; and the integrity of the voting and campaigning in the new cyber world.
Millie ran our coverage for the 2000 campaign, which included the prolonged Florida recount and the Supreme Court’s ultimate decision handing victory to George W. Bush. The team that she and David led during the midterms produced terrific work, especially from the key races in California.
Millie has a strong record of accomplishment at The Times. She’s a native Californian but arrived here in 1998 from the Seattle Times, where she was an assistant managing editor, after a previous stint at the Oregonian. Her first job at The Times was as an assignment editor in Business. She later moved to National, where she handled enterprise for a large group of National correspondents, producing well over 100 Column Ones.
After National, she moved into a senior editor/enterprise role, helping to lead the Column One operation while also working directly with a team of reporters and leading coverage of major running stories. One of the most notable stories of that era was the long-running drama that followed the racist remarks made by Donald Sterling, then-owner of the Clippers, which surfaced in a tape recording made by his mistress. That led to Sterling’s lifetime ban from the sport and the eventual sale of the team.
Millie will be reaching out soon to begin recruiting, inside and outside the paper, for the 2020 team.
Please join us in congratulating Millie on these new responsibilities.
Hmm, there's a nugget of news: the Times will be recruiting "outside the paper" for journalists to work on the presidential races. Get your resumes polished up. At least one in-house reporter has already been nabbed for the beat. Melanie Mason of the Sacramento bureau is moving to LA to join the coverage.
And a new columnist:
Also on Tuesday the Times announced the hiring of LZ Granderson to be a columnist with hands in both sports and culture. Granderson is now a co-host of ESPNLA 710 Radio’s “Mornings with Keyshawn, LZ and Travis” and a CNN contributor. He previously was co-host of “SportsNation” on ESPN and wrote for The Undefeated, among other outlets. He arrives next week and, per a story in the Times, "is expected to make appearances on The Times’ sports podcast, 'Arrive Early, Leave Late,' and The Times’ and Spectrum News 1’s upcoming daily news magazine program, 'L.A. Times Today.'" The news release notes that he will join fellow Sports columnists Helene Elliott, Dylan Hernandez, Bill Plaschke and Eric Sondheimer.
“Los Angeles and Orange County is home to 11 pro sports teams and L.A. is preparing to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup and 2028 Olympics,” said Times Executive Editor Norman Pearlstine. “The Times is ramping up efforts to cover the greatest sports city in America and we look forward to having LZ help readers navigate the vast influence that sports, teams and athletes have on culture.”
In the newly-created position, Granderson will write on topics ranging from the latest home game to athletes turned activists. He’ll share his perspective on how sports connect with politics, culture, race, fashion and music, and look at how teams and athletes are reflected in media and pop culture.
The Times also recently named Metro reporter Frank Shyong a columnist and made an interesting writing hire in Gustavo Arellano, the author and former OC Weekly editor, who isn't being called a columnist but who I suspect may end up functioning like one.