Opinion

Yes, we track which headlines you click on. Here’s why.

The Sacramento Bee’s app is pictured.
The Sacramento Bee’s app is pictured. abuchmann@sacbee.com

Can I write this without sounding creepy? News organizations (many of them, anyway) track what you read and what you don’t.

It’s changing how we do journalism.

We know how many people find our stories on Facebook and how many come directly to Sacbee.com. We know when a national conservative aggregator like Drudge Report links to a story and drives national audience. Or when former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, now a UC Berkeley professor, tweets a link to his almost half-million followers.

We track to improve our journalism and grow digital audience.

The challenge to journalists vying for your time online is greater than ever given this medium – unlike printed newspapers – offers endless distractions. Stories must be sharper and reporting more revelatory. The topic must resonate. And headlines – well, according to digital marketing experts, we all typically decide within three words whether to click on a story or move on.

About 62 percent of U.S. adults read news on social media, where stories compete with birthday greetings, pet videos and family updates for your time. The Pew Research Center reported last year that 44 percent of those adults get news scrolling through their Facebook feed, the single biggest social media news audience.

If you believe that a democracy needs an informed citizenry to function, as I do, then it’s worth doubling down on analytics and headline-writing to entice more people to read news. That work also improves our journalism for longtime print readers.

Journalists bring mission and values to their work serving the community, but data help guide news judgment, too. Like other media companies, The Bee uses web analytics tools such as Chartbeat to test headlines and stories. We can watch in real time whether potential readers respond to a specific headline, and test it against another headline if we don’t like the response. We use CrowdTangle to see who is sharing our stories on social media, and how that affects readership.

We do not invade your privacy because we’re looking at total reader response. We’re not collecting snippets of conversation as the Amazon Echo and Google Home technology do. And there’s no threat of hackers spying on you, which is the worldwide fear of, say, the My Friend Cayla doll.

So what works – and what doesn’t?

Provocative headlines. Then-and-now headlines like this: “Goodwill employee expected sympathy after he saw co-worker crushed. But he was fired.” Sometimes straight news headlines. Sometimes question headlines like this: “Is accused cop killer sleeping through his hearing?” The notion that we have three words to grab attention might be generally true, but not always.

On Monday, reporter Adam Ashton broke the story for The Bee that top California Democrats were overhauling the troubled Board of Equalization. Most of the 4,800 employees would move to a new department that reports to Gov. Jerry Brown. Tax disputes would be settled by civil service administrative law judges instead of elected members.

The initial headline? “Lawmakers move to blow up California tax board.”

That’s a clear, straightforward news headline. The rules of engagement on social media, however, would suggest that headlines never start with words like “lawmakers move.” So an editor changed it to “Blow up California tax board, lawmakers say.” Our Chartbeat test told us readers preferred the first headline, with 72 percent quality clicks as compared with 57 percent. Happily, so did we.

When Mike Lyon, the former head of Lyon Real Estate, was back in court earlier this month the story initially had this headline: “Do prostitutes have a right to privacy on the job?”

I read the story when it had that headline because it was a provocative question. But reporter Sam Stanton wanted the headline to better reflect the court discussion. The rewritten headline was “Issue in businessman’s sex tape case: Do hookers have right to privacy on the job?” That rewrite brought in more readers, with a 71 percent quality click rate compared to 69 percent.

The quality measurement matters. If we can write a headline that gets your attention, but the story doesn’t deliver, we’re not doing our job. That would be click bait, which ought to be the bane of every journalist on this planet.

Joyce Terhaar: 916-321-1004, @jterhaar

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