Your local ink-in-the-blood journalists putting out a daily newspaper now spend some of our day looking at “big data” — the rich information that can be mined from millions of reader clicks. Newspapers increasingly embrace this data to glean insights into what attracts readers to their websites. We can tell how many readers read a specific story, when they read it, how long they spent on our website and what digital device they used to get there. What draws readers in? Deep-dive investigations into police misbehavior? Feel-good feature on a high school football coach? Breaking story on a major new industry moving to town or the closing of a sporting goods store? Sure.
Then there are surprises, like the one we got in early January.
Our digital editor, Allison Shirk Collins, noticed something brewing on a Sunday. By Monday morning, traffic was picking up. Thousands of page views. Same for the next couple of days. The story was going crazy online.
Did Oprah utter the words recently? Did Trump mention it in a tweet? Did “Saturday Night Live” do a skit parodying it? By last Wednesday, this story had generated 114,000-plus (and still climbing) page views — from 25 countries.
The story? “CorningWare Collectibles; Glass expert explains why there may be money in your kitchen cabinets” — written in February 2014 by a longtime Times Free Press Lifestyle reporter who was advancing a well-known antique show in Chattanooga.
READ THE STORY
If you are not one of the 114,000-plus folks who have read the CorningWare story, check it out here: https://tinyurl.com/vmdf94g. Hey, you might help that story crack 150,000 page views!
That’s right. A story written in 2014. About the Houston Antique Show.
There is a certain irony in a 6-year-old story stomping the digital pants off a website full of breaking news.
Our analysis showed 93% of page views to the story came through Google searches because when you google “CorningWare,” Susan Pierce’s story is one of the first ones you see. And nearly 80% of page views came from mobile devices — think cell phones and tablets.
Since her CorningWare story resurfaced, Pierce has fielded phone calls and email inquiries from Ontario to Pennsylvania. Readers wanted to know how much their CorningWare was worth (they were referred to eBay), one wanted to bring her collection to show her (no, thank you). One caller, a man, wanted to know if Susan wanted to buy his mother’s CorningWare collection (an emphatic no). Another caller was sure her CorningWare pieces “must be worth something because she’d had them since the 1970s.” (Again, check eBay).
We quickly learned that some 60 years after its introduction, the cookware still has sizzle. On eBay, for example, we saw some CorningWare bidding for thousands and thousands of dollars. Who knew?
A little sleuthing by Assistant News Editor Colin Stewart revealed a possible origin of the recent hot interest in CorningWare: An Australian website on March 13, 2019, posted a story, “Check you pantry NOW! Your old CorningWare dishes could be worth a fortune.” A recent Twitter search for #CorningWare reveals enough of the cookware for sale on eBay to fill a warehouse. Even though the article from Down Under was posted nine months ago, references to it skyrocketed in early January. Why? We don’t know.
The CorningWare story rebound underscores what we know about what resonates with readers and makes them click and stick. We get it — just about every household has — or had — CorningWare in the kitchen. An emotional attachment, a generational attachment, and, yes, a financial interest. The remarkable web traffic the story generated also reminds us that once on the web, it’s always on the web, and that stories unpredictably can resurface and potentially help you. Other examples of stories we have seen boomerang include snow forecasts and school closures, crazy crime stories and another story from Susan Pierce, “Beans and Greens: Why do Southerners eat black-eyed peas and greens on New Year’s Day?” that resurfaced with a surge just a few weeks ago.
About 95% of the traffic to our CorningWare story came from new users, which means that in this case the torrent of web clicks was interesting but ultimately not that helpful to our long-term goals. After all, we are focused on persuading in-market readers to subscribe and stay with us for the long haul. Those clickers in Ontario and the Keystone State are unlikely to become online subscribers. Page views are one thing; paying subscribers are the goal.
While we build reader loyalty with solid local reporting and storytelling, the overwhelming response to an old story offered the newsroom a light-hearted reminder of the randomness of what we do, and how an off-the-wall story rebound can mess with your online metrics for the month.
The bottom line? Sometimes when you catch lightning in a bottle, you just have to enjoy the brief jolt to your web traffic.
Contact Chris Vass, public editor of the Times Free Press, at email@example.com.