Stat Infection

November 10, 2011 

Falling circulation and advertising sales have shrunk the news hole. While a smaller staff sometimes means we're scrambling for daily content, more frequently, space is at a premium in our print edition.

The photo galleries have gone a long ways in reducing the frustration of having your favorite shot squeezed out of the paper and the juicy page view numbers they generate have probably added some marginal stabilization to the Jenga-like structure that keeps me employed.

It's been easy to get carried away in the virtually unlimited space, and I've been trying to rein in the bloated galleries I've too often posted. Some stories lend themselves to photo overload, however, and this year I've been experimenting with a new way to handle the problem.

Two years ago, I wrote about balancing professional pride and responsibility with feeding the online stat beast after covering the Great Prosser Balloon Rally. That year, I posted 54 images. I had about as many keepers (in the most basic sense of the word) from this year's rally, but decided to split the photos into two galleries. One featured my 20 favorites (still a very loose edit), while the other 36 went into an "Extras" gallery.

I decided not to clog our website front page with two galleries from the same event and promoted the extra shots with a link in the caption of the main gallery.

In 2009, 251 unique visitors checked out the gallery for a total of 8,900 page views, which means, on average, each person made it through about 35 of the 54 photos.

This year, 418 unique visitors racked up 6,222 page views in the main gallery, for an average of almost 15 photos per visit, while 76 unique visitors averaged 27 photos a piece for 2,054 page views.

It looks like people who really wanted to see more photos had the patience to click through most of them, while others averaged about what we've come to expect. It's hard to say for sure, though, and a lot of other factors play into these numbers. In 2009, photo galleries were relatively new and we didn't promote our stories and photos on Facebook or Twitter back then.

We ran two photos from the rally, but if I had a photo page, here's what my edit might have looked like:

We actually ran the last two photos. These other shots would have also been in the mix depending on space, input from colleagues and design considerations:

I took the same approach while covering my third state cross country championship last weekend at Sun Willows Golf Course in Pasco. This time, I had an even flabbier 32-photo edit for the main gallery and 47 extra photos in the second gallery.

A tight edit for a photo page or two might have included these shots:

There would be some action mug shots of other featured runners sprinkled in too, and these shots would have also been in the running for publication:

Last year, a 79-photo gallery netted 34,210 page views from 712 unique visitors through November. On average, viewers made it through about 48 photos each. About half of that came on the first full day after the meet, with 283 unique visitors clicking through an average of 57 photos for 16,239 page views.

This year, 289 people checked out the main gallery for 7,834 page views on Sunday while 252 tallied 9,047 page views in the extras. That means on average, each viewer made it through about 27 photos in the main gallery and nearly 36 in the extras. Those averages take a slight dip for the totals through Thursday afternoon, with 562 unique visitors averaging 25 pictures a piece in 14,142 page views for the main gallery, and 466 people averaging 34 for 15,950 page views.

It's hard to tell exactly what these stats mean. I'm clearly no scientist and this is based on only two tries. For the balloon rally, only 18 percent of viewers checked out the extra photos, while 83 percent visited the second cross country gallery. Is that simply because people wanted to see if there were any photos of their kid or did publishing the extras gallery on the front page make that big of a difference?

Plenty of other immeasurable factors also have an impact, such as the Sunday publishing of three wine country galleries and a photo homage to Andy Rooney that pushed the cross country galleries out of the top gallery spots. We don't really know how much traffic comes from people looking for the most recent galleries, though, and all it would take is for a large family visiting a direct link to look at one specific picture of their favorite athlete to dramatically skew these admittedly small numbers.

Those numbers are a cold reminder of how much smaller our online readership is compared to our print circulation of about 38,000 on Sundays. Still, those tasty page view numbers are important components as we build our online presence. While I wish all I had to focus on was producing quality storytelling photos, changing times call for unforseen concerns.

Fellow fans of The Wire are no doubt familiar with the struggle between professional duty and crushing statistical weight. While mine is a minor creative conundrum when compared to the greater societal ills David Simon portrays in the HBO classic, it's a problem that's continued to bug me since we started pushing for regular photo galleries.

It's not all bad, though. Publishing and archiving numerous photos from certain events also comes in handy for future stories, and despite the relatively low numbers of online gallery viewers, people frequently tell me how much they enjoy the feature while I'm on assignment.

The only complaints I've heard about these bloated galleries come from fellow photojournalists who lament my apparent lack of photo editing skills. If there's one thing I've learned in my four years here, it's that readers don't hesitate to let us know when they think we suck. In these two experiments, the numbers have basically been a push, so until there's some backlash, I think it's a nice compromise for handling these long, photo-rich assignments.

I'll keep working on my editing skills, though, and will try to put together even tighter edits for the main galleries in the future. As you can see from my statistical ramblings, I'm kind of groping in the dark here, so let me know what you think, faithful BtF readers. After all, we do what we do for our readers, not these mind-numbing numbers I've thrown at you.

Speaking of mind-numbing numbers...

Andreas Gursky's "Rhein II" just took the record for the most expensive photo ever, selling for $4.3 million. It's crazy news in an economically rocky time when so many are bemoaning the devaluation of photographs. Even crazier that it's one of six similar prints.

NPR's The Picture Show highlighted a cool video about black rhino relocation a day before it was declared that Africa's Western black rhino is officially extinct.

Check out this gorgeous water droplet photography by Heinz Maier that was featured on Strobist last week.

Luceo law man Matt Slaby has a great set of photos from five northwest colleges up on their blog.

And Joao Silva continues his journey of inspiration by completing the New York City Marathon.

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