Editors note: This article was originally published on Entrepreneurial Journalism, created by James Breiner. You can sign up for his newsletter here.

I’ve been publishing a blog for some 12 years now and have never been dazzled by the visitor traffic. I consoled myself by saying it was meant to be just a type of business card. People could see what I knew about digital journalism and invite me as a speaker or consultant.

But lately I took a look at my Top 50 blog posts of all time to see what readers valued most. What was my most popular, and by a large margin? It was published toward the end of 2020 — In Italy, a digital startup’s membership model takes off.

My blog on Il Post caused a traffic spike to my sleepy website.

Almost all of the traffic to that post came within a week of publication. The graphic of traffic looks like a volcano emerging suddenly from the sea and then disappearing under the waves.

Slightly more than half the traffic came from people clicking on the link — this is called direct traffic. That tells me someone shared that link with a lot of other people. And those people were in Italy. While Italy normally provides less than 4% of my visitors, in that month more than half were from Italy. Thank you, friends of Il Post, the subject of that popular blog entry.

Media partners

The tagline for my blog, which I started in 2010, is “Guiding media innovators toward solutions around the world.” So my audience is media entrepreneurs or those who help them, mainly with how to generate enough revenue to survive.

I have been lucky enough over the years to have my blog posts republished by IJNet.org. They often translate my articles into the seven other languages used on that journalism training and news site — Arabic, Persian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Chinese, and French.

Other sites that have republished my work are the Global Investigative Journalism NetworkThe Fix Media, whose target audience is media entrepreneurs in Central and Eastern Europe; and SembraMedia, a journalism research and training site focused on Latin America, where I volunteer as a board member and occasional editor.

The Centro de Formación en Periodismo Digital (the Center for Digital Journalism Training) at the University of Guadalajara in Mexico, which I launched and directed for two years, has been kind enough to promote my blogs among their social media followers.

And finally, to my total surprise, I have gained some following in academic circles through my colleagues at the University of Navarra in Spain, where I taught for seven years. They invited me to participate in some high-profile research, such as Mapa de los cibermedios de España en 2018: análisis cuantitativo (Map of digital news media in Spain in 2018: quantitative analysis).

What engages readers

Back to Analytics and my most popular blog posts. I was looking for trends, to see why some posts did better than others. Here are the next nine after the Italian post.

2. Is quality journalism sustainable? Here are 20 media organizations that are solving this problem, 2019. This post had examples from Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Latin America, and the US. It tried to answer a question everyone in the industry has been asking. It was also a rough draft for an academic paper that was published two years later.

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3. Why you might hate the news media and some journalists, 2020. A lot of people are frustrated with the news media, so Google probably has helped drive traffic when searchers used some form of the phrase “hate the news media”.

4. Publishers pivot toward users and credibility and away from digital advertising, 2018. This was both an observation and a recommendation that was just starting to gain traction four years ago. It has had sustained popularity.

5. Podcast: what are the biggest mistakes of media startups?, 2020. DW Akademie, a journalism training foundation of one of Germany’s largest media groups, interviewed me after I did some work for them. Eighty percent of traffic to this article was direct, meaning someone had the link rather than finding it on a search (Google drew 2.3%).

6. La clave del periodismo emprendedor: crear valor (The key to entrepreneurial journalism: create value), 2020. I prepared this post as a takeaway for participants in a webinar (in Spanish) on “How to teach entrepreneurial journalism”, hosted by Sembra Media for about 100 participants. They shared it on Facebook and Twitter, which generated 60% of the traffic.

7. Confession: Why I avoid reading some of the news, 2021. This post touched on polarization and extremism in the news media. It seems to have touched a nerve with a mostly moderate public. Three-fourths of the traffic came from social media.

8. These metrics predict which users will pay for news, 2020. For many media entrepreneurs, this is a life-and-death issue.

Brian Stelter in his Towson University days.

9. How a journalist built his brand from a college dorm room, 2013. This is by far the oldest post in the Top 10, a perennial favorite among students. It tracks the career path of Brian Stelter, who launched a popular blog, was hired after graduation by the New York Times, and eventually became the host of CNN’s Reliable Sources.

10. The voice is mightier than the pen: podcast power, 2020. This post focused on the suddenly booming business of podcasting. Was it really viable? I included some statistics and charts that apparently interested my target audience.

Analytics and conclusions

Only three of my Top 10 in Google Analytics are from earlier than 2020. Actually, reviewing the Top 50 of the last 12 years, most have come since I started publishing my email newsletter at the end of 2020. A link to the blog post is in each newsletter. My conclusion: the newsletter is driving much of the traffic.

Data matters. No one cares about what I think unless I present data and graphics to support those opinions. That’s why No. 2 on my list, which includes detailed data on 20 news organizations in four global regions, has been so popular.

Headlines matter in the digital world. You can be too cute and too clever. Just tell people where to catch the bus. A headline that suggests an answer to a difficult problem often works; include “why” or “how” in the text. Be a provider of solutions.

Be different. Everyone in media spends way too much talking to each other on Twitter. They all like to comment about the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Guardian or what some blowhard politician has to say about them. My Top 50 includes posts on media in France, Spain, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and, of course, Italy.

My email newsletter is so much more effective than my blog because it is so personal, unlike so much in social media and search. A person has chosen to receive the newsletter and it comes to them in their personal mailbox. It’s not a message to the world but to them. In a week where a blog post gets 10 visits, the newsletter version will get several hundred.

Finally, you need friends. If you create valuable, trustworthy information that is relevant to a particular community, they will become your loyal champions. I am so grateful to the organizations mentioned above that have promoted my work. My goal is to continue producing content they find valuable.

Photo by Hunter Harritt on Unsplash