News Partnership: A Brand Boost for The Times
With no marketing resources available for the Seattle News Partner Network, were news consumers even aware that The Seattle Times was collaborating with local websites?
In early 2011, J-Lab worked with the newspaper to develop an online survey to gauge reader perception of the effort.
The results, reported in April 2011, surprised both The Times and J-Lab; 996 people responded. Eight in 10 said they valued both the network of partners and The Times itself for making it easier to connect with community news.
More than half (51%) of the respondents said they knew about the partnership before taking the survey. Respondents who reached the survey via partner sites were more aware of the partnership (61%) than those from seattletimes.com. Another 77% said they would take advantage of the partnership in the future.
"I don't think journalists recognize there is some PR value to readers to respecting independent coverage in your ecosystem," said Bob Payne, the network's project leader.
The online survey was conducted over two weeks in March 2011, at a point when the network had grown from five sites to 39. It sought to determine not only whether people were aware of the partnership but also whether it was meeting their information needs. The respondents comprised a voluntary sample, with roughly half accessing the survey from seattletimes.com's home page and half accessing it via links on five participating partner sites.
On seattletimes.com, the partnership means presenting headlines and incorporating links from partner sites. More than half the respondents (54%) said they used links from The Times to go to partner sites. Others accessed The Times' site from the individual community sites.
Although The Times was driving traffic to its partner sites, it also appeared to get the greatest benefit from the collaboration:
- More than half the respondents (52%) said the partnership improved their opinion of seattletimes.com strongly or somewhat.
- 84% said they valued the partnership for supporting improvements in community journalism.
- 78% said they valued The Times for making it easier to connect with community news sites.
"It bolsters our brand, even if we are not seeing a direct traffic gain," said The Times' Deputy Managing Editor Heidi de Laubenfels at the time.
A majority of the respondents (79%) said they would be willing to support the network as readers; some said they would donate, advertise or sponsor an activity.
Partners that participated in the survey were the West Seattle Blog, Capitol Hill Seattle, My Edmonds News, My Ballard and Three Sheets Northwest.
Breaking news is the most commonly sought community news topic. Next were "go-do" types of information about local events and activities. Events and activities are more popular on the partner sites, however, than on seattletimes.com.
More than 324 of the 996 respondents wrote in their impressions of the partnership in free-form text boxes. Positive comments outweighed negatives by more than 10 to one.
Readers with positive feedback said they liked the cooperation among the sites and thought it benefited them as readers. Negative commenters complained that the partner sites were giving up their independence to The Times or that the newspaper was giving credence to news not always produced by professional journalists.
Many of the open-ended comments urged The Times to make some changes. Among them:
- Expand the network geographically.
- Provide more partner headlines on its home page.
- Make it very clear when a link takes them off the seattletimes.com website.
The comments also indicated that the respondents were very happy with their neighborhood sites and often use them as a primary source of news.
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