Tablet Opinion

Jim Witt: Tragedy, snakes, Cowboys drew digital readers

As a reporter early in my career, in the mid-’70s, I always wondered who was reading my stories. Back then it was very unusual to ever hear from a reader, and if you did you still had no idea how many people actually read what you wrote.

Now, of course, while we still have no way of measuring what stories get read in the paper, we know exactly how many stories, photos and videos get viewed on all our digital products.

But while it gives us a road map about what topics people are interested in, it’s not the only way we decide what to cover. If we only covered the stories that draw the most online traffic, we’d only write about crime and the Dallas Cowboys — and the Cowboys only make the list because we draw a national audience to those stories.

The top online story in 2013 in the Star-Telegram was “ Top Navy SEAL sniper killed on gun range of West Texas resort,” the ambush murder of Chris Kyle, which drew 200,000 page views and was written by Barry Shlachter. The rest of the top five were “ Saginaw police say veterinarian shot after friend vomited near man’s car,” by Domingo Ramirez Jr.; “ Thousands of bees attack couple, horses in Pantego,” by Jessamy Brown; “ Teen sentenced to 10 years probation, rehab in 4 deaths,” by Mitch Mitchell; and “ Fort Worth man, 34, accused of shootings in Navy Yard,” by Deanna Boyd and Bill Miller

The most-read non-crime story of the year was “Snakes may have met their match in plastic mesh,” by Terry Evans, a tale about a Cresson woman who discovered that a role of plastic mesh she bought to keep rabbits our of her garden also turned out to be a snake-killer, too. That drew 48,000 page views. The rest of the top five were “ George H.W. Bush shaves head to show support for young leukemia patient,” by Anna Tinsley; “ Teen surprised with a big paycheck for 10th-place steer,” by Lee Williams; “ Support showered on former Arlington family after tragedy,” by Patrick Walker; and “ More than 600 new Texas laws take effect Sunday,” by Anna Tinsley.

The top sports story of the year was “ Rob Ryan fired as Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator,” by Clarence Hill Jr, which drew 34,000 page views. The other top four sports stories of the year were “ Nolan Ryan could leave Rangers by end of spring training, sources say,” by Randy Galloway; “ Nolan Ryan forced out at home,” by Randy Galloway; “ A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel working hard to be best he can be,” by Charean Williams; and “ Was Aledo’s 91-0 football win last week a case of bullying?,” by Ryan Osborne.

The top video of the year was “ Gary Patterson’s choice words for Art Briles,” by Travis L. Brown, which drew 78,000 viewers. Rounding out the top five were “ Semi plunges off I-30/161 overpass,” a handout video by the North Texas Transportation Authority, “ 11-year-old TCU freshman,” by Joyce Marshall; “ Bud Kennedy, Sandy Cline remember Navy Yard shooter,” a team effort; and “ Top recruit Garrett commits to A&M,” by Jared Christopher.

But the biggest driver of traffic for us by far, and really for just about every other news website I’m familiar with, is photo galleries. The reason for that is that a story will only generate one page view when a reader looks at it (or more if it’s a longer story that continues on other pages), while a photo gallery will generate a page view for every photo in the gallery that gets viewed. And often our galleries will have several hundred photos in them, so some of our galleries generate hundreds of thousands of page views.

The annual Colonial golf tournament was our top gallery topic with nearly a million page views. followed by’s “hot” issue, then tailgating fans at the TCU-LSU football game, the Rockin’ the River event on the Trinity and the Main Street Arts Festival.