Amy Sample, director of web analytics for PBS Interactive, says she and others at the site modified a formula created by web analysts Eric Peterson and Joseph Carrabis to get a better sense of which readers were most devoted. They came up with their own criteria to determine PBS.org’s most loyal audience, based on the number of pages a reader views, the amount of time a reader spends on the site, and how often and how recently readers have come.

As it turned out, less than 5 percent of the visits on the site came from users who met all of PBS’s engagement standards. But those people are a critical group, says Sample. She found that they stay on PBS.org for 13.5 minutes per visit (compared with a three-minute average for everyone else) and click on nine pages per visit (versus three for other users). PBS saw economic benefits from this audience. Such users were 38 percent more likely to donate money to PBS than less engaged users; they were also more prone to encourage others to use the site. And when PBS saw the usage patterns, executives decided that video, a favorite platform for frequent users, should be promoted more prominently. That translated into revenue, because the site’s video ads get healthy $30 CPMs, Sample said, or about three times as high as other ads on the site.

Engagement correlates with editorial content. To see how the relationship plays out at a large site, we can examine some numbers for dallasnews.com, the main site for The Dallas Morning News. (These metrics are from the full year of 2010, a few months before the publisher began charging for access to much of the site.)

For the year, the site averaged around 40 million page views a month, driven by 5 million visitors who visit, on average, about twice a month and click on about four pages per visit. Those numbers are fairly typical for a site the size of Dallas’s and provided the publisher, James Moroney, some of the figures he used to calculate the rationale for instituting the pay-for-access plan (see Chapter Five).

But the broad numbers tell only part of the story. In fact, dallasnews.com, like many big online organizations, is many sites rolled into one. To analyze its data, the company sorts its traffic statistics into various categories, including by content areas: news, entertainment, sports, weather, and blogs.

News gets the most traffic, in terms of total visitors and visits. News visitors average around two visits a month and click on an average of about 1.5 pages per visit. Their habits are typical of those found at many other news sites—not particularly engaged.

Sports does better in engagement. Users average about 2.3 visits a month, and about 3.4 pages per visit over the course of the year. During the fall of 2010, when the Texas Rangers were in the Major League Baseball playoffs and the Dallas Cowboys were on the football field, users clicked on four or more pages per visit.

And then there’s a feature on the site called High School GameTime, which includes rosters, schedules and results from the state where Friday Night Lights is based. Users clicked on nearly nine pages per visit in November 2010, during the height of the football season, and generated almost as many page views as the entire news section. Put another way, high school sports fans were seven times as engaged as the people coming to read news.

It’s easy to see why. The site offers a dizzying array of statistics, rosters, and standings for more than 200 high schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Mark Francescutti, senior managing online editor for sports, says the site’s engagement demonstrates the power of “great local content… that is exclusive and is important to people.” And loyalty, not search engine optimization, is the key to maintaining the audience. “We might get lucky and get linked off Google, but we want people who will come back every single day.”

The site has a small but intense crew. The News’s four full-time high school sports reporters file frequently, and editors also rely on clerks who take scores and statistics over the phone from stringers around Dallas. On Friday nights, scores are updated during games, not just reported when the games are over. There’s also a live chat where reporters update games—“controlled chaos,” in the words of Kyle Whitfield, the site’s editor. High School GameTime aggregates heavily from other sources. “Our writers are not robots,” says Francescutti. “We don’t have that old journalistic ego that says, ‘If we didn’t write it, it’s not important.’”

Bill Grueskin, Ava Seave, and Lucas Graves are the co-authors of "The Story so Far: What We Know About the Business of Digital Journalism." Grueskin is dean of academic affairs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Seave is a principal of Quantum Media, a NYC-based consulting firm. Graves is a PhD candidate in communications at Columbia University. For further biographical details, click here.