The most popular story on NYTimes.com in 2013 was the amazing dialect quiz that everyone made their parents take on Christmas Eve. The web app, based on North Carolina State University’s dialect quiz was published in mid-December. Other top stories included celebrity op-eds, three stories about the Boston Marathon Bombing, and “Invisible Children”. Here is how The Atlantic framed the story.
Think about that. A news app, a piece of software about the news made by in-house developers, generated more clicks than any article. And it did this in a tiny amount of time: The app only came out on December 21, 2013. That means that in the 11 days it was online in 2013, it generated more visits than any other piece.
I’m not surprised by the popularity of the NYTimes.com’s dialect quiz. It was well designed and engaging. It was easy to share on Facebook. And it led to some great discussions over holiday dinner.  A lot of websites wrote about this particular study. The NYT quiz just made it personal by translating the findings.
The “Value” of Web Content
But The Atlantic seems surprised by the whole thing. The subtext to The Atlantic’s post seems to revolve around the inherent specialness of The New York Times and its reported content.
Sorry guys, but the Times is just another newspaper. Sure, it has a big budget and national reach, but it is still just a newspaper. A news seeker has a ton of choices about where they get information about a given story. The Times’ marketing reach may give them some advantage, but Google and locality will drive visitors to local or alternate news sites. Reported news articles have a short shelf life. Each day (or hour) an article’s value diminishes. If it is a national story, every news outlet will cover it, thus making any given story less valuable.
Technical Limitations of Web Content
The sheer volume of articles makes the value of each individual article much smaller. There are technical problems with trying to translate the print model to the web. Most content management systems store blog posts as static blocks of text. This makes it difficult to update a news story over time. An editor can:
Make changes to the story without informing the reader.
Add an “edit” to the bottom of the article.
“Red Line” outdated information and insert the new information into the article.
Publish a new version of the story.
There are many ethical issues with the first option. Options 2 and 3 make the text difficult to read. If, as in the case of the Boston marathon bombings, the story changes over time articles can become a mess of edits. Which leaves option 4. A news site may publish four articles about an event over the course of a few days to accommodate changes. Not only is a reader’s attention spread out across multiple sources, it is spread out across multiple articles. This is why evergreen content like the dialect quiz is so important. It was a unique piece of content no one else had. That alone will amplify its traffic.
Go back and read Adrian Holovat’s 2006 blog post about the future of news paper websites. Holovat put his theory into practice with EveryBlock. Instead of being a static block of text, Holovat argues that news publications should break news into discrete bits of information that can be reconfigured and recontextualized. As a story changes so does the web page.
Holovat’s argument serves as a solution to the problem of having an abundance of news sources, reported articles, and technology that conspire to drive down the value of a given news post.
What is Next for Web Content
You can see this in action in Cir.ca’s app. A story is broken down into discrete elements (text, quotes, pictures, maps, sources, and links to further reading). Users can follow a topic. As the story evolves, new elements are added to that topic. 
One of my responsibilities in my day job is to try to define the way forward with web content. How can we grow syndication and search traffic while serving our customers? How can we attract advertisers?
If news sites want to grow traffic and reach readers, they will need to go beyond just a static block of text. NYTime.com’s dialect quiz is a good start. So is Circa.