Tracking best practices in the business of digital news

Editor’s note: Widely shared online news videos force journalists to make quick decisions about how to handle the tsunami of clicks, as The Texas Tribune learned last summer with its YouTube feed of the Wendy Davis filibuster. I asked Matt Goodman, a Web editor at WFAA-TV in Dallas, to share some lessons learned from last week’s internationally infectious Dale Hansen Unplugged commentary. (This guest post was commissioned separately from the Tribune’s partnership with WFAA’s political news program, Inside Texas Politics.) — J.B.

By Matt Goodman

Dale Hansen doesn’t know what it means, but last week he went viral.

Two Sunday nights ago, the longtime Dallas sports broadcaster aimed his eyes at the camera and unleashed 428 blistering words about the hypocrisy of unnamed NFL executives who told Sports Illustrated that a league peppered with spousal abusers, drug users and drunken drivers might not be ready to welcome incoming rookie Michael Sam, an openly gay man, into the locker room.

Dale’s sentiment wasn’t necessarily new, but, as he admitted on The Ellen DeGeneres Show last week, “I’ve had several people today telling me that we were really impressed and we were really surprised that an old fat guy from Dallas, Texas, would say this.”

After the segment ran, it took about 48 hours for the “Hansen Unplugged” commentary to claw its way to the top of Reddit. The link that made it was ripped and uploaded to YouTube by someone not affiliated with WFAA, which employs Hansen and me.

Being atop the Reddit mountain has its benefits, primarily exposure. But when the link is sending folks to a third-party website, you’re missing out on hundreds of thousands of pageviews, shares and online currency.

I’m one of four Web editors who manages content posted to WFAA.com. We were faced with a sudden decision: Should we pitch a fit and file a complaint with YouTube, citing our copyright (and breaking that precious Reddit link)? Or should we let the thing ride?

We chose the latter, and Dale’s words spread far beyond North Texas. Outlets including Huffington Post, Gawker, Slate, Mother Jones and The Dallas Morning News, our neighbor and competitor, picked the story up and ran with it. Dale and his wife, Chris, were invited to be on The Ellen Degeneres Show. He was too busy to fit in Piers Morgan.

This was a situation where we felt getting Dale’s message in front of as many eyes and ears as possible was more important than where our viewers and readers were seeing it. That’s not to say we didn’t benefit from the reaction –– Hansen’s commentary drew nearly three quarters of a million views, setting an all-time record for video views on our site. However, that YouTube clip, which was posted to Huffington Post and Gawker, has 4.5 million views (and counting), dwarfing our numbers. On the surface, that disparity seems like a cause for alarm. In reality, it didn’t really matter. Our brand was seemingly everywhere. Dale became the de-facto voice on one of the nation’s most hot-button topics last week. And he made a difference: he heard from people in Australia, Canada, Finland, Great Britain and, in his half-joking words, “every state in the union other than Alabama or Mississippi.” A Canadian teenager sent in an eloquent email saying that he now had the courage to discuss his sexual orientation with his parents because Dale, the self-proclaimed old fat guy from Texas, had the courage to support Sam on television. Dale’s eyes welled up telling the newsroom about this.

The head of our digital department has an analogy he likes to mention: Sprite’s advertising campaign centers on getting in front of as many eyes as possible. That way, when consumers are staring at a wall of sodas, they’re more likely to choose Sprite if they can associate it with the ad they saw on the bus, billboard or wherever. If they don’t see that ad, maybe they walk away with a Pepsi.

Opportunities like Dale’s viral commentary can expose WFAA to a viewership that may have otherwise had no idea about who we are. This piece of strong content resonated within them. The long-term value certainly is more difficult to quantify than Web analytics, but perhaps some of these folks will return to us for news because of the experience Dale gave them.

Sometimes, you’ve got to let it ride.

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Notes

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