Accidental Activist

Interview with RTH Editor Ryan McGreal

At three and a half years, this seems to me as good a time as any to reflect on just how far RTH has come, how we got here, and where we go next.

By Ben Bull
Published June 05, 2008

It's been three and a half years since Raise the Hammer sputtered into life, launched with a limited budget, zero fanfare, and many unknowns.

"What's our game plan?" we asked, when the first issue 'hit the stands'. "What do we do now? How will we know if we've been a success?"

"Just write good articles," replied RTH Editor Ryan McGreal, "and the readers will come."

Early hits were tracked sporadically. I recall being informed of our first week average: "35 hits a day!" said Ryan.

"That's terrible!" said I.

"I know!" said Ryan.

It seemed, in the early days at least, that the only people reading RTH were us writers.

After a year or so, Ryan decided to track the hits more often. We installed a page view counter under the 'Site Traffic Report' header and watched the numbers closely.

To our amazement, the hits kept coming!

After a year we were up to 2,000 loads a day. After two years, 4,000 and counting. Three weeks ago RTH cracked the 8,000 page views a day barrier.

This seems to me as good a time as any to reflect on just how far we've come, how we got here, and where we go next. And who better than to answer all the questions I can't be bothered to, than RTH's very own editor, Mr. Ryan McGreal.

Over to you Ryan.

Ben Bull (RTH): From its inception in 2004, and early hit counts of 35 a day, RTH is currently tracking an average of 8,000 page loads a day. To what do you attribute this growth in traffic?

Ryan McGreal (RM): Mostly it's old-fashioned elbow grease. We have a lot of regular readers, but we also have a high proportion of inbound links from search engines, and those inbound visitors tend to stay and read two or more additional articles after the one they found in their search results.

Essentially we've pulled ourselves up the online search rankings by our own bootstraps by writing and publishing well researched, well written articles to which other websites have posted links.

Raise the Hammer has been operating for three and a half years, and in that time we have published 723 articles and 1013 blog entries (as of June 1, 2008) on subjects ranging from intensely local events to geopolitics and the global energy situation. That's a lot of opportunities for readers to find something that interests them.

We also have an open comments policy, and many articles benefit tremendously from additional information, analysis and interpretation - including some vigorous (and occasionally vituperative) debates. Overall, that open discussion can only improve our understanding of the issues we try to address: organized effectively, a group of people is always smarter than any one person.

Many "search engine optimization" (SEO) practitioners practice a modern-day alchemy, trying to convert the base metal of web content into the gold of high search rankings and/or high ad revenue. Unfortunately, SEO alchemy is just as spurious as the 17th century version.

The only sustainable way to move up the search rankings is the honest way: writing good articles and making sure the HTML that displays your web pages is easy for search engines to index.

RTH is ad-free, but we do like for search engine users to be able to find our stuff.

RTH: The RTH Site Traffic Report indicates 'Daily Page Views' as opposed to 'hits'. For the non-IT savvy RTH reader, what's the difference?

RM: A "hit" is any file downloaded to the browser, so if a web page includes a javascript file, a stylesheet file, and five images, that counts as eight hits rather than one page view. We count page views instead because it's a more accurate representation of how often someone loads an RTH page.

RTH: Is it possible for you to estimate – guess even – how many page loads the average RTH reader is making?

RM: We don't collect a lot of detailed information on readers - there's not really much point since we're not selling ads, and we want to avoid privacy issues - but it looks like the average visitor looks at two or three articles per visit.

RTH: How much of RTH's traffic is spam?

RM: It varies. From time to time we get deluged with spam (as evidenced in part by the crap that fills up our comments despite our best efforts to filter it - though we now have a new solution in the works), but if a lot of spam is coming from a single IP address, we block that from our traffic logs so it doesn't inflate our page views.

RTH: Filtering out the spam, and factoring in the estimated number of page loads per reader, could you estimate how many daily readers RTH currently has?

RM: Again, it varies, but it looks like we get between 2,000 and 3,000 unique visitors a day.

RTH: How many RTH readers do you think are local?

RM: I haven't done much analysis on this, but the two biggest inbound internet domains are the city and McMaster University.

RTH: To what extent has RTH permeated the political culture in Hamilton? What evidence do we have that we are making a difference?

RM: This is highly subjective and probably impossible to answer with any kind of accuracy. Certainly we seem to be making some kind of difference, but all the evidence I can think of is anecdotal, and it's probably impossible to tease out our specific contributions from those of other organizations pursuing similar goals.

In general, several issues and approaches that were completely off the agenda when we started up in 2004 are now moving into the mainstream: transit service improvements, walkable streets, high quality density, mixed use development, promoting the arts, and so on.

Here's one final data point, which puts me in mind of the famous quote by Gandhi about the stages of civic engagement ("First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win"): the amount of abuse and vitriol hurled at us has increased dramatically in the past six months.

RTH: There's been a lot of talk about print versus on-line media. A journalist I met recently complained, "Most blogs publish poorly sourced articles" and went on to declare, "print media is dead. People these days want their news real-time." What's your take on that?

RM: The biggest difference between newspapers and the web, aside from the difference in resources, is that newspaper contents are more consistent. They're written by professionals following professional and industry guidelines (not to mention reader expectations).

Blogs and online magazines are far more diverse: at their best they're as good as any professional article, but at their worst they're pretty bad. We certainly try our best to hold our writing to a high standard of quality; I'll leave it to the reader to decide how we're doing at that.

One big advantage of writing online is that it's actually *easier* to cite sources: just link right back to the original source. Newspapers can't do this in print, and rarely do it in their online editions (even for internal links, which I find confusing).

We also allow open commenting on all our articles and blog entries, so if we get something wrong or miss an important piece of evidence, we know about it pretty quickly. We always correct any errors we find in our articles, noting that the article was updated and explaining the change we made. In my opinion, that's *more* transparent and accountable than the newspapers.

As for the claim "print is dead", I don't believe it. Print is in transition, and the business model for a big daily newspaper may be in greater jeopardy than some other mainstream media, but there will always be print publications.

I expect that some of the better independent publications will become more prominent in print even as readership for the mainstream papers declines. In part, the alternative papers will tap into advertisers who a) can't afford the corporate rates of the big dailies, and b) don't share their mainstream political thrust.

RTH: RTH is heading for its fourth birthday this December! 1. Do you see the hit count rising, or is the website approaching a plateau? 2. Do you have any changes planned for RTH, either in layout or content? 3. Any chance of an RTH newspaper coming out soon?

RM:

1. We have somewhat plateaued recently. I think this partly reflects a decision to focus more closely on local issues, which somewhat limits the broader appeal of our contents. At the same time, our traffic seems to increase in lurches rather than smoothly, so perhaps another lurch is on its way.

2. Yes. We're working on a complete redesign of both the layout and the backend code. This is a slow process, as we need to do it after working our day jobs and then after actually researching and writing RTH articles, but I hope to complete something during our annual quiet time (the middle of summer).

3. You never know...

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

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By Bee (anonymous) | Posted June 06, 2008 at 00:55:27

Thank you for all your hard work. Your site is one of the few places I look for news and editorials about our fair city.

With that in mind I'd like to recommend that your redesign change the focus of your page more to the blog. It's the primary area of interest for me and no doubt for many other return visitors. The frequency and quality of posts has improved to the point that I think it can carry the lions share of the content you provide.

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By WRCU2 (registered) | Posted June 09, 2008 at 22:28:52

Great site and great work! I'll only comment on this question by Ben:

"How much of RTH's traffic is spam?"

To which Ryan replied:

"It varies. From time to time we get deluged with spam (as evidenced in part by the crap that fills up our comments despite our best efforts to filter it - though we now have a new solution in the works), but if a lot of spam is coming from a single IP address, we block that from our traffic logs so it doesn't inflate our page views."

I was wondering if the "new solution in the works" will be a migration from a Microsoft-IIS/6.0 server to a more robust, easily configurable, open source Linux server like Apache and will RTH be ditching the tediously slow DNS resolution plainhost service provider?

You can do some amazing things with a feature packed Linux kernel and the iptables firewall package. You could filter the nuisance IP's automatically with intuitive scripting. Why just filter the logs when you should be dropping the packets? Since 5 of the 9 questions were related to IT, I thought to go with the flow I most know.

As Always, Thanks for Caring and Sharing

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By ventrems (registered) | Posted June 12, 2008 at 10:21:07

Congrats on all the success. I've only been reading for about a year, but in that time I've seen LRT in Hamilton go from an unknown to the preferred choice. Well done! You've inspired us all.

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By David (anonymous) | Posted June 30, 2008 at 16:06:41

A great site, Ryan, and the writing is always top-notch. You are probably correct about the recent plateau and it's cause, but I still check the site often - many of the ideas would work well for any town, even if no personal interest in Hamilton. But keep a few broad interest articles coming.

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