Boston.com hires a top editor

Matt Gross
Matt Gross

Boston.com, the venerable free website started by The Boston Globe in the mid-1990s, relaunched earlier this year with a new design and a difficult task: to find an audience without any Globe content, which was moved lock, stock and barrel behind the BostonGlobe.com paywall (with fairly generous sharing options).

The site also launched without a top editor, although Hilary Sargent of ChartGirl fame (see this Jack Shafer story) has been a visible presence as news and homepage editor. The new Boston.com offers a combination of aggregation, viral content and some original reporting. Traffic initially took a dip, but rose every month from April through July, according to Compete.com.

Now the site has named an editor — Matt Gross, the former editor of BonAppetit.com. Sargent will be his deputy. The press release is below.

Boston (Sept. 10, 2014) — Matt Gross, award-winning editor, writer and author, has been appointed as the new editor of Boston.com, effective Sept. 29.

Since 2012, Gross, 40, was editor of Condé Nast’s BonAppetit.com, where he designed and executed an innovative content strategy that tripled the number of monthly unique visitors in less than two years. Under his direction, BonAppetit.com became a widely known digital hub for entertainment, style, events, recipes, and pop culture.

From 2006-2010, he wrote the popular “Frugal Traveler” column for the New York Times, traveling to dozens of countries in pursuit of money-saving tips for fellow travelers.

He has also written on food and travel for several national publications, including Afar and Saveur magazines, and served as an editor at outlets ranging from FoxNews.com to New York Magazine and Vietnam News. He is also the author of 2013’s “The Turk Who Loved Apples,” a chronicle of his world travels.

“My primary goals as Boston.com editor are to understand what readers are interested in, how they use the site, and how Boston.com can best serve its audience,” said Gross.

“I’ve been to many cities around the world and my favorite ones are those that have a very distinct personality. Boston is unique, and I look forward to leading the team at this vibrant website that is such a critical part of the city’s daily conversations.”

Long before becoming a multilingual globetrotter, Matt called Massachusetts home, having grown up in Concord and Amherst. He is relocating to Boston from Brooklyn with his wife, Jean, and two young children.

“Matt’s experience gives him a unique perspective that will drive compelling content, leveraging multimedia and social channels to tell great stories on Boston.com, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary next October,” said Corey Gottlieb, Executive Director, Digital Strategy & Operations at Boston Globe Media Partners. “His vision will help to further define Boston.com’s identity.”

Boston.com also announced that Hilary Sargent has been named deputy editor of the site. Sargent, formerly the news and homepage editor, has been key in the reinvention of Boston.com content for the past ten months.

The primitive art of measuring online audience

Lucas Graves reports in the Columbia Journalism Review that the state of the art in counting online audiences remains abysmal.

Graves notes that statistics compiled by two of the leading services that rely on user surveys — Nielsen and comScore — can differ wildly. And, as every website operator knows, those numbers are often far lower than the numbers they get from Google Analytics and other internal measurements.

Why is it so hard? User reports are notoriously unreliable, and website operators have been complaining for years that the Nielsens are useless for measuring what people do when they’re at work. But the seemingly greater accuracy afforded by simply counting incoming traffic raises other problems: users who clear their cookies are counted every time they return; search engines that robotically visit sites are counted as users; and people who use more than one computer are counted multiple times.

My first encounter with the difficulties of counting came in 2007, when I was reporting this story for CommonWealth Magazine. I learned that the internal statistics at both the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald showed their Web audiences were three times larger than what Nielsen was reporting.

It hasn’t gotten much better since then. For instance, the New Haven Independent, a non-profit online news organization that I follow closely, was attracting some 70,000 unique visitors a month in 2009, according to founder and editor Paul Bass. That grew to 197,000 in September 2009, the month that Yale University graduate student Annie Le was murdered.

Yet according to Compete.com, the Independent was attracting just 25,000 to 30,000 uniques a month, a number that grew to 70,000 in September 2009. In other words, Bass’ internals placed the Independent’s traffic at about two and a half times what Compete.com was reporting, similar to what I had found with the Globe and the Herald two years earlier.

Then there’s the whole matter of “unique visitors per month” somehow becoming the most important measure of Web traffic. Wouldn’t you rather know how many people visit every day?

I’ve settled on Compete.com as being the easiest, most reliable free service available. It is supposedly based on surveying the behavior of some 2 million people. One thing I like is that its numbers seem reasonable. For instance, it regularly places the Globe’s Boston.com at roughly (very roughly) 5 million uniques per month, which is very close to the Nielsen figure.

Then again, maybe counting isn’t much better in other forms of media. As Graves’ CJR article points out, it’s easy to count how many newspapers are sold, but impossible to tell how many people read them. And television and radio audience measurements have been controversial for years.

So what is the solution? There may not be one, at least if “solution” is defined as something that is mathematically accurate. If people are reading and talking about you, you’ll know.