An unscientific dip into Planetizen traffic data for the first three months of 2019 reveals the planning stories readers couldn't care less about.
Planning is a difficult subject to parse from the noise of the contemporary news cycle, which is one raison d'etre for Planetizen. Many parties are responsible for that difficulty: The planning industry revels in jargon and legalistic language penetrable only to those with a juris doctorate or a graduate degree in planning. Politicians and the public politicize matters of life and death for personal gain. The media defers to false equivalences and doesn't always commit to the extra study and practice necessary to clearly describe the concepts (and jargon) critical to planning.
That's a lot to think about when considering which planning stories to share with a national audience and how best to communicate the relevance of those stories.
Fortunately, Google Analytics offers concrete and nuanced measurements of the feedback loop provided by the audience's responses to Planetizen's take on the planning conversation.
Planetizen publishes a lot—260 posts in January, 235 posts in February, and 260 posts in March, for 755 posts total. That kind of volume gives us the freedom (maybe the necessity) to cover a lot of ground, and it also offers a chance to test, measure, and shift how we cover these complex issues. We could have always shared more stories, and we probably should have also left some stories off the feed. There's always a tension between, on the one hand, wanting to complete the narrative and give a full and diverse account of the planning discussion by amplifying stories that might otherwise be hidden to a larger audience, and, on the other hand, posting news to keep the content mill grinding, without really thinking about whether there might be a more consequential or relevant story out there to be told.
In assessing our success in responding to all of these various pressures, I recently dug through Google Analytics and made a list of my worst performing posts on Planetizen between January 1 and March 31. I expected to gain insight about the kind of stories I might consider leaving out of the feed in the future, but also, and much more importantly, the kinds of stories that I need to do a better job of sharing.
The following unlucky 13 are the worst performing posts that I authored during the first three months of 2019. The list starts with the story that attracted the lowest number of unique views, as measure by Google Analytics.
- Easing the Tax Burden of Commercial Renters in Manhattan
- Former Oil and Gas Lobbyist Nominated to Run Interior Department
- Federal Government Intervenes to Halt Planned Supervised Injection Site in Philadelphia
- Change Order Reform Proposed for New York's Department of Design and Construction
- Crisis Response Afforded Aviation Fatalities But Neglected for Automobile Tragedies
- L.A. Collects Green Bonafides By Canceling Plans for Natural Gas Power
- AV Investments Outpacing Consumer Demand: Report
- PG&E Promises to Keep the Lights on After Declaring Chapter 11 Bankruptcy
- New App Helps Drivers Find Parking Spots at Transit Stations
- EPA Enforcement Activities Hit 30-Year Low
- Safe Routes to School Have New Funding Opportunities in Oregon
- Freedom Rides Transit With Unlimited Transfers
- Scoop: NYC Never Disclosed Union Deal That Helped Secure Rezonings
I can see why a few of these posts weren't immediately relevant to a national audience of planners. I don't see a lot of posts here that were, perhaps, already too exposed by the national media to retain any novelty (and thus, value) on this site. What I mostly see are headlines I wish I could rewrite.
I started to see more trends in the public interest in planning stories when I expanded my analysis of the least popular stories, and included posts by all of the authors contributing to the site. Here are a few of my notes from all of those posts, which I won't share here.
1) Stories about new apps don't do well. This finding was perhaps the most surprising result of this analysis. The big annual feature Planetizen publishes about planning apps is always one of the best performing posts of the year, but there were many more examples like the transit parking app story above among the worst performing posts of the year so far. Even a post about an app that sends a warning before an earthquake strikes got very few clicks on Planetizen. Posts about specific apps are not currently performing well on this platform. The question: why?
2) Environmental angles also don't do well. This finding is consistent with the last time we looked through the least popular posts, back in 2014, and it's probably the main reason I am writing this entire post instead of just keeping all this information for internal uses.
The need to connect environmental outcomes with planning practices has never been greater. The need to analyze, evaluate, and improve planning practices relative to environmental performance has never been greater. This isn't a lecture: it's a reminder, to myself as much as anyone else. We all must do a better job of connecting the dots between planning and the environment.
3) Local transit planning stories don't always do well, especially for mid-sized cities. Sometimes it seems like transit planning is the most media-friendly of all the planning genres. The projects, politics, and controversies of public transit seem to generate the most consistent new stories of all the intersectional sub-genres of planning news, anyway. Transit projects lend themselves to photo-ops for politicians too.
The city of Denver provides a great example of transit's media friendliness, most of the time. I posted three articles about Denver last week. Here they are listed in order of how many clicks they earned:
- G-Line Commuter Rail Opens Today, Connecting Denver to Suburbs
- New 20-Year Comprehensive Plan, and More, Approved for Denver
- Denver Won't Ease Restrictions for Social Marijuana Uses
These results reflect what I expect—a post about a big transit opening outpaces big planning news. (Although I might have expected the comp plan story to do better with this audience. I would argue that news doesn't get much more planning oriented than the final approval of a comprehensive plan.) Still, and you'll have to take my word for it, the list of the 100 least-read stories on Planetizen from the beginning of the year was full of stories about planned public transit.
Given the constant stream of transit planning news relative to land use planning news (and my life as a daily transit rider and a renter), I probably get too wrapped up in the transit planning news. We'll continue to evaluate the thresholds of national significance for local transit planning news.
4) Some of the big planning stories in the most populous U.S. city, New York, don't do particularly well. Examples include the story Planetizen shared on a proposal to implement a pied-à-terre tax to pay for transit improvements, as well as the commercial rent and change order reform stories listed above.
We can humbly assume that most New Yorkers are not coming to Planetizen for local news. Planetizen keeps a close eye on New York because its stories have national significance, every time, as models of various urban planning practices and the politics of local planning amidst a diverse, large population. Maybe the minutiae of New York infrastructure planning and funding politics aren't as interesting outside the city as we thought, or maybe we're not capturing the national relevance as well as we could.
5) If I could give one story another chance, after it compelled a middling response from Planetizen readers, it would be the story of Minneapolis' ongoing push to diversify the representation in its neighborhood system.
- Funding Focus in Push to Diversify Minneapolis Neighborhood Groups
- Neighborhoods 2020: Details on Minneapolis' Next Big Planning Effort
It's possible the story about Minneapolis' efforts to reform its public outreach and citizen representation system has been lost amid the din created by the historic achievements of the Minneapolis 2040 comprehensive plan, which allows the city to eventually ban single-family zoning in the entire city. The city is attempting to undo the harmful racial and economic effects of single-family zoning. Similarly, the Neighborhood Plan acknowledges that public participation in planning processes favors entrenched economic and political power, subverting the democratic representation of the city's entire population. Whether Minneapolis is successful in overturning the status quo of land use politics is a matter of national significance. The future results of the new regulatory regime will also be a matter of national significance.
We at Planetizen will be watching, learning, adding to the historical record, and helping to get the right information into the right hands in real time—and looking for ways to improve in each of those tasks. We hope you'll join us.
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