Back in the early days of websites — way back, a decade ago — there were far fewer publications on the web than there are today, of course, and many people read them as they had read print newspapers and magazines. A reader would go to a favorite site and check in perhaps once a day, once a week or even once a month — whenever they thought it might feature new material.

Now, of course, that has changed. While some of us remain loyal to a few sites, we’re more likely to click around, using search engines, blogs, email from friends and so on to guide us to new reading. As someone interested in education, for example, I visited a lot of Washington, D.C., local sites earlier this fall, having been sent there by searches for Michele Rhee, by Facebook friends who share my interest in public education, by friends who know of my interest and by an array of education blogs. Now that D.C. is generating less education news — at least for now — I’m less likely to come back. That’s not a reflection on the quality of any of the sites.

Further complicating the picture is the fact that one often does not have to go to the original site to read a given item. As we all know, blogs and other online publications publish not only links but lift articles in their entirety.

Should We Yahoo?

Recently Gotham Gazette — and probably many of your local sites as well — was approached by Yahoo, which wanted to put some of our content in its new Yahoo local sections. The whole story — not just a link and a teaser — would appear on Yahoo. The massive reach of Yahoo obviously appealed to a small local site like ours, but we said no because we thought we could not afford any loss in traffic, however slight. (I’ll admit another part of me couldn’t see why a struggling site like ours should provide free content to a multi-billion dollar corporation, but I’ll let that part slide for now.)

So where does this leave us? Do hits mean what they used to? Well maybe not, but we still need them. Advertisers rely on them and so do foundations and other donors, which are key funding sources for those of us in the non-profit journalism world.

That said, it seems marketing techniques of the past — building brand loyalty, so to speak — are less effective now. Or are they?

And what are the alternatives. Facebook? Twitter? What else?

Good content never hurts, but how does one spread the word about that good content? And since people reading a story are often oblivious to the name of the site they have found their way to, great stories do not necessarily ensure repeat customers.

It seems any talk about sustainability has to consider traffic. Sure, a site can have readers and still not make it. But without readers — not necessarily millions but at least success in reaching the intended audience — can any site survive?