The Mast-Head: Surviving Viral

Thanks to the Web, traffic to our site had soared

    Shortly before last week’s issue went to press, something came in over the transom that transformed an ordinary pre-election week into a full-blown, viral Internet frenzy.

    A call came at about lunchtime on Oct. 30 about our placing something in the paper from Laurie Anderson about the death on the previous Sunday of her husband, the rock mold-breaker Lou Reed. Eventually, we received an e-mail, and I also fielded phone calls, one from Ms. Anderson, several more from a friend of hers, about whether we would put the statement in the paper.

    After learning of his death at home in Springs, I had wondered about whether we would run his obituary. It is longstanding Star policy to write obituaries for all residents of our coverage area; Mr. Reed certainly fit the definition. But the question was what we could say that had not already been well reported elsewhere.

    What Ms. Anderson sent us, elegantly describing Mr. Reed’s last living moments, was by no means a traditional birth-to-death obituary. Rather, it was a picture of a moment in time, describing a life’s end — at home, at peace, looking at trees — of the sort perhaps many readers would wish for themselves. It appeared in print, boxed off as if it were an advertisement, distinct from the obituaries our reporters prepared.

    On Thursday afternoon, after the print edition was in the mail and on the newsstands, it occurred to me that our Twitter and Facebook followers might want to see Ms. Anderson’s letter, in effect a letter to her neighbors, so I made a page for it on our Web site, then linked to it from social media.

    Within an hour, the phone rang. It was Steve, the guy who manages our remote Web server. “What’s up?” I asked.

    “Lou Reed,” Steve said.

    Thanks to the Web, traffic to our site had soared. Where normally a single story might get a couple dozen hits an hour, this one was drawing hundreds, then thousands. It threatened to take down our site as well as the others housed on the same server. Steve had to do something.

    Skipping the technical details, his quick fix meant that he or I had to manually reset the site as often as we could to keep the Lou Reed page visible. We did not finally solve the underlying problem until Monday.

    In the meantime, traffic to the site continued to grow, especially after music blogs, then the Huffington Post, People, and Rolling Stone, to name a few, as well as sites overseas began linking to us. As of early this week, the page had 190,000 views; our second most-viewed page had had 1,100.

    Because of the frequent cycle of crashes and resets, a number of sites simply copied Ms. Anderson’s letter whole. Only one, the Huffington Post, phoned to check if that was okay. Had our Web site been able to handle the traffic, there is no telling how high the number of visits might have climbed.

    By the beginning of this week, the site’s numbers had begun to return to normal. Then Gawker linked to it in a funny compendium of our 2013 police reports. That is a story for another day