Indy Star's Bizarre Tale of Real-Life Exorcism Wins Huge Mobile Traffic, but Cashing In Is Harder

Haunted House Story a 'Serendipitous' Big Draw for Gannett Paper

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Gannett's Indianapolis Star is happily learning what movie studios have long known: Ghost stories are a huge draw.

"The exorcisms of Latoya Ammons," a 5,300-word feature by investigative reporter Marisa Kwiatkowski, has become one of the most widely read pieces in the paper's history since it was published last month, according to Jeff Taylor, the Star's editor and VP-news. But even as the story continues to rack up social shares to make BuzzFeed jealous, including 62,000 on Facebook, the paper may find more luck cashing in via Hollywood than on Madison Avenue.

The feature describes a Gary, Ind., family that endured an experience not unlike the story in last year's movie "The Conjuring." Their rented house exhibited odd behavior -- swarming black flies, creaking doors, the sound of mysterious footsteps -- which they claimed was followed by demonic possession of the mother and children.

The newspaper's account includes links to various public records, including a report in which a nurse and Department of Child and Family Services case manager claimed to have witnessed a young boy walk backwards up a wall. Ultimately, a Catholic priest performed several exorcisms.

"There has been no other article since we've started tracking in-depth metrics around our mobile suite of products that has attracted such volume of visits and engagement," said Kevin Poortinga, managing editor at the Indy Star, in an email. Facebook was the largest source of referrals.

Mobile traffic to the story topped that of non-mobile, according to Mr. Poortina. "One of our first articles to do so handily," he said.

"It's the kind of story people want to tell a friend about," said Mr. Taylor. All of the traffic from Facebook was organic, he added. The paper did not pay to promote the story on social media.

Mobile traffic, unfortunately, is the kind of thing that keeps publishers and chief revenue officers up at night. As the saying goes, analog dollars became digital dimes, which themselves become mobile pennies. In other words, it's hard to make a decent buck off mobile traffic.

Indeed, the only ads served on the iPhone version of "The exorcisms of Latoya Ammons" show up at the bottom, by way of a tiny banner ad.

The increased traffic helped fulfill existing ad campaigns, said Doug Wilson, chief marketing officer at the Indy Star. But the paper was unable to capitalize in the ways it might have hoped if it knew the surge was coming. Like other publishers, the Indy Star will sell ads for editorial packages -- such as Final Four basketball coverage -- that it knows will attract large audiences. The exorcism story, on the other hand, was "serendipitous," Mr. Wilson said.

The paper does have a pay meter on its website, but it's still too early to tell whether the visibility led to a boost in subscriptions, Mr. Poortinga added.

Now the Star says it has received calls from agents and producers interested in pursuing potential movie deals. If the paper pursues these leads -- it's not in discussions with anyone yet, Mr. Taylor said -- it could follow in the path of large publishers such as Conde Nast, which have sought additional revenue streams by optioning magazine articles to Hollywood.

Either way, long-form works of journalism such as "The exorcism of Latoya Ammons" is becoming more attractive to publishers, including digital-only players such as BuzzFeed and Business Insider, as they seek to build engagement with readers and show social media sites like Facebook that their content is high quality. And The New York Times is moving toward selling specific ad programs around deep storytelling that it hopes will take off.

Others associated with the exorcisms story are already cashing in, including the priest who conducted the exorcisms. Last week, the Rev. Michael Maginot reportedly inked a deal with Evergreen Media Holdings, whose owner produced "The Conjuring." Additionally, Father Maginot agreed to make a documentary with Zak Bagans, host and executive producer of the Travel Channel's "Ghost Adventures." Mr. Bagans also reportedly bought the house in question.

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