By the Numbers  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2006

By the Numbers   

Television has always relied on ratings to know what people are watching. Now newspapers can get statistics showing which stories on their Web sites attract the most attention.
Will those numbers heighten the tabloidization of America’s newspapers?

By Jube Shiver Jr.
Jube Shive, Jr. (shiver@medianxt.com), a former Los Angeles Times Washington correspondent, teaches writing at American University.     


When it comes to choosing important news, print journalists traditionally have trusted their own instincts, comforted by the fact that there wasn't really any way to measure which stories were drawing the most eyeballs.

There is now.

At the Washington Post's daily 2 p.m. story meeting, editors report on the popularity of stories published on the Post's Web site earlier that day. "What I use it for, personally, is to see what is interesting to the public," Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. says. "We don't rely on it exclusively..but it's a helpful tool to have along with letters to the editor, e-mails and other information."

Television-like ratings are coming to print journalism as newspapers move to the Internet and harness technology that, for the first time, shows which stories attract readers and which do not.

Downie joins top editors at a number of papers, including the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Cleveland's Plain Dealer, who routinely scrutinize summaries of traffic on their Web sites. The ability to track interest may point the way for newspapers to engage readers in the Digital Age. Or, some fear, it could fuel a paparazzi-like rush to tabloid journalism.

"What this technology tests is to what extent journalists feel they are agenda-setters who also lead a community rather than tell people what they want to hear," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "But if you decide to produce journalism that only focuses on those stories that a lot of people are interested in, you may end up shrinking your overall audience by leaving too many things and too many people out of what you are covering."

Of course it is difficult to predict what might draw an audience in advance of actual events unfolding. What's more, newspapers already get significant reader feedback through letters, e-mails, telephone calls, focus groups and other contacts.

But the Internet offers newspapers the opportunity to collect a wealth of new information about their customers. In addition, many newspapers ask visitors to register on their sites and supply personal information. That gives publishers the ability to amass detailed databases on the reading habits of their Web visitors.

"We certainly track clicks, but we don't use popularity numbers to decide whether, on a particular day, we should run a particular story or where to place it," Jonathan Landman, deputy managing editor of the New York Times, wrote in an e-mail. "But we do want to know which new features are working and which are not, and readership is one way — and only one — to make this kind of judgment."

Not surprisingly, stories about celebrities, sex, scandal and animals — or better yet, some combination of those subjects — have proved to be reliable lures at some papers' Web sites.

A story about a rapper arrested on rape charges attracted the most readers to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Web site on February 7, the day President Bush and three former presidents were in town to eulogize Coretta Scott King. Also in the top five, along with the rapper story and two articles on King's funeral, was a story on Hollywood starlet Scarlett Johansson and British actress Keira Knightley posing nude for the cover of Vanity Fair's annual Hollywood issue.

On the Los Angeles Times' site, an article about the world's ugliest dog ranked among the top 10 most-clicked-on stories in all of 2005. The latimes.com list was topped by a newsier September 27 story about rumors supplanting factual information in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Another animal story — this one about a man dying from injuries after having sex with a horse — was the most-read local news story on the Seattle Times' site in 2005. Interest was aided in part by the popular Drudge Report and bloggers as far away as Europe posting links to the article.

Those links, which attracted many Web surfers who were not traditional Seattle Times readers, likely catapulted the story into "the most widely read material this paper has published in its 109-year history," Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat wrote on December 30. Although substantive articles, including one on a local congressman admitting his vote to invade Iraq was a mistake, were also among the top 20 picks in Seattle last year, Westneat said he was dumbfounded by readers' choices. "A lot of the stories on the list are what we serious-minded media professionals would imperiously call 'soft,'" he wrote. "There's not much on the so-called 'issues' we're always implored to focus on, such as transportation or education. Nothing on the big campaign topics of the year... Maybe the Web favors shorter, more emotional stories and all you paying subscribers are happily wading through my columns on transit policy or our three-part projects."

James Mallory, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's managing editor for operations and initiatives, says he also sees a difference between the print and online news audiences. "We've been sophisticated enough to understand that we present news on two different platforms," Mallory says. "While each informs the other, neither dictates the other... In print, editors have total influence on what gets chosen for the front page. On the Web site, it is editors' instincts combined with readers' interests."

Newspaper readership began its precipitous decline in the 1980s, long before the Internet became popular. And it is anyone's guess if the industry's salvation can come from studying the reading habits of its Web visitors. Some experts who have examined the effect of ratings in the broadcast industry say any embrace of Web readership statistics by publishers could lead to the same bottom-line thinking that has roiled TV and radio — shortening the amount of time shows are given to develop an audience and spawning content aimed mostly at young people.

"Newspapers are supposed to be a very special kind of industry," says Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University and a professor of media and popular culture there. "The idea was that we always hoped that newspapers didn't operate completely according to the marketplace. But this ratings [scenario] is a whole new ballgame."

Some television news veterans predict papers will face huge challenges maintaining their editorial independence while seeking to grab the attention of Web readers. "There's no question about the fact that ratings affect content judgment," says Av Westin, former executive producer of the ABC news programs "World News Tonight" and "20/20." "It is common knowledge that an executive producer will frequently decide that certain subjects will not show up because they lose ratings points."

Westin says even he capitulated to ratings in an effort to save "20/20" in the 1980s. "The program was within six weeks of being canceled," he says. "I engaged — without apologies — in a form of editorial triage. It was done on the assumption that if we spiced it up with entertainment features, the program would stay on the air so that we could do [other] stories involving investigative reporting."

Philip Meyer, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of "The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age," believes numbers shouldn't be used to "edit a newspaper or Web site by referendum." But he says the Web's influence will eventually become inescapable as publishers move content there to save on distribution costs and tap the fast-growing market for Internet advertising. Editors "don't have much choice if newspaper circulation is falling and Web use is growing," Meyer says. With younger readers flocking to news Web sites and traditional newspaper readers aging, the costly process of distributing a daily paper to a shrinking audience of subscribers will be hard to sustain, he says.

"The mind-set right now is that the Web is a stepchild of the news edition," says Michael Kupinski, a media and entertainment industry analyst in the St. Louis brokerage office of A.G. Edwards & Sons. "Most sites simply replicate the newspaper." But the younger readers who dominate the Web "are surfing for short stories, video, pictures and things like that. So you need to make those elements readily available and make your site more user-friendly."

Readers may click on a story for a variety of reasons. Bloggers might post a link to the article. A picture on the Web site may catch their attention. A story's position on the site may pique their interest — or cause them to overlook important news.

Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus cites a November 30 story by then-Times defense correspondent Mark Mazzetti about the U.S. military planting stories in the Iraqi media. The scoop by Mazzetti (who has since joined the New York Times) began as the lead story on the L.A. Times' Web site. But it briefly disappeared and subsequently resurfaced in a less prominent position when it was displaced by a fresher, but routine, wire story about a speech Bush gave that morning on his Iraq war strategy.

A news editor in the Washington bureau called latimes.com to complain, but the story never regained its lead status. "Shrinking our best story of the day to a one-line refer below an [Associated Press] dispatch on a Bush speech..is not optimal," McManus says.

Joel Sappell, executive editor of the Los Angeles Times' Web site, says the decision to move the story had nothing to do with traffic. "The [Web] morning editor made that call based on news judgment, not numbers," says Sappell, who shifted from the Times' print version to its Web site in October. "Mazzetti wrote a terrific story. It got moved from the lead spot because of other national news. But we never considered removing it from the homepage."

Newspapers unwittingly may be helping to fuel the influence of readership stats and distort story rankings by prominently posting lists of the most-read or e-mailed stories on their Web sites. By contrast, some Internet news aggregators such as Yahoo! not only list the most read and e-mailed stories of the day but also the "most recommended" stories. The latter category often represents a more sobering compilation of the day's events than the typically offbeat list of most clicked-on stories.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, an assistant managing editor for continuous news at the Washington Post who oversees updates on washingtonpost.com, says despite the sometimes quirky story selections by Web readers, a smorgasbord of news that combines entertaining features with investigative, analytical and policy stories still has wide appeal on the Web. "When you look at the most viewed article, often- times the spinach is right up there with the most popular stories on the menu," Chandrasekaran says. "It's not always fluffy lifestyle stories at the top... Serious foreign and enterprise reporting draw readers, too."

To be sure, the architects of modern newspaper publishing — Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, Robert R. McCormick and others — transformed newspapers into a mass medium at the turn of the century using hucksterism, salaciousness and even product giveaways to sell papers. But they also added women's advice columns, pursued investigative reporting and even pioneered early models of consumer journalism. In 1911, for instance, the Chicago Tribune launched an "Anti-Loan Shark Bureau" that drew 3,500 letters a week from readers seeking help or information, according to "The Colonel," Richard Norton Smith's book on Chicago Tribune Publisher McCormick.

The Internet is not likely to remain a journalistic stepchild for long. A succession of staff cuts and plummeting stock prices at many papers last year sharpened the focus in newsrooms on how the Internet might bolster the bottom lines for newspaper publishers (see "Adapt or Die"). The debate centers on whether to plow more resources into cyberspace and prepare for an eventual transition to electronic publishing or whether use the Web to stem the decline in print subscribers by luring younger readers. Either strategy will likely affect the content offered by papers and their Web sites.

At the L.A. Times, senior editors receive a weekly list of the most-read latimes.com stories. "I don't think that the [Web] numbers are influencing the discussions of what gets placed in the newspaper," Sappell says. "It does affect stories for the Web audience. What I think we are looking for is some middle ground where you create content that might draw readers to both the newspaper and the Web. We would love to have readers of the L.A. Times go to the Web, and the paper would like to have more young readers."

Publishers are still experimenting with content they think might resonate with Web readers, but many think more online interactivity is the key.

Sappell, for instance, said in a January memo that he planned to substantially increase "the use of message boards, reader polls, interactive graphics, video and photo galleries" on the site and install Web reporters in the newsroom, where they could interact more closely with the staff of the print edition.

"The Web audience has come to expect more than a single story. They want more interactivity and more ways to deepen the newspaper experience," Sappell said in April after implementing the changes.

At least one paper, the Wisconsin State Journal, has signaled its willingness to give Web readers more input into the print version (see "Remaking the Front Page"). In January, the Journal began allowing readers to vote on the news item they would most want to read and publishing the winner or winners on the front page of the print edition. After the morning news meeting, the paper offers a list of top stories on its Web site and lets readers pick the best A1 candidate.

"I see the Reader's Choice as a tool to enhance interactivity," says Ellen Foley, the paper's editor. "There have been a couple of stories that we did put on the front page that we would not have done so," including a piece about federal funding of dental care that she thought was too bureaucratic to merit page one. She says she's been surprised about the judiciousness of her readers' selections.

Not everyone is so sanguine. Douglas C. Clifton, editor of Cleveland's Plain Dealer, says he shudders to think of a newspaper industry in which readers, rather than editors, call the shots. Yet he foresees papers not only paying more attention to story rankings but also offering readers the ability to set up their own customized page at Web sites to gain quicker access to only the news that interests them. "The wonder of a newspaper is that it gives this banquet of material," he says. "The reader, of course, can choose not to read it," he adds. "But he gets the subliminal message that it's important news."

If Web sites allow readers to tune out certain news either through votes or customizing pages, Clifton cautions, "I think that's a terrible thing. It's not good for a democratic, pluralistic society. It's not good for the business."

Jube Shiver Jr. (shiverjr@sm-group.com) is a former Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

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