May 12, 2006
Voting with your fingertips
Most days, I get a report of which Monitor stories are most read on this website. You can see a less detailed version of this report on our homepage under the label “Most read stories.” The only difference in my report is that it lists the number of readers for each story. For instance, the report for Thursday began like this:
Our ‘Idol’ panel checks in (05/10/06) 2833
Who’s afraid of Stephen Colbert? (05/09/06) 2295
Ready for a mega-store in Hooksett? (05/10/06) 1326
Man sentenced in drunken driving death (05/10/06) 1234
Fire chief put on leave (05/10/06) 1154
Gas – and a niche (05/10/06) 1115
. . . and so on. My list had 20 more entries, including six obituaries and two letters to the editor. The one common denominator was that every story was local. While Concord Monitor Online is a different medium, its core mission shares one all-important value with the mission that the print newspaper has always had: Local is the franchise.
As editor, what do I learn from seeing what is most read on the website each day?
First, and you wouldn’t know this from seeing one day’s list, our online readership is going up, up, up. We like that, especially since newspaper circulation is also rising. We’re in the information business, not just the newspaper business. The more readers, the better. We’re trying to add web-only content that pushes this trend along.
Second, readers flock to stories about fires, accidents and crimes. In this, they are no different from traditional newspaper readers.
Third, shopping and other consumer-related stories are extremely well read.
Fourth, people like to know what their neighbors think about things that matter to them. That’s why the Monitor’s American Idol panel is at the top of the list. It’s why the letters that make the list tend to be the sharpest opinions on the hottest topics.
Fifth, the readership numbers are prone to the quirkiness of the web. That’s why Katy Burns’s column last Sunday on Stephen Colbert remained second most read on the website four days after it ran. Colbert’s performance at a Washington correspondents’ dinner made the talk-show circuit, and Burns’s commentary about it struck a nerve. Someone out there in cyberspace found it and shared it widely. I don’t have the data to prove it, but I’m certain most of the many thousands of web readers of the column were from out-of-state.
I read other things into the story rankings, but those are the main ones. Overall, I see the list as a good, if imperfect, guide to what readers want. And what readers want is an important component in deciding what we give them in the daily paper.
I’m aware of the danger of pandering to readers. Local television news does this to a fare-thee-well with its drumbeat of violent deaths, arrests and accidents interrupted briefly for self-promotion and feel-good features. This coverage gives viewers a sense of local life that is very different from what most of us experience every day. It also contributes precious little to the informed citizenry upon which democratic government depends.
There is no danger that the Monitor will take a similar ratings-driven approach to the newspaper. In our content, we’ll remain heavily invested in public affairs, from politics and government to education to health care to business. We’ll continue to provide a forum that allows a wide avenue for public discussion of issues that matter.
On the other hand, we can’t ignore the online readership numbers. As I suggested above, web readers are no different in their druthers from traditional newspaper readers. They are voting with their fingertips, and we’d be foolish to dismiss what they’re telling us about our content.
Posted by Mike Pride at May 12, 2006 07:31 PM