The News: Business or Service?

Sometimes, even an expected result can be deflating.

One day the week before last, the most-viewed item on the San Francisco Chronicle's web site, SFGate.com, was the Associated Press story that Czech supermodel Petra Nemcova had been injured in the Indian Ocean tsunami. That story outperformed at least a dozen more important articles about the disaster.

It came as no surprise. Our morning news editor had predicted the supermodel angle would top the page-view list when we were deciding how to play the story. (We wound up giving it a home page subhead, indicating we wanted readers to see the headline but didn't think it was big news.)

Indeed, pop culture sometimes seems to dominate the internet. Search engines' most sought-after terms are usually celebrity names.

Other topics that receive large numbers of page views include sex, local crime, weather and pro sports. Before the collapse of San Francisco's football team, I used to joke that the perfect headline to generate clicks would be "Couple arrested for having sex in rain at 49ers game."

Given results like those, it's no surprise that the journalistic community is suspicious of the use of web hits in guiding editors' choices.

Do we use page views to help us determine the play of stories on our Web site? Hell yes!

Our success or failure is measured largely on the size and growth of our audience. The best way to keep it growing is to find out what people want to read and give them more of it.

If journalism faculty who decry the influence of entertainment values in news coverage would stroll over to their campus business schools, they might learn that the newspaper industry is under a great deal of pressure from alternative sources of news, and even more important, from competitors for advertising revenue.

The economic model for newsrooms that employ hundreds of journalists is threatened by the rise of classified advertising and shopping web sites that pay little or nothing for content.

Measuring the news market

Against this backdrop, it's our job as web site editors to increase the size of our audience by linking to stories and photos that will attract readers of various ages and interests. The job of the sales force is to convert that audience into revenue that both produces profits and supports an extensive news-gathering operation. The two sides shouldn't be in conflict.

Still – and here I agree with the directors of Grade the News – market-driven values can't be our profession's only touchstone. Otherwise, we'll be failing in our mission to inform the public and we'll lose educated, demographically desirable core readers.

But there are solid reasons beyond audience size to make lighter items a part of the home page mix. Young people who come to the site for the celebrity column and Day in Pictures may stay to pick up some news they wouldn't otherwise see. And I suspect that everyone, even college professors, can appreciate that life shouldn't be lived with a scowl and would like some smiles from a news web site.

In that respect, we are more fortunate than our big brothers and sisters on the print side – at any given time, we have about 40 links on our home page. That means we're able to both provide the most important stories and highlight items we know will attract readers. We help signal the difference by reserving the top right of the home page for the top news and putting a lot of the fun stuff in the "More News and Features" box.

While we report page views to the newsroom, they are used only in the most general way in determining story play in the physical Chronicle. In our reports, we caution that the data can be highly misleading.

Some stories move way up in the rankings because they receive links from large national sites. Our most viewed stories of 2004, an eclectic bunch, were mostly those that got prominent links elsewhere.

Your gut isn't infallible

Still, sometimes the use of page views could save newspaper editors from making mistakes based on misguided instincts.

An early sign that Howell Raines might be editing The New York Times according to his whims came in a New Yorker article that said he told his sports editor to put more emphasis on college sports. I doubt he asked the Times' web editors for any data before making that decision.

We know from page views that there is less than half as much reader interest in major college sports in the Bay Area as there is in pro baseball and football. The disparity, I'd wager, is even greater in the New York area, which doesn't have a single big-time college football program.

Page views can be a tip service. Within days of the disappearance of the pregnant Laci Peterson, page views told us – and print-side editors – that reader interest was unusually high. But Robert Blake's murder trial? Practically no one in our audience cares.

Equal weight?

The fatal dog-mauling of lacrosse coach Diane Whipple was instantly a leader – I'd never seen a story that broke on a Friday night get that many clicks. But a few months later, when Shawn Jones, an African-American boy from Richmond, was mauled by a pit bull and needed months of surgery, the audience wasn't nearly as interested.

Differences in the race and social class of the dog-mauling victims appear to be factors in this disparity. In cases like this one, it's the responsibility of editors to ignore page views and make sure that victims' stories and appeals for help on their behalf receive adequate coverage.

What about significant investigative and enterprise stories? While there's some fear that use of page views will get the business types muttering that serious journalism isn't cost-effective, that's not necessarily the case.

Some major series – for example, our continuing coverage of San Francisco's homeless crisis – have gotten loads of page views, especially because of photos there wasn't space to run in the newspaper. And that series has had a long shelf life.

Among other serious topics, science, technology and city politics often prove popular with our audience.

To sum up, while editors shouldn't let page views dictate story play, we shouldn't be timid about using data as important tools in attracting and retaining readers. We need every edge we can get.

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