Following readers isn’t necessarily pandering

Romenesko calls out this quote from an interview with

One of the most popular features among Dow Jones staff is the “Most Popular� stories list, where you can see what’s been read the most each day, week and month. People care deeply about whether their stories show up in the Top 10 or not. I think that’s not a bad thing. Obviously those statistics can be affected by story placement and blog outreach, but you can get a sense of what type of stories your readers care deeply about and you can try to formulate your coverage along the lines of what your readers want. And that’s not a bad thing for journalists to do.

To which Mark Glaser reasonably asks, “You don’t think there’s a danger in pandering to readers a little bit?”

I’ve been through this in a couple of newsrooms now — the first few weeks reporters start seeing what the top 10 most read stories are is, for some, a shocker. It’s crime, accidents and disasters. “What, my pearly prose on the county budget didn’t make the top 10?” The first reaction is usually, “stupid readers only care about sensational stuff.”

I think that is a misread of the audience. First, these stories are not sensationally written or presented. The reporting is pretty straightforward. Local newspaper writers rarely go in for salacious details or gossip. So there must be something else about these stories that draw reader interest.

I think it is a couple of things — the immediacy of the reporting, and the hyperlocal nature of the events. We want to know if anybody we know is involved.

Print journalists tend to be turned off by the idea of paying attention to what interests readers for fear of pandering. I think they have in mind, when they talk about pandering, the “if it bleeds it leads” mentality of local TV news. To my mind, TV news only got the equation half right. Yes, readers want to know about accidents and murder, but you don’t need to scream the news at them. You don’t need to sex it up. There is no conflict between providing quality journalism and providing readers with those items they find newsworthy. It’s about substance over style.

So I say, by all means, pay attention to your web stats and follow the readers where they want to go. That’s how we beat craigslist. Just be good journalists.

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5 thoughts on “Following readers isn’t necessarily pandering

  1. We’ve been e-mailing detailed stats about top stories and the site’s overall performance to our newsroom for a few years. And, also like many papers, the Web staff reports the day’s top stories during the budget meeting. What’s doing well does affect the conversation at that table, in that more information about audience response is better than none.

    On a related but contrary note, for a short time we also e-mailed stats that ranked the most popular columnists. That caused so much competition and angst it became unhealthy. Though, I’m not opposed to launching the columnist e-mail again some day when we have more time to deal with columnists at our desks.

  2. Try charging admission next time. I know a ton of bloggers who’d pay good money to watch a bunch of MSM-ers duke it out in a newsroom! Heck, we might even take a shower before we show up.

  3. Why is it unhealthy to let columnists know who is the most popular? That’s like withholding ratings from a TV show. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution used to run into that sort of jealousy when its most popular columnist — by far — was the late misogynist, racist Lewis Grizzard. He was VERY popular.

  4. […] media blog » Blog Archive » Following readers isn’t necessarily pandering Good point. Highlighting and drawing people to “most popular” content isn’t pandering, it is getting a better sense of what your value proposition is, and it should be used to help you get better. (tags: newspapers socialmedia pandering) […]

  5. >>Just be good journalists.

    Of course accidents and crime are usually the most read. They are of the broadest interest to a general audience, within the very brief time-frame in which they are relevant. So those stories are perfect for Web publication – they are a mile-wide an inch-deep and short-lived.

    That does not mean serious news (on and offline) does not have an important readership, It just may be more hyper-local (smaller discrete audiences), but also long-lasting (long tailed) than an average crime story.

    So – we should always share online readership stats, but it needs to be with some context of what the numbers may actually mean.

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