Most newspaper web sites keep track of their most popular stories. It's a marvelous tool. We might sell a million papers a day, but we don't know which ink-on-paper stories are actually attracting the most interest, much less an exact count of the people who read them.
Online, we can. But such data can challenge our notions about The Noble Reader. Numbers can prove just how wrong we sometimes are about the tastes and sensibilities of our "customers." We get lots of calls from offended readers who insist we sometimes print things inappropriate for "a family newspaper," giving us the impression that our readers generally want content that's appropriate for children.
Ah, but online counters tell us different. The Los Angeles Times counts its online readers, and can see who is reading what at any moment of the day. A couple weeks ago, it printed a whimsical profile of Joe Francis, the creator of the "Girls Gone Wild" soft-porn video series ... a week later, it published a huge, months-long project identifying the 100 most powerful people in the American West.
A few days later, some editors asked for the numbers -- and maybe they're sorry they did. The "Girls Gone Wild" guy's story got 452,000 hits, and its accompanying photo gallery got 593,000. The West 100 story got only 25,000 hits, and its photo gallery 28,000.
Yes, we watch the web counters at BeaumontEnterprise.com, too. The numbers are startlingly clear: Sex, death, excess, disaster and crime dominate our most popular stories almost every day. Our five most-read stories of the past year have been: Hurricane Rita; a fatal high school bus crash; a local high school's secret sex club; a frightening story about West Nile virus' long-term effects; and a story about two local girls' extravagant 16th birthday bash on MTV. A story about a local yard sign that reproduced a controversial anti-Muslim cartoon got worldwide circulation, too -- so add ethnic conflict to the mix. (And since we're in Texas, for good measure you can add "high school football" to the list, too.)
These stories are literally getting 10-50 times the number of hits as a City Council story, or stories about local taxes or the economy.
People can bitch about sensationalism, but sensational stories are what they consume voraciously. They flocked to those stories, we didn't fool them into it. These stories weren't written in breathless tabloid purplish-prose, nor were some of them even on our front page. But readers love the provocative morality tale, the visceral impact, and the salacious side of the day's news. It's always been that way, and will always be that way. That's not a bad thing, just evidence of guilty pleasures. Nobody calls up the paper to complain there were no pictures of naked teenagers in the "Girls Gone Wild" story (and many WILL complain if there are!) ... but they'll surely click on them if they're available online.
Luckily, we'll still pursue stories about the City Council and other important processes, even if people don't read them as vigorously as stories about high school sex rings. But the newspaper's role as a mirror of the public's tastes has never been more crystal-clear than in our Web counters.