Newspaper editors and reporters are all doing it—taking note of which stories top the most-emailed list and get the most website hits—but everybody denies that it influences news judgment. "What I use it for, personally, is to see what is interesting to the public," says Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. "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," says Jonathan Landman, deputy managing editor of the New York Times.
Former LAT reporter Jube Shiver Jr.'s piece in the American Journalism Review also looks at his former employer, which recently—and quietly—began emphasizing "most viewed" stories over "most emailed."
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.
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."
LAT senior editors receive a weekly list of the website's most-read 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.