Quelle Horreur! Readers Decide What’s News

The American Journalism Review ran a story about the effect popularity rankings of stories on the web has on the people who decide what goes on the front pages of newspapers.

“At the Washington Post’s daily 2 p.m. story meeting, editors report on the popularity of stories published on the Post’s Web site earlier that day. “What I use it for, personally, is to see what is interesting to the public,” Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. says. “We don’t rely on it exclusively..but it’s a helpful tool to have along with letters to the editor, e-mails and other information.”

Television-like ratings are coming to print journalism as newspapers move to the Internet and harness technology that, for the first time, shows which stories attract readers and which do not.

Downie joins top editors at a number of papers, including the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, who routinely scrutinize summaries of traffic on their Web sites. The ability to track interest may point the way for newspapers to engage readers in the Digital Age. Or, some fear, it could fuel a paparazzi-like rush to tabloid journalism.

Not everyone is so sanguine. Douglas C. Clifton, editor of Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, says he shudders to think of a newspaper industry in which readers, rather than editors, call the shots. Yet he foresees papers not only paying more attention to story rankings but also offering readers the ability to set up their own customized page at Web sites to gain quicker access to only the news that interests them. “The wonder of a newspaper is that it gives this banquet of material,” he says. “The reader, of course, can choose not to read it,” he adds. “But he gets the subliminal message that it’s important news.”