MES lists reflect little about news value

Most of the changes that the Internet has brought to journalism have been beneficial to readers and have made reporters' lives easier.

Most of the changes that the Internet has brought to journalism have been beneficial to readers and have made reporters' lives easier.

Google saves trips to the library; corporate Web sites save tedious background questions; multimedia reporting offers new perspectives on the news.

Others, however, have certainly made reporters' lives a bit harder; the need to fill Web sites with up-to-the-minute breaking news has certainly kept many in the newsroom late into the night, struggling to meet their mounting deadlines.

But the utility of one curiosity of news Web sites still remains an open question. The "most e-mailed stories" (MES) lists -and, sometimes, "most read" and "most blogged" stories - that now appear on the home pages of many major media outlets offer a quick look at what has drawn the most interest from readers lately. They have the potential, however, for creating an artificial hierarchy in the newsroom - and for skewing public perception of what news is actually the most important.

The lists, which were once a mere flicker in the mind of an interactive news developer, are now reaching near-ubiquitous status. They appear prominently on the sites of almost all of the biggest mainstream media outlets, including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Time magazine.

But now that they have had a chance to become an accepted and expected presence, their somewhat embarrassing lesson is that readers are almost always drawn not to the weightiest story of the day, but to the most quirky or scandalous.

That may not be a surprise - American culture in general has long been a race to the bottom - but the most important outlets in journalism can no longer harbor illusions that their rarefied readership is more concerned with the intricacies of foreign policy than they are with sex, gossip, and entertainment.

One New York Times story in the Style section that compared training a husband with training Shamu the killer whale grew into a minor Internet legend this summer by dominating the MES list for weeks on end. And the LA Times scored a hit with a lengthy exposé of the founder of the Girls Gone Wild franchise, which proved far more popular than anything going on in Washington, Baghdad, or Sacramento, CA.

It may be, of course, that news executives and editorial staffs already knew all this. Tabloid papers sell millions of copies a day, after all, and they stalk the lowest common denominator like paparazzi stalk Angelina Jolie. But MES lists, popular with readers seeking a quick fix of what the wisdom of the masses has deemed interesting, have brought out in public what the more "serious" reporters in a newsroom may have wished to keep hidden: Readers just aren't that into them.

By its very nature, a public list of popularity on the front page of a heavily trafficked Web site will inspire yearning among the editorial staff. To be on the list is a mark of public acceptance that most reporters feel rarely, if ever. So it is inevitable that, consciously or not, the desire to get a byline on the list will sometimes influence reporting. Deep down, most reporters are dying to tell themselves: "They like me. They really like me!"

Vivian Schiller, SVP and GM of NYTimes.com, acknowledged that "based on user testing... we know that the [MES] module was one of our readers' favorite parts of NYTimes.com."

So has the overwhelming popularity of Shamu's marriage lessons prompted the Times to move reporters out of Afghanistan and into Sea World? Of course not. But to deny that the MES list has promoted some envy in the newsroom is naïve.

There is no need to do away with the lists entirely, but media outlets should consider washingtonpost.com's method: links to bloggers writing about each separate story in the paper. That gives a truer picture of the public discussion and helps head off the ego issue, too.

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