Unlike their dead tree ancestors, online publications provide an interesting view on what readers actually like. Most news sites have Most E-mailed, Most Viewed and Most Blogged or Most Commented lists. Some even propose Editor's Picks. For today, I’ll share non-statistical findings, influenced, needless to say, by my personal reading habits.
Let's start with the New York Times (surprise). Over the Most E-Mailed in the Past 30 Days we have 25 stories distributed as follows:
- Opinion: 11 articles. This label encompasses a wide spectrum, starting with high caliber in-house contributors such as Economics Nobel Prize Paul Krugman: see his Now That’s Rich piece criticizing the defense of tax cuts by conservative politicians. Amazingly, since August 23rd, his column has stayed on the chart and generated a stream of 523 comments. In this one-month selection, Paul Krugman has no less than four columns in the top 25, which is pretty remarkable since he doesn’t exactly belong to the Lady Gaga kind of beat.
This Most E-Mailed segment includes serious Op-Ed contributors such as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who wrote How to End the Great Recession, but also a column by best-selling author John Grisham, titled Boxers, Briefs and Books, in which he recounts how he became a writer. I can't resist giving you his lead paragraph:
I WASN’T always a lawyer or a novelist, and I’ve had my share of hard, dead-end jobs. I earned my first steady paycheck watering rose bushes at a nursery for a dollar an hour. I was in my early teens, but the man who owned the nursery saw potential, and he promoted me to his fence crew. For $1.50 an hour, I labored like a grown man as we laid mile after mile of chain-link fence. There was no future in this, and I shall never mention it again in writing.
- Technology: 5 articles. Your brain on computers is among the most shared, especially the outdoor account of a group of neuroscientists wandering the Colorado River as they try to disconnect themselves from the information overflow. Others liked pieces include lighter subjects: Photos on the Web That Reveal Secrets, Like Where You Live, or Your Own Hot Spot, and Cheap. The relative weight of tech stories is tied to the nature of the medium. Readers who take the paper version of the Times probably read less nerdy stuff. (Historically, the New York Times has always been quite good at covering technology -- this "education" of readers undoubtedly played a significant role in the NYTimes.com’s success on the web).
- Health & Science: 3 articles. Restoring good study habits for your kids, the unpleasant comeback of bedbugs in New York and Tai Chi Reported to Ease Fibromyalgia.
- Magazine: 2 articles. One story on the lives of grownups who stay with their parents: What Is It About 20-Somethings?, and one on neurolinguistics: Does Your Language Shape How You Think?
- Business: 2. But Will It Make You Happy? (How you spend has a greater effect on your happiness than how much you spend, researchers say). And a rather stern piece on Housing that Fades as a Mean to Build Wealth.
In addition, we have one article about Education, and one about Fashion and Style.
Now, let's turn to the Most Viewed, e.g. popular, but not enough to be sent to a friend. Only ten entries are listed; they mostly reflects the hour-by-the-hour changes of the NYTimes.com home page. As for the Most Blogged, those who use them as raw material for their digital yard seem to enjoy the heavy stuff: business, politics, big controversies such as the Muslim center near ground zero. (This issue is treated in an article judiciously recalling that one of the defunct Twin Towers hosted a quiet Muslim prayer room on the 17th floor…).
Editor's choices. Finally, let's get an idea of what the Times newsmen and women would pick on their minimalist iPad application. In fact, the "Most [Read, Shared...]" lists have only two stories in common. One is an Op-Ed about the upcoming mid-term elections and the other about the resurgence of German identity. This app gives the impression of being edited by a bunch of depressed Mormons.
Weirdly enough, the Editor's Pick in the Wall Street Journal iPhone application is much more fun than the Times'. There, we find 17 stories, including 4 on sports, 4 on culture (focused in the New York area where the WSJ and the NYT hold the hottest episodes of their cat fight), the rest spread around various beats.
Let's draw tentative conclusions from this little exercise. I conducted it on various publications: The Economist, The Guardian, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times and a few others. We’ll have to keep in mind the limitations in these comparisons: not all publications account or define their most read stuff in the same way.
1. Unsurprisingly, online readers do not necessarily e-mail what they view the most. They seem to "view" the top news, mainly from the sites’ home pages, probably sent there by aggregators such as Google News. But, in their recommendations to their most intimate social circle, they seem to reward substance and uniqueness.
2. They do so over an amazingly large spectrum. Over the last two days, watching the Most E-Mailed list of a dozen publications, I was surprised (and somewhat relieved) by the breadth of readers’ interests. English-speaking newspapers are extremely good at addressing this demand; they do so better than French papers, I'm sorry to say. It stems, in part, from the size of the news staff and from the number of pages in the physical newspapers (for economic reasons they are smaller in France) which, in turn, is reflected on their websites. As a result, English-language readers display a vast range of interest.
3. Heavy-duty stuff mixed lighter fare -- practical pieces, news you can use. Let's use Travel as an example. Quite often, the "36 hours in [Paris, Portland, etc.]" entry appears among the Most E-Mailed pieces. Excellent stuff indeed, always augmented by hundreds of readers’ contributions. This "36 Hours" items bring to mind the little smart and precious Wallpaper* City Guides published by Phaidon. Smart and Witty. And for those who travel on a shoestring, they get what they need on the funny Frugal Traveler blog. This just illustrates the diversity some online news organizations felt they had to offer -- and decided to invest in. It pays, obviously.
4. The emphasis on the Intimate Sphere. From the view afforded by the Times’ Most E-Mailed list, we see readers keen on introspection, who want to understand themselves. The Times' list includes an unexpectedly high number of psychology, neuroscience and behavioral studies stories.
5. Opinions matter. In the NYT, over a month, eleven Opinion pieces out of twenty-five! Evidently, people reward expertise, prestigious (read: trustworthy) bylines that provide substance and strong argumentation (the opposite of 99% of the blogosphere).
This is all rather reassuring, after all. The NY Times, The Guardian or the Wall Street Journal offer the most profuse, the most diverse and also the most reliable stream of content anyone can find on the internet. And, audience-wise, they are among the most powerful. Coherence happens, sometimes.