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What Readers Want

November 20th, 2007 · 1 Comment

I had meant—before being bacterially besieged—to say something about a very strange piece by MIchael Hirschhorn in the latest Atlantic, which argues that newspapers aren’t doing a good job of “giving readers what they want.” The main—actually, pretty much the only—evidence for this being the slim overlap between newspaper front pages and the contents of the “most e-mailed” list on papers’ Web sites.

What’s odd here is that around the midpoint of this longish piece, Hirschhorn himself points out the rather obvious reason why you would expect these to diverge: News that’s on the front page is already getting enough exposure that people are less likely to think it needs to be circulated via e-mail. Hirschhorn’s only real response to his auto-refutation is the rather lame rhetorical question: “But wouldn’t readers forward anything they find interesting?” Well… no. I often find something on the front page of The New York Times interesting, but I’m not so presumptuous to think any of my very literate friends need me to draw their attention to the front page of The New York Times.

The other, equally obvious, reason for disconnect is that there’s a fair amount of overlap across the front pages of the major daily papers. So in the event that someone does want to notify a friend about a major hard news story, they can often equally easily e-mail coverage from The L.A. Times, CNN, Reuters, the AP, The Washington Post, or any number of others. Naturally, then, the most e-mailed list is going to disproportionately consist of idiosyncratic stories available only in a given publication, while stories covered by multiple sources have their link-love spread across the pubs in which they appear. But, of course, none of that is a reason for thinking the front pages are mis-prioritized. The main utility of a front-page, after all, especially in a print edition, is for readers who want a one-stop-shop where they can take in the day’s important headlines with a quick scan. Of course the stories selected for fulfilling that function aren’t going to be the same as the ones that make the most e-mailed list; why would they be?

Update: Commenter Chris M adds another problem that seems like it should have been obvious: Even holding aside all these other issues, there’s a difference between what I find “most interesting” or “most worth reading” and “what I’m going to email to others.” And that’s because even those of us who are fascinated by long analyses of Pakistani political dynamics, and know that our friends are prone to consume the same sort of stuff, are apt to feel a bit schoolmarmish forwarding such a thing along. We tend, rather, to pass along stuff that’s short and has a quick punch, whether that punch is funny or astonishing or whatever else. This tells us less about what is “most interesting” on the whole than it does about the rules of e-mail etiquette.

Tags: Journalism & the Media



1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Christopher M // Nov 20, 2007 at 6:50 pm

    There’s also the strange assumption that people choose to e-mail stories based on their sense of how “important” or valuable a story is. But I don’t think this is how people work.

    For example, I think it would be nice if many of my friends and family paid more attention to stories about candidates’ rhetoric on Iran; I consider those stories very valuable and I certainly want them prominently featured in the national newspapers I read. But I hardly ever e-mail them those stories, because that just doesn’t seem like a useful way to get them interested in the subject or provide them with information. Not many people want to be given a reading list by their friends based on their friends’ abstract ideas about what is important to know about. (Instead, I talk to them about the Iran issue at what seem like appropriate points in our conversations.)

    When I e-mail a story, it’s usually because the story is relevant to some personal connection between me and the e-mail recipient — a story about a school we both attended, or about some topic we recently happened to discuss, or that proves my side of a recent argument, or that seems amusing in a way that I think will appear to that friend’s specific sense of humor.

    Another important factor is persona-construction: I’m sure I tend to e-mail stories when I have the sense that doing so makes me seem cool or interesting or perceptive or what you will. The set of such stories certainly overlaps with the set of stories I want to read, but there’s a pretty significant disjunction as well.

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