I learned an important lesson this week.
As journalists, whether working in small communities like Coos Bay or for major publications around the country, we often feel like we know what’s best for our readers. I myself have said several times through the years that we report on something because our readers “need to know” about it.
There is some truth to that in some cases, but I admit we often fall short when it comes to finding out what our readers actually want to read.
Every year at community newspapers across the country, editors will sit down with their staff, or sometimes on their own, and come up with their top stories of the year. I have personally done it more than a dozen times. Traditionally, I will just think back over the year and decide what stories I believe are the biggest.
In some years, it’s easy. I have covered several stories that are THE story of the year regardless of what else happens. In 2018, the shooting at Santa Fe High School in Texas was one example.
But one thing I have never done before this week was see what the readers actually look at. Being new to Coos Bay, and Brookings and Crescent City, California where I also oversee papers, I checked the analytics on our website to see what stories readers were most drawn to.
The result was surprising to me. In 2020, I would venture to say almost every newspaper across the country will have the same No. 1 story – COVID 19.
In the three communities I mentioned above, I would have expected the same. In two of them, Coos Bay and Brookings, a COVID story was No. 1. In Brookings, the top three were all COVID related. But in Crescent City, the first COVID story didn’t show up until No. 6.
What that showed me is I really need to learn a lot more about the communities I am tasked with reporting on. It is real easy in this business, especially if you’ve done it for a while, to get caught up in telling the readers what they need to know. Often, that is based on what you think is important.
I’ve seen that in Texas, Arizona and North Dakota as reporters flex their muscles and report on what they want. I have coached several dozens of young reporters through the years. I remember one who was tasked to cover a city council meeting. I went with him to help out. At the meeting, an issue came up and more than 10 people spoke out against it. The council then voted in favor. When this reporter wrote his story, that issue wasn’t even mentioned. When I asked him why, his response was simple – I didn’t think it was important.
Unfortunately, that’s a common thought process in journalism. And it’s one I hope to change in Coos Bay. Seeing the stories that drew attention from our readers was eye-opening. The top story of the year in The World, a story about false positive COVID tests, was seen by 57,000 people. That’s more than every person in Coos Bay and North Bend combined. The No. 2 story was seen by 26,000 people. So, it’s clear that not just COVID, but the controversy around it, was important to readers of The World.
In Brookings, traditional COVID stories were the top three and almost half of the top 20. The readers there seem less interested in the controversy than straight reporting.
In Crescent City, COVID wasn’t one of the hot topics of the year. The readers there were much more interested in fires and police activity.
As I move forward in Coos Bay and the Oregon coast, I vow to pay a lot more attention to what you, the readers, want to see. It will be a challenge, I admit that. Like everyone, I have issues and stories that interest me personally, and when reporting, it is natural to gravitate to those stories. But in 2021, I will pay a lot more attention to things outside my interests and outside my comfort zone.
In doing so, I hope our newspapers have the types of reporting you want to see.
I hope everyone has a safe and happy new year. Here’s to hoping the problems and challenges of 2020 are ones we can all leave behind soon.