One of my favorite movies is the 1976 classic, Network. You probably know the story: TV news anchorman Howard Beale has a nervous breakdown on the air. The ratings shoot up; clearly, the network decides, madness is what the public wants to see on their evening news broadcast. Before long, the news department is taken over by the network's entertainment division. If you haven't seen the film, I'll only mention that the newscast adds commentators, such as "Sybil the Soothsayer" predicting news of the future.
It would be easy to write an editorial about news-as-entertainment, particularly in the wake of the O.J. trial. That almost 2,000 reporters covered the event from Los Angeles (see The O.J. Index) should be a matter of national shame. Or at least, journalistic shame. But that's not why I thought of Network. Instead, I kept envisioning the gleam in Faye Dunaway's eye when she said her favorite word: ratings.
In some ways, web publishing a newspaper is more like broadcasting than print media. Almost all web page owners watch their "hit count," which tells them how many times someone has visited their site. You'll often see popular web pages boasting of their astronomical numbers, like McDonald's old signs that claimed X zillions of hamburgers sold.
A couple of weeks ago, I became curious about our numbers. Besides the raw hit count, I wanted to know which articles were being read; if local news articles proved more popular than stories about national issues, perhaps we should run more pieces about Sonoma County. I was also curious whether people were reading the long, in-depth hypertext features on Round Valley, West Publishing, and Jessica Mitford.
After writing a few computer programs, I was able to do this sort of analysis -- and more. I discovered that lots of people are using our resource pages. As a result, you'll see more pages in the near future -- and not just about places to visit on the Internet. Simone Wilson's popular hiking columns will be collected on their own resource page, for example.
We found people from all over the world visiting the newspaper. We also learned that our Jessica Mitford feature was popular, and our Round Valley feature continues to be read, even though it was published almost two months ago. Alas, we discovered only three people read the series on West Publishing, despite the importance of the story.
(In case you're curious, we don't know who reads what. Our data shows only that someone from "monitor.net," "netcom.com," or "123.45.678.9" accessed a certain web page and the date and time. Your privacy is protected.)
Some of the results were surprising. The most popular story we have published is "Patient, Heal Thyself," which describes how cancer survivors are using the Internet to exchange life-saving information. Does that mean we should run more health stories? Or features about cancer? Or pieces about the Internet. What does it mean?
It was around then that I went nuts.
Like the character played by Faye Dunaway in Network, I became obsessed with numbers. Refining the computer programs even more, I could filter out the "noise" -- making separate counts for people who spent more than a minute with a particular article (which presumably means that they read it) and those who just looked in for a flicker of a moment. I wrote a statistical program that weighted the relative complexity of the piece against the length of time spent reading. It was when I was about to chart which articles were read on certain days that I realized that like poor Howard Beale, here madness lies.
Just like with television production, ratings are unhealthy for the web. It's far too easy to look at the numbers and decide that content should be shaped to fit. Let's go the other direction with the Albion Monitor; if a story is important, well-researched, and newsworthy, it deserves an audience. Even if it's an audience of one.
If we were concerned about ratings, I certainly wouldn't be running The Medicare Debate in this issue. Doubtless you're bored silly about this. Why are we providing about 12,000 more words to slog through? Simply put: because it's an important topic, and these excerpts from the Congressional Record do much to explain the tenor of our times. It may not be a "sexy" piece sure to get high numbers, but I'm sure that you'll find it the most interesting and dramatic reading available on this topic.
Same with the story on logging in the national forests. From the Government Accounting Office (GAO) comes proof that there's little profit in letting the timber companies pillage our national treasures. Not only do we provide details of the study, but we also have available a copy of the entire document for you to download. Similarly, we not only report on the civil rights lawsuit filed in Round Valley, we offer the court papers complete with shocking charges.
Maybe these articles will be read by one person, maybe a thousand. Ultimately, it doesn't matter; what's important is that they appeared in print, somewhere.
We'd also like to welcome two columnists, Mark Lowenthal and Sara Peyton. Sara's first column appeared in our premiere issue; she'll be writing regularly about gender issues. Mark is assistant director of Project Censored and his column formerly appeared in the Sonoma County Independent. I'm sure you'll look forward to their next columns as much as I do.
Our next issue will appear on November 15; hope to see you then.
Jeff Elliott, Editor
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