Cambrian: Opinion

What do you want to read? Simple question without a simple answer

What do you want to read in the newspaper?

It’s a simple question, but the answers aren’t nearly as cut-and-dried — which is probably why we journalists keep asking. So here I am, asking again.

There are plenty of ways to measure reader interest, none of which paints a complete picture.

You can look at letters to the editor, but those tend to come from a small segment of the public, many of whom are focused on political issues. They also tend to be more engaged and opinionated (strong opinions are what motivate most letter-writers).

You can keep track of single-copy sales. Do some front-page stories generate more sales in stores, at newsstands and on news racks than others? But this kind of survey is even more limiting. For one thing, fewer people buy newspapers from racks these days. For another, buyers of single copies may have different interests than subscribers or online readers, and neither segment is accounted for in this kind of tracking.

You can listen to the community buzz, whether it’s expressed on the streets or seen online, and while that’s helpful — especially in a small town — it’s hardly scientific.

You can count page clicks, the length of time a reader spends viewing an online story and what kinds of stories are most popular. You also can monitor retweets, along with Facebook likes, shares and comments. But that leaves out those readers who don’t go online and prefer their news in print.

We do all those things, and we look at how the community responds to issues in other ways, too, apart from reading the newspaper. For instance, 87.9 percent of eligible voters cast ballots for Cambria Community Services District candidates in the 2016 general election, a higher turnout, percentage-wise, than for any other race in the county. The figure was nearly as high (87 percent) for the Cambria Community Healthcare District and Coast Unified School District races.

But are local politics really the top priority for Cambria residents? In terms of online interest, just one of the 10 most viewed stories I wrote last year was about politics — and it involved a celebrity (actor Ed Asner served as moderator for a CCSD candidates forum). That ranked fourth, behind a story about a missing diver and two traffic accidents. Other stories on the most-read list dealt with local businesses and interesting people in the news.

The same was true for reporter Kathe Tanner, who covers a lot more political stories than I do. Despite this, three of her top five stories involved businesses (on two occasions, Centrally Grown), and the other two focused on the Chimney Fire. Her most-viewed story about the CCSD checked in way down the list at No. 21 — one of only two in the top 30.

So are Cambrians interested in local politics? Based on the election turnout, they sure seem to be. But will they read about it? Maybe not so much. Personality profiles, business stories and crises such as the Chimney Fire consistently got more attention — at least online.

There’s a truism that people tend to say they want more good news in print but contradict this by gravitating toward bad news.

But maybe we need to look deeper. Many of The Cambrian’s stories that have received the biggest responses online have been human stories: William and Jandee Hollingsworth’s adoption of three children; Cambria Grammar School Principal Bob Watt’s retirement; former football coach Charlie Casale’s return to the sidelines as offensive coordinator. These stories generated solid interest on Facebook.

Of course, so have some stories that might seem at first blush to be “negative”: a beloved community member’s passing; a crisis spurred by Mother Nature (such as the effects of this year’s storms — as I write this, a story on this topic has been our most-read online story for nearly a full 24-hour cycle); the issue of homelessness.

But all these stories, too, have human faces, and I’d venture to say the interest they generate is compassionate, rather than self-indulgent or even merely curious.

Why do I say that? Because of the nature of the conversation I hear around town and online. It may not be scientific, but it, too, is human.

None of this is definitive, of course, which is why I’m asking the question I began this column with. If you’d like to respond, shoot me an email at sprovost@thetribunenews.com. Your answers will help us know where to focus more (or less) of our attention in the months ahead. And if those answers change over the course of time, we’ll change what we’re doing, too.

We’re not going to stop covering the important stuff or decide our content solely based on a popularity contest, but we want you to read stories that cover the things you care about in the community.

As it says at the top of The Cambrian’s Opinion page, “A good newspaper is a community talking to itself.” That’s what we strive to be — and do.

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