How we pick the top 10 stories: Journalism and democracy in action

The end of December is always an entertaining time in the newsroom because it’s when we decide our top 10 stories of the year.

First, let me tell you, it’s not the most scientific process, because like all news decisions, it’s about judgment.

What might be important to me may not be so to someone else.

»» Related: SLO County’s Top 10 stories of 2016

Also, these days we have all kinds of analytics and metrics about our online readership that may or may not be helpful in the process.

It would be easy to just let the system belch out a tally of the year’s top stories by sheer reader interest online, but what gets the most clicks isn’t necessarily significant from a news sense.

Case in point: The No. 10 story under those parameters would actually be a fun little roundup we did on the county’s best hamburgers. Tasty, yes. Useful, yes. Top news, no.

Our traditional way of making selections is to create a master list of all the significant news from the year that was, write it on a whiteboard, and then lock a dozen or so highly trained journalists in a conference room, where we ruminate, argue and cajole our way to a final, unimpeachable tally that you, our readers, can trust with full confidence as being The Most Important News Stories of The Year in SLO County.

Sometimes, this is a flawless procedure with near-total agreement.

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Most of the time, it’s controlled chaos with lots of jotting on scraps of paper and all kinds of unintelligible weird markings and tallies littering the board.

I see it as kind of a good, old-fashioned caucus, complete with lots of debate, case-making and only the occasional brow-beating in defense of a particular story.

Ultimately, we’re all about collaboration in the newsroom, which means we want to hear everyone’s opinion.

This year, we switched things up a bit and voted electronically, which made tallying them easier but took out some of the fun of the head-to-head exchange.

In the end, the closure of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant was voted unanimously as the top story of the year.

Personally, I must be slipping because I only predicted nine out of 10 (I got a clean sweep last year). I cast a vote for this year’s flurry of shark stories, but it didn’t make the cut.

I was glad to see the Paso High football coach’s syrup escapade narrowly sneak in at No .10.

And the story I most wanted to vote for but didn’t? Creepy clowns.

Joe Tarica: 805-781-7911, @joetarica