Public Editor

Readers’ habits mold the news on Facebook

Facebook is a whole different game when it comes to certain stories with Internet appeal.
Facebook is a whole different game when it comes to certain stories with Internet appeal. The Associated Press

Can you explain to me why a story about Kacie McDonnell’s break-up with Aaron Murray is news?” emailed Kristin Wing last Thursday. “I'm perplexed — or maybe I'm missing something?”

She was referring to a short, four-paragraph story that ran at the bottom of Page B-3 of the Jan. 21 Sports Daily. It said that KSHB traffic reporter McDonnell had broken off her engagement to Chiefs backup quarterback Aaron Murray, whom she’d moved to Kansas City to join.

Big news? Certainly not. But it generated big interest among many readers.

I know that because the world of online news has opened up a world of audience analysis unthinkable just 20 years ago. Instead of convening focus groups and conducting surveys, publishers can now see in real time which stories are grabbing eyeballs on websites and in social media.

That day, the analytics tools showed editors that McDonnell and Murray’s split was among the most popular stories on KansasCity.com and The Star’s Facebook page — easily cracking the Top 10.

It outpaced stories such as Kansas City Mayor Sly James’ forum on race relations and a tragic shooting of an infant in northwest Missouri. But it came in behind multiple items about President Barack Obama’s visit to the KU campus, a story on the death of a popular Olathe North athlete, and a gallery of historical photos of the city.

That info is an obvious boon, but it has some equally obvious pitfalls. Ms. Wing described herself as a “’hard core’ news lover,” and I have a special place in my heart for her and her many fellow-traveler newshounds.

But the reality is that the fluff — trivialities about celebrities, cute animals and sex — consistently out-performs serious news coverage if judged by its reach to readers online.

This isn’t a novel observation. A post on the satirical news website The Onion all the way back in 2001 was headlined, “‘Most E-Mailed’ List Tearing New York Times’ Newsroom Apart.”

The temptation for Web editors, then, is not to trade cynically on the low-hanging fruit that brings in page views. It can alienate the serious readers who want to know what’s going on with the really important topics such as local government and the health care system.

The Star’s print edition still remains largely immune to that siren song.

When sports and features stories do sometimes appear on Page A1, I can reliably count on hearing some reader objections. But on balance, I don’t think editors overdo it with Internet-appeal items in the paper. And if you track KansasCity.com over time, you’ll find those stories don’t often get prominent display there either.

But Facebook is a whole different game. The Star shares these items in its timeline, and Facebook’s magical algorithm decides how many people will see them. The more of your friends who click on the link or others like it, the more you will see that topic pop into your own timeline.

Moral of the story: If you don’t want to see those super-clicky stories about “The Bachelor,” you might want to purge your friend list of people who keep track of who does and doesn’t receive a rose.

To reach Derek Donovan, call 816-234-4487 weekday mornings or send email to publiceditor@kcstar.com.

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