HARPER: Fresh thinking as readers rearrange the front page

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If newspaper editors want to save their print editions, a new study may show how to do it.

NewsWhip, a company based in Ireland, took a variety of newspaper front pages, put together by news editors, and then adjusted the newspapers based on what people actually wanted to read as a result of social media shares and other analysis. The results indicate that most front pages proved sadly out of touch with what their readers want to see. All told, the group tested 13 news organizations in Canada, Ireland, Britain and the United States.

SEE ALSO: HARPER: U.S. media is another loser in the Ukraine crisis

For example, the front page of March 1 of The Wall Street Journal led with a story about Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Obama talking tough about Ukraine. Keep in mind, the tough talk had persisted for several days. The reader surveys would have replaced that article with a story about more benefits for veterans in the proposed 2015 federal budget. The new front page also placed much more emphasis on lifestyle and culture issues.

The Washington Post had Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama as the lead. Readers chose a story, which had second billing, as their lead, about the difficulties faced by surviving veterans injured in Afghanistan and Iraq. The readers put the birth of four lion cubs at the National Zoo on the front page — a choice the editors did not make.

At The New York Times, Ukraine again got bumped as the lead story, but it still had prominent display. Readers moved stories about the death of a well-known popular author and an innovative new bicycle path in Indianapolis from inside the newspaper to the front. Only New York Post readers didn’t change the front page — a story about the mayor’s attack on charter schools — while The Daily Mail and The Guardian, two British news organizations that disagree on just about everything, got their lead stories changed to reflect greater reader interest in a story on healthy diets that avoid meat, dairy products and eggs. The other examples can be found at (http://blog.newswhip.com/index.php/2014/03/people-powered-front-pages-rock).

Simply put, it appears many news editors don’t really know what their readers want on the front page. Moreover, the readers didn’t reach for the lowest common denominator. Instead, they added diversity and a greater breadth of stories.

Paul Quigley, who co-founded NewsWhip in 2011, sees some important takeaways from the data.

“Many journalists are remarking the crowd is not as dumb as people — especially media professionals — might think,” he wrote in an email to me. “Some editors and writers even preferred the crowd-curated front pages.”

Moreover, Mr. Quigley noted that many “people-curated” front pages included hard news. But other stories — often buried in many newspapers — got pushed to the front. “I saw a Wall Street Journal books editor thrilled to see their stories on the front page,” Mr. Quigley said.

The approach here is not a self-absorbed “Daily Me;” think of it instead as “The Daily We.” “Crowds get a bad name when they act collectively and are misled by the loudest voice. That tends not to happen with sharing of content, because the chain of sharing only works with the consent and judgment of each individual,” he said.

As he noted, Spike, which is NewsWhip’s monitoring platform (https://spike.newswhip.com/), has 30 million daily interactions.

These data don’t dumb down the content or force news editors to make different judgments. The information simply provides a tool to take into account the stories people really want to see.

Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at the Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at charper@washingtontimes.com. Twitter: @charper51.

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