Scott Stanford: The newspaper and the Rainbows

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In the latest edition of American Journalism Review, there is a story detailing how some newspapers have started using Internet "click" totals to help shape the content of their print products.

Editors at The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and The (Cleveland) Plain-Dealer get reports daily that show which Internet stories are getting the most hits. These stats can help determine which stories go on the front page, editors said.

But editors are nervous about letting clicks alone drive front-page content. According to the American Journalism Review article, here are a few reasons why:

At The Seattle Times, the most clicked-on story of 2005 was about a man who died from injuries sustained while having sex with a horse. A story about the world's ugliest dog ranked among the top 10 of the year at the Los Angeles Times, and on the day of Coretta Scott King's funeral (attended by President Bush and three former presidents), the most clicked-on story at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was about a rapper arrested on rape charges.

I can't tell you what the most clicked-on story of 2005 was for the Steamboat Pilot & Today Web site. Although we track hits on sections of our Web site, we don't track clicks on individual stories. But what I can tell you is that, barring something cataclysmic, a story about the Rainbow gathering that we posted June 21 -- "Tensions run high in the forest" -- likely will be the most clicked-on story of 2006.

The Drudge Report, the Internet site hosted by Matt Drudge, posted a link to that story. We got so many hits that it nearly crashed our site.

Since we started running stories about the Rainbow gathering, our Reader Forum has been dedicated to the topic. There are nearly 1,000 posts about the Rainbow gathering, and 68 of the 75 most recent threads specifically are about the gathering.

Clearly, people are interested. I can't tell you how many times I have heard that the Rainbow gathering "is all anyone is talking about." At church a couple weeks ago, someone asked our congregation to pray for the law enforcement officers who have to deal with the Rainbow participants.

I also have taken several calls from business owners critical of the newspaper's coverage. Lodging property managers told me customers were checking out because of what they read in the newspaper.

"Please," one hotel manager asked me, "get it off the front page."

Here's the tally so far: Since our first story about the Rainbow gathering appeared in the newspaper 27 days ago, we have published 26 stories, one editorial and about a dozen letters on the subject. We put stories about the Rainbow gathering on the front page 10 times, and two other times we had Rainbow gathering photos on the front page.

I don't know if our coverage has been too much or too little. What I can say is that the newspaper staff has worked hard each day to make what we felt were the best possible news judgments.

I suspect that, in the final analysis, the Rainbow gathering will not have nearly the impact on Steamboat Springs that many, including the newspaper, led us to think it would. It certainly hasn't been a financial disaster for businesses. Steamboat was the state's top destination for the July 4 holiday, and the lodging projections for the next two weekends are well ahead of the same weekends last year. And the levels of crime and traffic that were predicted haven't materialized, though as of Wednesday, law enforcement officials still were issuing warnings about a crime wave to come as the Rainbow Family departs.

I'm interested in your feedback on the quantity and quality of our Rainbow coverage. If you have thoughts, call or e-mail me.

From the Editor appears Thursdays in the Steamboat Today. Send questions to Scott Stanford at sstanford@steamboatpilot.com or call him at 871-4221.

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