New York Times' 2013 Most Visited Article List Shouldn't Surprise Us
January 23, 2014
Carl Sessions Stepp

Don’t overreact to the news that the most visited New York Times link in 2013 was an interactive quiz that used questions about word choice to pinpoint where we grew up.

It’s interesting but hardly surprising.

Nor should we be surprised by the number two and three finishers (both about the Boston Marathon blasts). Or about number four, where celebrity Angelina Jolie explains why she opted for a preventive mastectomy.

Screenshot of New York Times most visited stories from 2013.

Screenshot of New York Times most visited stories from 2013.

For almost 200 years, editors have known what readers want, and it fits this pattern precisely. Most of us start with entertainment but insist on a fair dose of serious news too.

The very first front page of the venerable Baltimore Sun, in 1837, featured a visiting 9-year-old child with a head 31 inches in circumference (“one of the most revolting spectacles that man ever beheld”). Then came a long article on a local banking crisis.

There are simple lessons here that still apply as news organizations struggle to re-mix their evolving print, broadcast and online offerings.

People want diversion and a lot of it, even from serious news sources. They always have. But they demand hard coverage too, and they always have.

You can succeed with niche sites, as magazines have traditionally shown. But day in and day out, in the prime time and space most of the audience depends on, both substance and fun are expected.

Every medium ever invented has been dominated by entertainment (even newspapers if you count the features, comics, sports and other diversions). Entertainment clearly predominates in magazines, radio, television, cable and the Internet.

But that shouldn’t mislead us. Every one of those media also makes room for significant coverage. That, too, the public requires.

This truism, in my opinion, helps explain why AOL’s ambitious Patch experiment in local news foundered. Most sites I visited had a decent amount of feature material but treated hard news inconsistently, sometimes as an afterthought.

Hard news doesn’t need to dominate, but it needs to be reliably and sufficiently present.

So let’s go back to the Times top 10. Four items seem like features, including the speech-patterns quiz and a workout plan. But two of those four were anything but lightweight: an in-depth look at junk food by a Pulitzer-winning reporter and Jolie’s thoughtful essay on her health choice.

Then there’s a provocative opinion piece by Vladimir Putin. And five hard-news topics: the Boston marathon (three separate links), homeless children, and the new pope.

That’s a formula that mixes health, celebrity, fun, controversy, seriousness and depth in a way that would have succeeded 200 years ago, 100 years ago, last year….and likely will work as long as human nature endures.


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