Assessing the breaking bond between journalist and reader

Every morning, we get an email from the digital bosses at the World Headquarters of NewsCut. It’s the daily page view and “engagement time” for everything that appears on the MPR News website. I don’t pretend to know what most of it means other than it feels better to be at the top of the list from Chartbeat than not on it at all.

“The first instinct is to blame the headline for its lack of Web appeal; then, the homepage for not understanding the underlying brilliance of your offering and promoting it enough. Finally, reality sets in,” Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi writes today.

This is pretty much how newsrooms interact with the audience in the digital age. We see what interests you and I guess we’re supposed to adjust our offerings based on that somehow.

It’s a far cry from the old days when the phone would ring and someone would tell you why you’re the worst journalist ever. Useful data? That was useful data.

Vennochi’s column today was prompted by the death of a neighbor, who regularly shouted his reaction to her newspaper’s reporting from across the street.

She went to his funeral last week and there, tucked in the open casket, was a copy of her newspaper, a symbol of “what once was an unbreakable bond between daily journalism and the reader next door.”

A vast and demanding digital audience prefers the photo of a golden retriever holding a “Boston Strong” flag in its mouth. Time to write about Stormy Daniels?

In the past, we trusted readers to turn the page and sample a menu of offerings, from breaking news and softer features to sports, horoscopes, and weather. Now, we fear their wrath or, more dangerous, their indifference. We must give them what Chartbeat says they want.

In every business, it’s change or die. The newspaper business was slow to understand that. Today, survival trumps nostalgia, as it should. But there still should be room for gratitude for loyal readers like Bill Donovan whose day didn’t really start until the newspaper hit the front doorstep.

Perhaps he had more of an ordinary passion for newsprint because he worked as a photo engraver and spent 25 years in the press room at The Salem Evening News. But there are still others like him out there, who don’t do Twitter but send e-mail and sometimes even an old-fashioned letter, on paper.

Sometimes they praise our work and sometimes they vehemently disagree with it. But they are all part of a community called lovers of news and the printed word – and they are willing to pay for it.

Vennochi, of course, recognizes that she’s railing against reality.

She sees value in Chartbeat revealing, almost instantly, that a story is catching fire. But there’s also value in the human voice that shouted “Good one, today!” when you’re out walking the dog.

(h/t: Julia Schrenkler)