Recently, I bemoaned the possibility that readers are a lot less interested than they say they are in top-shelf journalism — or at least what those in the industry would consider top-shelf.
As is too often the case, I do my best thinking after I’ve already committed something to paper ... or electrons, as it were. Only after I hit “save” on my post a few weeks ago did it occur to me there was a way to put my theory to the test. The recent bestowing of the S.C. Press Association Awards — determined by a panel of professional peers in other states — was a good opportunity to compare what journalists believe to be our best work with what the marketplace most craves, as measured in page views.
It is here I should acknowledge that it is not entirely accurate to equate page views to reader popularity, inasmuch as some content is unique to our website and inasmuch as print readers might have a different set of preferences than online readers.
There is a second limitation of the comparison I’m about to give you: The Press Association gives awards for photos, headlines or entire special sections, which aren’t easily quantified by page-view analytics. However, of the 40 awards won in this year’s contest by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette staff, 22 were for stories easily identified in analytics, and an additional award, “Innovative Concept,” was bestowed upon our public-safety section that includes detention-center mugshots. It is easily identified in analytics, as well.
Indeed, the Innovative Concept award presents an interesting intersection of reader demand and industry acclaim — the idea itself was recognized by our peers, and the crime section and its sub-category mugshots page both rank in the top 10 of our major category, in terms of traffic.
But what about the other 22 award-winning stories?
Let’s start with the top traffic-drivers from the contest period, which runs from the first week in November to first week in November. They are listed here in descending order of page views they generated:
2. Bluffton teacher accused of assaulting student, commenting about Nazis, Jews
3. Bluffton Middle School teacher accused of assault, calling student ‘Jew’
4. Bluffton, SC teacher accused of assaulting student, commenting about Nazis, Jews
5. Nude man steals Port Royal firetruck, kills pedestrian
6. Girl dies in wreck on Hilton Head; 4 teens injured
7. After the cameras are gone, ‘Extreme Makeover’ winners face new challenges
8. Rare rattlesnakes found under Hilton Head deck
9. Teen driver killed in wreck on Hilton Head bought alcohol found in car
10. Charleston woman sees Jesus on back of Stingray
Notice a trend?
Lots of crime and intrigue, a dash of reality television and, well, it’s hard to categorize “Jesus on the back of Stingray.” No. 2 through 4, basically iterations of the same developing story, are likely a testament to the power of search-engine terms “Jew,” “Nazi” and “assault.”
And you should not be reassured by the rather ironic No. 1 story on this list — it is a column by Leonard Pitts, which was interesting but enjoyed a traffic spike on our site because a content aggregator happened to link to our online version of the syndicated column. No rhyme or reason, just happy results. (By the way, No. 7 on the list, a story about the “Extreme Makeover” reality television series, written well before the contest period, bubbled up again in our page rankings when an archived version also was linked to from another site.)
The rest of the list clearly demonstrates demand for crime-related, sensational or even salacious subject matter. This is not to say that the stories don’t constitute good journalism — to the contrary, I was quite proud of our even-handed coverage of the Bluffton Middle School teacher incident, which included contributions by several reporters. Similarly, Patrick Donohue did an outstanding job covering the shocking Port Royal fire truck theft, which certainly included an unbelievable turn of events, but also resulted in a death and raised questions about security at Naval Hospital Beaufort.
This is a reminder that stories can sometimes be both sensational and of public service.
But missing from the top 10 — and the top 50, for that matter — is mention of work by Erin Moody and Anne Christnovich to uncover the lax candidate screening that led to the hiring of Beaufort County’s building codes chief. That story was recognized with an SCPA Enterprise Reporting award, and deservedly so. Also missing is any of the fine body of work by our former reporter Grant Martin that captured first place in the business-reporting competition, or Rachel Heaton’s well-done piece on the passing of Beaufortonian Madeline Pollitzer, which was third in the profile feature writing competition.
Stories appearing in both the top 200 in page views and on the list of S.C. Press Association winners were:
1. Allison Stice’s reporting of the Hilton Head Island shooting death of 8-year-old Khalil Singleton. Stice took first place in the reporting-in-depth category, and four related stories made the top 200, the highest coming in at No. 21.
2. Sports editor Mike McCombs and I spent months working on a story about damaging emails between the former Beaufort County School District superintendent and the high school athletics director who accused her of duplicity, dishonesty and intimidation. That work took third place in the public-service competition, and one story in that package appeared in the top 200, at No. 24.
3. Heaton’s coverage of the resignation of Beaufort High School principal Dan Durbin over a grade-changing controversy took honorable mention in the reporting-in-depth category. A video that was part of that coverage ranked 181st on our traffic list and a story ranked 195th.
In our page-view rankings, however, that put all three stories behind, “Ashley Olsen visits Bluffton, Hilton Head.”
In case you’re interested, here’s a look at the SCPA award-winners.