Illinois Daily Learns Lessons When Readers Select Page One Stories

By: Sarah Weber

In a move inspired by The Wisconsin State Journal, The Beacon News of Aurora, Ill., has begun to allow groups of readers to choose the newspaper’s front-page stories. Editor/Publisher Rick Nagel announced the decision July 27, informing readers that members of the Aurora Noon Rotary would be the first group to participate in the experiment.

Nagel said today he hopes his admittedly “impulsive” decision will present a welcome change to tradition, and an opportunity for the paper to become even more interactive with the public. The participants select from a budget of local and wire stories compiled each day by Associate Editor John Russell.

“When the Rotarians came for a visit [of the News’ Plainfield, Ill., printing plant], I just kind of said, ‘What the heck,'” Nagel told E&P. “It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for so long.” When he saw a story about the State Journal’s decision to allow readers to choose stories, he added, “It planted the seed.”

The Rotarians also provided Nagel with what he thought would be a unique yet fairly safe test case. “They were an easy first group for the experiment in part because they were already coming in here, and they were going to sit in on the planning meeting,” he said. “In retrospect, I think they’re a safe bunch to try this experiment with because this is not a radical fringe group. They are deeply embedded in the community.”

Their story choices, he added, weren’t much different than what the editors’ choices would have been, “in the traditional newsroom sense.”

However, Nagel chose to employ his veto power against one of their front-page picks.

“Basically, we had a situation where [after] I came back with the Rotarians in the afternoon, I was pulled into a meeting with Associate Editor John Russell,? Nagel recalled. A subject of one of the stories threatened to sue the paper over the report (which concerned a vacant hospital building in the area), “so I immediately made the decision to take it out of the Rotarian’s hands. I didn’t want them in a situation where they had to be named in a lawsuit.”

Though in the end, the situation produced minimal damage (Nagel had to rearrange the structure of the front page in order to compensate for the missing story), Nagel felt that the experience was relevant for any editor interested in pursuing a similar project.

“It’s fair to give editors a heads up about [the potential problems],” Nagel added. “If they’re going to try something similar, they should be prepared for plan B or C.”

The Beacon News already considers itself an interactive newspaper, one that often conducts polls and posts readers’ opinions on its Web site’s homepage. Nagel noted the paper’s regular program that retains 18 “real people” whose opinions are consulted to “nationalize a local story or get a viewpoint of someone who’s not a journalist.”

The editor said the response from his newsroom has been mostly positive and supportive. While noting that he has already gotten e-mails from individuals wanting to join this experiment, Nagel said that it was too early to accurately gauge the overall public response.

“I immediately got some e-mails from fellow editors who probably think I’m a little bit crazy,” Nagel said. “But they know me well enough to kind of pat me on the back with a smile and say, ‘That’s Nagel!’

“As anyone in this industry knows, you have to be able to throw a curve ball and a change-up as well as the standard fastball,” he added. “This is just one way to do something different and have a little fun without sacrificing journalistic integrity.”

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