Wisconsin Paper Lets Readers Choose Page One Stories

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By: Joe Strupp

If you’ve ever wanted to pick the stories that appear on Page One, the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison is about to give you the power. Under a new initiative launched Monday, the 101,000-circulation daily will let readers vote on its Web site each day for the story they’d most like to see on the front page.

“Under the “Reader’s Choice” heading, we’ll offer four or five story choices varying day to day from local to national, entertainment to sports,” Managing Editor Tim Kelley wrote in a note to readers Saturday. “You’ll be able to see immediately how your choice stacks up against others, and check back later for final results.”

The voting choices appear on the right-hand rail of the Web site’s opening page between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. daily, Kelley noted. Monday’s five stories ranged from the impact of Ford’s massive layoff announcement on the broader economy to the FDA’s approval of a new over-the counter diet pill.

Kelley added that the paper would identify the day’s top vote-getter in the paper the next day and, barring breaking major news, the reader’s choice “typically will appear on the front page.”

“Critics may resist what they see as a popularity contest undermining traditional news judgment,” Kelley acknowledged. “But we aren’t too worried that you’ll be scribbling up our first draft of history with Paris Hilton’s daily exploits. Our unscientific poll is just another way for you to tell us what you find to be the most important, interesting or vital information of the day.”

But his note stressed that “editors will let the majority rule.”

Phil Haslanger, managing editor of the Capital Times, the Journal’s cross-town rival, said he was curious what response it would bring. But he wondered if an online vote would provide a proper reader viewpoint. “You have a different audience for print than you do online,” he said.

James Baughman, director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the nearby University of Wisconsin-Madison, compared Journal editors to legendary baseball owner Bill Veeck, who once let fans of his St. Louis Browns vote from the stands on whether a batter should hit or bunt, and where fielders should play.

But Baughman noted that, in today’s competitive news world, newspapers need to try new things. “They’ve got to try something to capture readers,” he said. “Ten or 20 years ago I would probably be more dismissive, but they are trying to reinvent the enterprise.”

The new Journal effort follows a number of online services the paper has offered in recent years, including numerous blogs and reader forums.

“We recognize the coming transformation in the way people get their news. It isn’t only that the Internet is growing as a source for local news, particularly among younger adults.” Kelley added. “Letting our readers actively participate in setting the news agenda is one step into a new world built around interactivity and conversations more than traditional one-way delivery of news.”

Editor Ellen Foley, quoted in Kelley’s note, also supported the approach. “The State Journal still has the broadest local reach of any local media, and it remains a great vehicle for delivering news,” she said. “But we’re enhancing our online news, too, to appeal to a new generation of readers.”

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