By Bryan Gruley
Shit is popular in The Wall Street Journal.
This may come as no surprise to liberals who stoop to read our editorial page or conservatives who insist we’re soft on Obama.
But I mean it quite literally.
On March 25, the newspaper that employs me as its Chicago bureau chief published a story about giant bubbles that had formed in a manure pond in Indiana.
See it here:
The story quickly ascended our “Most Popular” lists ranking the articles viewed and emailed most frequently by readers. As I write this blog, it remains at Number 6 on the most-viewed list for the week.
On one hand, I’m happy to report this, because I love quirky-but-true stories like this one; because the reporter, Lauren Etter, works for me; and because I edited the story. And, icing on the cake, it made the most popular list for all of our readers and our WSJ peers to see.
But the rankings--now standard in newspaper, magazine, blog and other websites across the U.S.—bother me. Does the effort to quantify quality tempt us, however subtly, to focus on coverage we think will please the public and look away from stories or subjects that readers or viewers might not want but arguably need to know?
I suppose this marks me as a dinosaur, or at least someone taking things a tad too seriously. Lighten up, Gruley: these lists are just a fun way of seeing what people are reading about, a nifty window on the day’s water-cooler chat. And I haven’t heard reporters or editors talking about pursuing a particular story because it’ll make the most-popular list.
But I have heard arguments about the relative merits of a story culminate in the declaration that it made the most popular list, as if that settled everything. By that reckoning, James Patterson is a better writer than Ian McEwan, Kelly Clarkson a finer musician than Van Morrison and the National Enquirer is a better newspaper than The Wall Street Journal.
Of course writers and producers crave readers and viewers. That’s how we justify our existence and, no small matter, pay the bills. But now that we can measure with a greater degree of precision what it is they like to consume, do we gravitate, like a maker of widgets or software or frozen pizzas, to giving them only what they want to hear?
News talk shows on radio and television do so every minute of the day, on the left and the right, with Rush Limbaugh telling his fans what they want to hear, Rachel Maddow doing the same for hers. But the people who actually gather and report what happens in the world have to guard themselves against playing to one constituency or another. It would undermine their credibility, of course, and as a crass business matter, risks alienating a big chunk of audience.
Perhaps our inability to predict what people will gobble up will protect us. Some years ago, my former WSJ colleague Roger Thurow wrote a story about a young African girl who had a fistula—an injury to the urethra caused by sexual relations at an abnormally young age.
We had no most-popular list back then, but judging by the emails, letters and calls Rog received, his story would’ve shot to the top. Had we asked readers ahead of time, though, whether they would like a story about a fistula, I doubt many would have said yes, please.
Who really knows what readers desire? A story about shit ponds in Indiana, apparently.
We who write fiction and secretly hope to hit the New York Times Bestseller list face the same dilemmas, and the license to make things up doesn’t make it easier. Do we consciously write what we think our audience wants, create characters that will attract more readership, concoct plots that play off the evening news? Do we create virtual focus groups in our minds? Or do we just try to tell a great tale? Do we write from our hearts or our heads?
My next book: a teenage vampire writes a memoir about her childhood learning magic in the catacombs of the Vatican.
What do you think?