Sex, violence and what really gets readers’ attention

There is an axiom regarding the newspaper business that says sensational news and sensational headlines attract newspaper readership. Like most axioms, there is some truth to this. In the age of the internet and the tyranny of the mouse click, the allure of the dramatic story cannot be discounted. But it can be overestimated.

An analysis of the 10 stories that attracted the most attention to the Daily Herald’s website in 2017 finds only three that involve sudden or violent death. None, perhaps surprisingly, that involves baby animals. The others? Well, the No. 1 headline was “KeyLime Cove water park resort’s final days in Gurnee.”

I bet you didn’t see that coming.

And the race isn’t really very close — though Travis Siebrass, our digital editor for online content, notes that the current No. 6 — “Medinah couple married 71 years die within minutes of each other” — is moving up so fast it may overtake the top spot before the year is out. But even that sweet story about a lifelong love affair hardly qualifies as the spectacular sensation you might typically expect to entice masses of readers.

The truth is any number of indefinite factors can influence what makes a given story popular. Exercising news judgment — that quality that editors and reporters use to try to predict what stories people most want or need to read — can be more of an instinctive function than a scientific one. You might not be surprised to learn that our most-read stories included the report of a man who died trapped in a sewer line (No. 3) and the story of a local student who died at a university fraternity event (No. 5). But I’d be surprised if you predicted that the list would include a high school student’s essay about teenage pressure (No. 8) and a study finding that Americans today are retiring later than they used to and dying sooner (No. 9). Considering the craze surrounding the summer eclipse, it might not be so astounding that a story on how to find eclipse-watching glasses would be our No. 2 story, but I’d be downright flummoxed if you guessed that a nearly two-year-old story about picking Powerball numbers would be the fourth most-popular story of 2017.

In case you’re curious, the stories rounding out the list were one about the death of a missing Elgin teenager (No. 7) and an essay from a father grieving the heroin-overdose death of his daughter (No. 10).

We know very well that stories about sex, violence and puppies will automatically attract a fair number of readers, and we’re well aware that nuanced wording of a headline can make a difference. But we would be doing ourselves and you a big disservice, as well as insulting your intelligence and sensitivity, if we allowed those considerations to dominate our news choices. So, we’ll go on trying to find an appealing blend of stories that are useful, uplifting, engaging and just plain informative, waiting to find out later what ultimately proves most successful at getting your attention.

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