I don't know Christopher Smead and Erin Miller but I know a lot about them. Miller graduated from Fortuna Union High in 2001 and now works at NetFlix. She married Christopher Smead last June and he works at Logitech in Fremont. They live in San Jose with their cat named Crumb. They didn't invite me to their wedding but I bet it was lovely. They served Southern pecan chicken and red smashed potatoes. Hopefully they are still happily married. (Note to newlyweds: The secret to long-term compatibility is a king-sized bed.)
I know all this after I scanned the list of most popular stories on the Eureka Reporter's website. The second most popular was one titled "A Day to Remember — Erin and Chris." It had gotten 231 reads (it was early Sunday morning). Not wanting to be left in the dark on a story so many people were already up on, I clicked on the link and tried to figure out why a year-old wedding announcement was in Sunday's paper. Was that really the last couple married in Humboldt County? Perhaps the California Supreme Court really did kill the institution of marriage as we know it.
More people viewed it than the story on how a levee in Orick can now only handle a 100-year flood rather than a 250-year flood. Or the story on the California Senate's approval on a bill to push solar power. More people cared about Erin's wedding than cared to know who the Eureka Reporter recommended for the First, Second and Third District supervisors race in Tuesday's election.
On the Times-Standard site, the most popular story was one buried at the bottom of the front page about police stopping drivers for failing to wear a seat belt and then arresting them for possession of drugs and guns. Note to criminals: Buckle up!
Here's the fascinating thing about the Web. It can quantify our true interests. If the New York Times only did this online we could find out exactly how many more hoighty-toity Times readers ate up the magazine cover story on Tyra Banks this week than the one about John McCain last week. (I throw in the Tyra Banks reference because now that the North Coast Journal relaunched its website I need to pander to Web surfers to increase my page views.) I would expect that Bob Doran would be more popular, as he talks about bands with the names like Mother's Anger and Henpecker, or Amy Stewart as she's a bestselling author and her columns on straw bale gardening were super. But I think I will plunge into despair if I get fewer reads than Don Garlick does writing about fossil collagen.
The dirty secret behind the print industry's fear of the Web is that the Internet lays bare the disconnect between what interests most journalists and the value that the general public places on news stories. When readers can choose their news, those in the news business have to actually produce news readers will choose.
This disconnect is so gaping that for three days straight, one of the most popular stories on the Times-Standard's website was that of the 120 pound whopper of a halibut that Eureka resident Bev Hart caught just 27 miles south of town — with photo to prove it. It's not surprising that the story was so popular, this being a fishing community. Eureka is a town where you'll find people giving you unasked for tips on how to home-can your tuna. And who doesn't love a fish tale especially when it didn't get away?
But if you tried to find the story in the print edition you had a difficult time. It was buried on the second page of the sports section, with no front page promotion. I missed it in Thursday's paper and only caught it because of its continued popularity on the Web. How can you not put a photo of a local woman with a giant fish on the front cover? What were they thinking? Trumping the fish story on the front page were photos of the erection of Evergreen Mill's new pump tower. John Driscoll gave me a good eyewitness story and I liked the photos. But a pulp tower over the biggest @!%$*# fish anyone around here has seen? No way.
I get annoyed, though, reading newspaper stories over the Internet. That's because so few news organizations seem to understand the great capabilities of electronic publication. It's not just that readers could (or should) be able to get stories updated constantly but each story could be so much more useful than the print paper.
Back to Bev's fish. In the print paper Neil Tarpey told me that the California Department of Fish and Game doesn't keep official records. But on the Web he could have linked me to mrriver.com. There the reader could discover that Bev's fish isn't anywhere near close to the world record, as Jack Tragis of Unalaska Bay, Alaska, reportedly holds that record with a fish that weighed in at 459 lbs. Yikes! Not only that, but interested readers would learn the records for other fish as well, such as bigmouth bass, tuna and salmon.
Not one newspaper website in the area does a good job of providing links. Reporters need to learn how to do that. Consider all the stories that Driscoll and Thadeus Greenson have done on the Blue Lake Police scandal. For those who follow every story, the background info is tedious to read. You just want the update. On the Web, you can keep all the background out of the story. Instead you provide a one sentence reference and link the reader to past stories. But to prove really useful, the paper needs to open up its story archives for free. HSU students, faculty and staff can pull up the stories for free via electronic news archives accessed through the school's library. Why make your local readers pay for something a student from San Diego can read for free?
Writers can embed all sorts of useful links in stories. Consider some stories the Eureka Reporter ran Saturday. A top photo showed a photo of a boy and a dog for a story about the visit of a rescue dog to North Coast Learning Academy. The writer could have provided links to the California Rescue Dog Association. A story on upcoming beach cleanup could have provided links to more information on the California Coastal Commission's Adopt-a-Beach program and it would have been great to link to a Google map of the different beach cleanup locations. A story on Congressman Mike Thompson, who is up for reelection this year, could have included link to the Federal Elections Commission so readers can see who's been giving Thompson money for his reelection campaign.
Or consider a Times-Standard advance for the North Coast Open Studios tour. It had a nice photo of a sculpture by James Smith of Third Eye Sculpture Works and gave the address for his studio. But I wanted a map of all the studios, with examples of the different art works on display at each location. It isn't as if the T-S doesn't have time to pull this stuff together. Events like the beach cleanup and open studios are scheduled months and months in advance. A daily newspaper has to start thinking more like a monthly. Begin thinking in June about October events and pull together some nifty multimedia for them. Let the breaking news people think one minute at a time. All others should have their eyes on future events.
Another way of making a site more useful and interactive is to directly engage readers. There's a new term in journalism called crowdsourcing. That's when the news organization announces to readers that it plans to research a particular topic and invites readers to be part of the reporting process by helping to gather data and other information. This can be done through electronic chats and discussion forums. Rather than a disconnect between reporters and readers, this type of interactivity creates a strong bond between the news organization and the community. In a world where corporations own the newspapers we read, it's a way of putting the community back into our community newspaper.