I've written before from time to time about the disconnect between what journalists like to write - investigative, Pulitzer-worthy analyses of corruption in the corridors of power - and what their readers actually devote most attention to - perhaps best summarised as stories about the hilarious misadventures people suffer during their attempts to have sex with animals. So it was that the Seattle Times ruefully admitted at the end of 2005 that not only was a story about a man having sex with a horse the most popular of the year, but that four of the Seattle Times' top twenty stories that year covered the very same horse sex story and that this was probably "the most widely-read material this paper has published in its 109 year history". So it was in 2006 that the BBC found itself quite at a loss to account for the wild popularity of a story about a Sudanese man forced to marry his goat. Of course, this pattern should come as no surprise to long-term Virtual Economics readers. We see this again and again.
One of the joys of online news publishing is that feedback is neither occasional nor limited to after-the-fact market research - any site can see, in realtime, which stories generate the most interest on a daily or weekly or even annual basis.
A glance over those news providers that were brave enough to publish a list of their most popular stories of 2007 is therefore an interesting exercise. Beginning with the BBC, if for no other reason than they come top of the Google News search for "most popular stories 2007", they seem to have shied away from actually ranking stories by popularity over the year but a sample includes a combination of weather-themed stories (storms in January, snows in February, a lunar eclipse in March and more rain in August), actual hard news (the Virginia massacre, the kidnap and release of Alan Johnston, the sub-prime crisis and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto), celebrity tittle-tattle (Jade Goody throw off Big Brother for racism, Anna Nicole Smith dead, Emily thrown off Big Brother for racism) as well as not one but two bestiality pieces making their way into the year's top stories - an Australian woman killed by a camel that tried to mate with her as well as the (desperately sad) news that the Sudanese goat whose marriage caused such a stir in 2006 had died.
It is not clear from the layout of the article which of these most popular BBC stories actually got the highest traffic. I have my suspicions.
Onto Yahoo!, which appears to list only the ten most emailed stories of 2007, and includes amongst this set a cat that could apparently predict the death of nursing home residents, a (very) small dog that saved a baby from a snake and no hard news at all; the website of NBC in Dallas Fort Worth, where the top five stories of the year concerned a local woman whose house was sliding into a creek, a local celebrity's birthday, a gas plant explosion, an airlines passenger who was almost refused her flight for dressing too provocatively and the second sighting of a giant spider web; the Montreal Gazette, whose tech reporter Roberto Rocha cheerfully admitted in comments to a VE post earlier today that "my most popular post by far, which even made it to StumbleUpon, was a goofy poll about the sexiest geek in my city"; but my special prize of 2008 for only just realising that this is the stuff that really gets the traffic goes to the South Texas Record:
"Since its first publication in April 2007, the Southeast Texas Record has written about hundreds of Hurricane Rita-related lawsuits, asbestos injury claims, class actions against refineries and countless other civil suits filed in Jefferson County...But by far, the story that created the most interest and received the most hits on the Record's Web site in 2007 was a medical malpractice case about a botched episiotomy."
Plaudits also to the Telegraph in the UK which admitted that its number one story for the year, despite only being published in November, was about an Indonesian man who grew tree roots (and offered a new twist on the now-almost-passe "sex with animals" standby by listing as its number two story for the UK audience a man who had sex with a bicycle,
which story is sadly unavailable at time of writing which story seems to be working fine but I can't access from my PC for some reason, thanks to Shane for the tip).
There are, of course, all sorts of methodological problems with taking a top ten of the year list and drawing any broader conclusions from it, especially when your sample is as clearly selective as mine. Nonetheless, I am perfectly serious. At the very least we can learn a great deal from the reticence of many news organisations to publish rankings of their most-read stories of the year. For every additional year that we publish news online we gather more data about the reading preferences of news audiences. Every year, we discover that interest is most captured by tales of the bizarre, and especially of bizarre sexual misadventure. There is still a long way to go before news publishers close the gap between what their writers want to write and what they can no longer pretend not to know their readers want to read.
Update: and today FleetStreet2.0 offers a breakdown of the most popular stories on Digg in 2007: "a heady violence of sex, violence and astrophysics", all, interestingly, from either a major UK newspaper or the BBC.