Dear Reader | Thawing out, sharing gratitude; Online is a different animal

February 3, 2014 

Before the memory of last week’s ice storm completely melts from our memories, I want to share my thanks to the journalists, drivers, carriers and readers who all played roles in helping us provide our readers with the latest information on the storm and its impact.

Our readers especially deserve thanks for the patience when our drivers were unable to get the Wednesday paper back to Myrtle Beach until Wednesday afternoon after public safety officials closed bridges around Charleston. Kudos to those dedicated drivers who fought their way through the storm at no small risk to themselves.

The photographers and some reporters also put themselves in harm’s way to capture what the weather was doing to our normally relatively balmy community. Those who weren’t out in it worked from home, gathering information from a variety of sources and keeping our web content updated. And thanks to the most unsung of our heroes, the folks on our night crew who edit and copyedit our content and design our pages. They made it to the office in time to scramble to meet early deadlines, and then stayed late to make sure we kept the information updated online.

Our own mini Polar Vortex also demonstrated the power and importance of the work we do online. As fast as we could say (and confirm) “road closure,” we were able to post, text or Tweet that fact, saving readers time, frustration and possible harm. Apparently readers appreciated this. Our numbers show we had our highest days of web traffic from current subscribers and new readers to our website and e-edition (the version that looks exactly like that day’s print edition).

So forgive me (or don’t) for tooting our own horn, but that’s what makes what journalists do so important, and that’s why, no matter how it’s delivered, the work we do will continue to be vital to our communities and our neighbors.

Speaking of the web ...

Joe N. Jarrett, Jr., of Myrtle Beach, wrote asking about why so many of the stories online detail things like local arrests, murder and other public safety topics.

He wrote, in part: “Nearly half of the ... material that the reader encounters with a brief first scan of the web site is “bad news”, and certainly not a pleasant way in which to start the day. Most of your readers are not those who routinely commit crimes nor have an obsession with reading similar sad stories day after day. There are plenty of “good news” stories to write. How about taking a readers’ poll to determine if a more positive and uplifting front page would be appealing? After all, it is “The Sun News,” not “The Gloom and Doom News.”

He’s not the first to raise those issues, and certainly won’t be the last. So I’m going to attempt to explain what makes online publishing a different species from print publishing.

First, there’s the immediacy factor. Something can be a top story online at 8 a.m. and be replaced by something more urgent by 9 a.m. In the print version, we still spend a fair amount of time discussing what goes on the front page and what story is the most important, or lead, story. Our aim is to order the news to give readers a sense of how much impact the stories have in the overall news offerings of the previous day. That decision-making is subjective, but based on, literally, decades of experience in news judgment displayed by those in our afternoon news meetings.

Another advantage and disadvantage of online presentation is that we get immediate feedback on what readers are reading. And readers, at least up to this point, have been more likely to click on stories about crime. We aren’t necessarily covering more crime than we ever did, it’s just that the items that usually play inside the local section as three-paragraph briefs move up the “most popular” ladder as more people read them. If I were a psychiatrist or sociologist, I could probably use that data to make some kind of determination of the state of civilization as we know it, but I am not, so I won’t.

Finding the right balance between spending reporting time on such popular topics and on more in-depth, exclusive reporting is an ongoing discussion in newsrooms across the country. You can expect to see us spending more time on the latter than the former this year, but that won’t mean that oddball or gruesome crime reporting won’t still rank atop the listings.

Check your own habits and see which stories you are most likely to click and read, then let me know what you find. And if you were among those who accessed us online for the first time during the storm, please share your thoughts. It just may help us as we carve our journalistic path through the latest techno developments.

Contact CAROLYN CALLISON MURRAY at cmurray@thesunnews.com or follow her on Twitter at TSN_ccmurray.

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