"Hit Rate" Front Page: A Change in Newspaper Publishing Method?

In "Hit Rate" Novels:  A Change in Book Publishing Method?, the subject was about this business model: An obscure writer publishes his/her work on the Internet, readers flock to read it on the Internet and the book publisher watches what is happening.  If the Internet novel achieves a high hit rate, the publisher will make a deal for it and a "hit rate" novel is born.  Obviously, traditionalists blanche at the idea and decry the poor quality of literary works so produced.

This post concerns a different use of the Internet, and the application is in newspaper publishing.  The case study was reported at the 2005 Worldwide Readership Research Symposium in Prague in the paper by Elias Selman and Juan Carlos Rozas, "Revolution for a 103 years-old tabloid La Ultimas Noticias, 3 years after the change."  I am presenting a summary of the concept here.

There are two models for running a newspaper.

Top-down model: The editorial staff shall be the ones to decide on which news items are important (that is, mostly for the sources) and of supposedly informative relevance to the readers.  In other words, the editorial dinosaurs know best what the people want.

Bottom-up model: The editorial staff step out of the way and let the people themselves decide what they want to know.  Increasingly, the younger generation is demanding a non-deep knowlege of what is happening, with a clear preference for affective-emotional communication rather than rational communication.

That is easier said than done, because you need to have a mechanism for the people to communicate what they want and provide more feedback.

Enter the Internet.  In 2000, the Chilean tabloid Las Ultimas Noticias set up a website.  Here is how the website is used:

Step 1: Set a journalistic objective (such as: always offer the most read-about content in the country).

Step 2: Design an Internet website that closely resembles the print edition.

Step 3: Attach a pageview counter to each story.

Step 4: Study the Internet readership results.

Step 5: Share steps 1 to 4 with everyone in the newsroom.

Step 6: Encourage content change and experimentation as a result of the knowledge and analyses.

In fact, it is much more specific and this can be seen in how the print edition of Las Ultimas Noticias evolved.

One of the classical methods for newspapers to attract readers is to use the front page as the place to capture attention for something or the other.  For tabloids, it is easy to find an average of between 9 to 12 pieces of news on the front page. 

El Mecurio (Chile)

But when there are so many headlines, things can get very chaotic and jumbled and the potential reader may gloss over something of interest.  Besides, are there really 9 to 12 pieces of important news out there every single day?  Maybe, there are fewer than that.  Maybe the magic number is three or four.  Maybe the magic number is ONE!

If you now go to the website of Las Ultimas Noticias, it is actually fairly cluttered.  There are all sorts of stories there, each represented by a picture and a lead.  The website is continuously updated as more stories come in.  If something attracts your attention, you can click on the lead to follow through. 

Of course, your click will be recorded.  For the year 2005, the website will probably log around 135 million page views.  On the top right corner of the home page, you will see the front of the printed edition.  If you click through on that, you will see the entire newspaper in pdf form.

So which one story makes the front page tomorrow?  It is whichever new story that collects the most number of hits.  The people have voted with via mouse clicks.

The editors can then theorize just which elements in this story made it such a hit and attempt more of the same.  Conversely, they will also know when another theoretically brilliant idea flopped with the masses. and they will need to figure out what went wrong in order to avoid the mistake in future.  This is a science in the sense of continuous experimentation with feedback.

You can't argue with success.  From being in fourth place in the market in 1995, Las Ultimas Noticias rose to become the market leader.  It was also able to secure a loyal audience that no longer required the heavy and expensive incentives to retain, and this resulted in huge savings in operational costs.  The website also does not seem to cannibalize the printed edition.

As for Greater China, I am not aware of anyone operating under this model.  All newspaper websites appear to follow rather than lead the print edition.  But here is a ready-made model of success.  Who will be the one to seize the first-mover advantage?