Tuesday, January 24, 2006

INTERACTIVE: Wis. newspaper gives readers a chance to vote on front page


Tuesday, January 24, 2006 ยท Last updated 12:53 p.m. PT


MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin's second-largest newspaper is letting readers help decide what to put on the front page.

In an experiment designed to boost reader interest, the Wisconsin State Journal allows readers to go on its Web site every weekday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and vote for their favorite out of five story ideas. Barring late-breaking news, the winning story typically will appear on Page 1 the next day. Tuesday's front page included the first "reader's choice," a look at Ford's plant closings and job cuts. The wire story, which received 41 percent of the 192 votes cast, beat out stories on ex-convicts who return to Madison and President Bush's eavesdropping program.

Ellen Foley, editor of the paper, said it was not shirking its responsibility to judge news because editors provide the choices and do not have to follow the readers' pick. "The smart editors of America ... all understand that interactivity is part of our future," she said. "Doing that in a credible way and in a transparent way is the trick. This particular feature is appealing because it combines both of those values."

The paper, which has a daily circulation of 90,000 and 147,000 on Sunday, launched the effort on Monday after explaining the move Sunday in a note to readers from managing editor Tim Kelley. Kelley hinted that more sports and columns could wind up on the front page because they generally are the most popular stories on the Web site, http://www.madison.com/wsj.

In a test run last week, readers favored a story about two backup University of Wisconsin-Madison football players who were arrested on marijuana charges over news that Osama bin Laden had issued a new warning of attacks in the U.S. On Tuesday, readers could pick from stories on whether two municipal governments should merge, anti-bullying efforts in schools, the Senate Judiciary Committee's vote on Samuel Alito, a chain store that overcharged customers or fish oil's ability to prevent cancer.

"I think that's a great idea," said Kelly McBride, a faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a journalism training center in St. Petersburg, Fla. "If we are going to make the printed newspaper survive, we are going to have to figure out a way to make it more interactive with the audience."

Former Madison Mayor Paul Soglin gave the paper credit for trying to interact with readers but doubted whether this was the right way to do it. "Involvement is one thing; abdicating front page placement is another," he wrote on his blog. "If the readers choose Carolina Panther cheerleader escapades, is that going to trump the city council's meeting? Sorry, we still need an editor."

The paper is among the largest owned by Davenport, Iowa-based Lee Enterprises, a group of 58 daily newspapers. Brent Cunningham, managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, said the idea sounded reasonable because editors narrowed the selection of stories and can override the readers. "I can't think of any other paper that's doing this," he said. "But there's a lot of experimentation under way out there to try to balance this need to take what readers want into consideration while also not completely abdicating our news judgment."

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