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Ombudsman

How a 5-year-old story becomes today's 'Most Read'

By ERNIE GATES | Stars and Stripes ombudsman | Published: March 29, 2012

This story has been corrected

Sometimes, representing Stars and Stripes readers as ombudsman is about journalism values and newsroom ethics: Is Stripes’ coverage fair and impartial? Sometimes, it’s about matters of taste and judgment: Should Stripes have run that photo or used that word in a headline? Sometimes, because Stripes is directly connected to the Defense Department, it’s about defending the journalists’ ability to operate as a First Amendment enterprise, with the same access and freedom from command influence as private news operations.

But today’s column is about another way I’m glad to represent the readers — simply by trying to answer their questions about how things work at Stripes and stripes.com.

Like most news websites, stripes.com features a list of “Most Read” stories on its main pages, along with lists of the most emailed stories and “Hot Topics.” These popularity markers are three of the many ways Web designers let readers know what’s on the site, along with headline lists, pull-down menus, collections by geography, a revolving window of the latest blog posts and other “navigation” aids.

One of your navigators is off course, said Jerry White, historian for the 99th Air Base Wing at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.

“Having been stationed and deployed overseas, I remain a Stars and Stripes reader and am puzzled by something,” he wrote in an email. “On the right hand side of the front page, under the ‘Most Read’ tab, there seems to almost always be at least one article that is 2-3 years (or more) old, which to me is very odd, if not a little bizarre even.”

He’s right. Almost every day, an old story — sometimes more than one — is on the “Most Read” list. It’s often true of the “Emailed” and “Hot Topics” lists, too.

I asked Drew Schneider, Stripes’ Interactive Media director, and David Williams, lead Web developer, to tell me how those lists are built. Essentially, computer programs track readers’ interactions with stories, rank them and share the results. Three different programs apply slightly different rules.

  • “Most Read” is assembled by Stripes’ Web content management system, Polopoly. Over a 24-hour period, it tracks which stories are viewed and lists the most popular. Views can come from people reading Stripes online, from people clicking links sent by friends in email or on Facebook and Twitter, or from people finding the stories by Googling a related topic. Sometimes, the “Related Stories” links with Stripes’ news stories get that count going. That may be the case with the two 2007 stories from the Korean DMZ that spent some time on the list when President Barack Obama was there this week.
  • Stories make the “Emailed” list through a system called AddThis, which lets readers click the envelope icon at the bottom of a story and email it without going through their own email system. Rather than a single day count, the email tracker builds its list from a week’s worth of statistics. Along with big news stories, it makes sense to me that “refrigerator door” coverage does well on that list, such as the photo gallery this week from the Cub Scouts Pinewood Derby at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. As the idea behind all of these lists is to let readers see how they’re interacting with each other on the Stripes website, an update to this system will probably track the number of Facebook, Twitter and other social media links along with emails.
  • “Hot Topics” are sorted out by a system called Disqus, which enables and tracks comments on stories. The more comments, the higher the ranking. But the Disqus algorithm also gives weight to other factors that measure how much a story has readers stirred up, including how many click the “Like” button by a comment, how frequently comments are posted, and how recently. The newsroom sometimes uses this online list as a telltale for how much print readers might care about a developing story, and samples comments in a print feature called “Say What?” As for the older stories, controversy is the currency for this list, so persistently provocative issues like PTSD and DADT stay on it a long time, as has the letter to the editor about the gay Marine homecoming photo a few weeks ago.

One thing the three systems have in common: They’re self-reinforcing. Once a story is highlighted, the likelihood increases that more readers will read, email or comment on that story, which ramps up its ranking. And so on.

In his email, Jerry White said he ignores the stories with old dates, but I hope he was drawn into one this week by its headline: “My months in a love hotel.” That was a link to Stripes reporter Erik Slavin’s funny 2007 account of his first “home/office” in one of South Korea’s by-the-hour hotels. Once this 5-year-old story made the “Most Read” list, that headline no doubt attracted even more readers, multiplying the original popularity and moving it higher. I know I wouldn’t have seen it otherwise, and I’m glad I did.

How that old story got started there is still a mystery, as are some other aspects of these programs, such as how many (or how few) clicks it takes to get on a list. But I hope this column drew back the curtain a little, and I look forward to more questions from Stripes’ readers.

Got a question or suggestion for the ombudsman on what appears, or should appear, in Stars and Stripes? Send an email to ombudsman@stripes.osd.mil, or phone 202-761-0587 in the States.

Ernie Gates’ blog
 

Correction

This story originally said the article "My months in a love hotel" was about a hotel in Tokyo.

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