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The Disconnect of the Dead Tree Gang

I love newspapers. They dig into all the nooks and crannies of the world's events. The journalism world at large often takes their cue from them. Those neat packages you view on the evening TV news were more often than not originally in a newspaper a couple of days earlier. God bless newspapers.

But they have real problems connecting with their audiences. Today there are a couple of great examples. One of my major dead tree competitors is leading its front page with a story pegged to yesterday's consumer confidence numbers. Our readers were initially interested in that Tuesday but quickly moved on to other subjects (I'm compulsive about watching our traffic monitoring doodads). Knowing that, I'm not sure I would have used it as a lead today. Of course, they needed to set up today's Fed decision and the confidence numbers do that well. So their front page looks current, even if no one reads it.

Another major newspaper -- actually, the best paper out there and one of our partners -- has a great story about Citigroup reconsidering its pledge to lay off those horrible credit card gimmicks of hiking rates for any reason whatsoever ... like being late on an unrelated bill. I know people are going to be interested in that one. But my compadres didn't give it much visibility at all; buried it deep in the business section, in fact. I'm pretty sure that story is going to do fairly well. It's already a mild pink on my traffic heat map.

Of course, each of these papers has its own Web site. But they don't seem to use them as a weather vane for what people are going to read. In fact, the idea of using metrics to gauge audience interest and guide editorial decision making doesn't seem to occur to them at all. I asked a colleague at our partner about it once and the whole idea seemed to put him off. Some of that may come from an entrenched journalistic attitude of superiority, which I've talked about before. Or it may just not occur to them.

Metrics shouldn't dictate everything you do on a front page or home page. There are some journalistic imperatives. Food recall stories, for instance, should get a lot of play, regardless of the traffic meter. But ignoring what plays well with your readers? When people look at newspaper numbers lately ... they usually concentrate on the Internet's speed and immediacy. But I think this audience disconnect plays into it too.