BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Editors of Wisconsin's largest paper are hoping to take the temperature of its readers in a novel way. For the past two and a half months, the Wisconsin State Journal has been inviting readers to its website every day to vote on one of five stories they'd like to see featured. The winner winds up on the next day's front page. Editors had been prepared for a spike in front-page sports stories, and so they've been surprised by the strong preference expressed for hard news, especially about local politics. Ellen Foley is the paper's editor and she joins me now. Welcome to the show.
ELLEN FOLEY: Well, thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So they're asking for more hard news. Does that mean that the front page has, in fact, become harder?
ELLEN FOLEY: Our front page has indeed become a bit harder. This has been a very confusing finding to us because we are not sure whether people are voting what they believe is important or what they actually want to read. We put out there a story billed as "Can You Find Love via Instant Messaging?" This happened to be on Valentine's Day. And it was beaten out by a story billed as "FEMA – [OVERTALK]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
ELLEN FOLEY: - Wasted Millions in Disaster Aid."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bravo for that readers' choice. But I wonder, the Journal has a circulation of about 90,000. How many of those people are actually voting every day?
ELLEN FOLEY: Well, we're averaging between 100 and 200. On some days we have as low as 70. We are noticing that during certain seasons, like break at the university, we have fewer voters. And you can tell that when there is a story on state news that there appears to be a heated interest in that story, and we can only suspect that there are e-mails going out to contact lists throughout the state capital urging people to vote one way or another, depending upon what side of the aisle they are on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you're suggesting that there is the potential for manipulation.
ELLEN FOLEY: Yes. We have now limited ourselves and we don't put out mudslinging stories where one politician is taking after another, because that does spike our votes. What we don't want is an individual politician to manipulate the vote. What we are in favor of is a blogger organizing people who are coming to our website or reading our newspaper and encouraging them to vote one way or the other. I think that's terrific.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But when you think about it, even on your best day so far, when you've had, say, 200 votes, the winning story usually gets, what, about 35 to 40 percent of that vote? So you're talking about maybe 60, 70, 80 people, tops, making the decision for a readership of, you know, 90,000?
ELLEN FOLEY: Well, they make one of seven choices on our front page. And I guess the only way to answer that, in my book, is what's the alternative? Not to reach out to our readers? In an era when many of our readers are telling us that they want control over their media, we need to put out the welcome mat, and Readers' Choice is such a thing. And if it isn't representative democracy, that's okay. At least they know they have a pipeline into us, and we will use our judgment and not overplay a story or not allow ourselves to be manipulated.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you see this as more of a symbolic gesture, but you don't really see it as a way to reach out to the broad mainstream of the readership of your paper, because it's simply not the way to do it.
ELLEN FOLEY: Well, I'm hoping that four months from now that we will have 1,000 voters; six months from that, 5,000 voters. A lot of people just don't know about it yet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So a lot of people haven't heard of it, but among those who have, there's been a lot of criticism of this tool as a kind of abdication. That you're taking these critical editorial judgments and awarding at least some power to basically an army of novices. These critics say that news editors have gotten to where they are because they do know better than the average Joe what does belong on the front page.
ELLEN FOLEY: Well, I think that there was a time, when I was a cub reporter, when editors felt that they were the only smart people and it was their job to educate the public by putting certain stories in the paper. That era has gone. We have seen evidence of the readers' displeasure with that in our shrinking circulations, and we have learned, as editors, that we are not the only people that have a good sense of the news. I guess the role of the newspaper is one of creating a marketplace of ideas, where all ideas can be shared, where even painful information can be vetted by the community.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There are some stories that the public may need to know but that the public, speaking very generally, simply might not [CHUCKLES] want to read about. I'm thinking back after 9/11, a major network spiked a story about fire trucks they found that were filled with jeans that had been looted from a store during the melee after 9/11. Nobody wanted to read about firemen who were looting, and that story, I don't think it ever saw the light of day or didn't for many, many months.
ELLEN FOLEY: Right. But in our newspaper, the readers are going the other way. They're giving us difficult stories to put on the front page, and I will assure you that as long as I am editor at the Wisconsin State Journal, our journalists will exhibit moral courage. We will tell the important stories, even though they be painful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jeff Jarvis, whose blog is called buzzmachine.com, wrote that, quote, "The real win will be when papers get their publics to vote on what stories they're not covering that they should be."
ELLEN FOLEY: Well, isn't that an interesting idea? The only way I know to get at that is to send human beings out into the community and have them talk to the people who know what's going on. And we call those people that we send out into the community reporters, and we call those people that know what's going on, we call them readers. And as old-fashioned as that sounds, I think that that is the best technology for that particular truth-telling that there is at the moment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Ellen, thank you very much.
ELLEN FOLEY: Well, thank you, and give us a call any time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ellen Foley is the editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, Wisconsin. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]