Skip to content

What Shamu taught us about newspaper readers

IMG_1440.jpg

Thanks to most e-mailed lists, it's easy to keep up with what friends and colleagues are reading. (Cassandra Vinograd/CNS)

IMG_1461.jpg

Most e-mailed lists on media websites have taken on a life of their own, as readers increasingly use them as a cheat-sheet to keep up with the news. (Cassandra Vinograd/CNS)

IMG_1435.jpg

Lists of most e-mailed stories on media websites make it easy to pass articles from person to person. (Cassandra Vinograd/CNS)

IMG_1468.jpg

More and more readers use most e-mailed lists as a substitute for reading the whole newspaper. ( Cassandra Vinograd/CNS)

IMG_1465.jpg

Many readers don't bother with headlines, going straight to the list of most e-mailed stories. (Cassandra Vinograd/CNS)

Greg, a 30-year-old Manhattan resident, is heading to business school this fall and wants to be ready for the whirlwind of summer job interviews he’ll face in the first semester.

How’s he preparing? Almost every day he goes online to read the stories on The Wall Street Journal’s “most e-mailed” list.

“I want to make sure I’ve read everything the person across the table has read,” said Greg, who asked that his last name not be used because of his coming interviews. The most e-mailed list is the “most obvious way to make sure I’ve covered my bases.”

Most e-mailed lists, or MELs, used to be the province of the whacky and weird, full of gee-whiz stories you’d be more likely to send to your mom than your boss. Now, they often contain stories readers can’t afford to miss.

In the past several years, MELs and their cousins, “most viewed” and “most blogged,” have become prominent features on many news media Web sites. As more time-strapped readers make MELs their primary source of newspaper reading, hard news stories must compete for attention with tidbits about pole dancing suburban housewives and Vietnamese mail-order brides.

The shift is creating competition between reporters, head-scratching among editors and fundamental changes in the relationship between newspaper and reader, with consequences that may shape the future of journalism.

MELs are “incredibly relevant and important,” said Sandeep Junnarkar, associate professor of new media at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, in part because they allow newspaper audiences to interact with one another. In a world where readers can choose from thousands of news sources, sites like nytimes.com, CNN.com and Yahoo News tend to attract readers with similar characteristics, functioning much like the social-networking sites that have become so popular in recent years, he said.

“It’s a way of literally forming communities of interest,” Junnarkar added.

Marc Rittle, a Ph.D. candidate from Chicago who often prints copies of most e-mailed stories for his students, equated MELs to celebrity-watching for academics. “It’s almost like my gossip,” he said.

For example, when Rittle, 33, a sociologist, first heard of a New York Times column about a woman who used animal training tricks on her husband, he wasn’t particularly interested. But the article, “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage,” by Amy Sutherland, became the most e-mailed Times article of 2006, inspiring a column by the Times’ columnist Maureen Dowd, pieces in Salon and Slate, and hundreds of blog posts.

Eventually, Rittle found he could no longer ignore the column--it kept coming up in conversations with friends and colleagues and on the blogs he reads. “I finally had to look at it,” said Rittle, who recently wrote about Shamu on his blog, Everyday Life. “I had to see what all the buzz was about.”

Most e-mailed stories have a reputation for being frivolous and often feature what Junnarkar called topics of “wide-ranging” interest, like food, family and relationships. But as more people turn to MELs as their primary portal for news, the gap between the most frequently viewed and most e-mailed stories--once worlds apart--is narrowing.

On a recent weekday afternoon, three of the top five most e-mailed stories on chicagotribune.com also appeared on the most viewed list. On wsj.com, four of the top 10 most popular stories also were the most e-mailed.

And while some of the stories may be lighthearted, MELs can be big business for writers, as Sutherland can attest. She ended up with a six-figure advance from Random House for a book based on the Shamu column.

“It’s just a general score-keeping interest a lot of humans have,” Sutherland said of MELs in a phone interview from her Boston home, where she’s working full time on the book. “It’s a way to quantify what’s popular in a numerical way.”

Sutherland isn’t the only one for whom MELs can be a moneymaker--or loser. When Greg first started working in finance several years ago, his job required keeping track of which companies were affected by the scandals at Enron and WorldCom. The Wall Street Journal’s MEL helped him do that. “I used it as a cheat sheet to make sure I hadn’t missed anything,” he said.

As useful as it may be for readers, this new measure of stories’ popularity isn’t always pleasant for print journalists.

“We never get ratings,” said Steve Johnson, a Chicago Tribune writer whose column “Will You E-mail This Story?” last July did not make the paper’s most e-mailed list. “Suddenly, there it is, an objective measurement of how many people liked your stuff.”

As the MEL trend accelerates, papers may be tempted to publish stories based on popularity rather than news value.

“It’s definitely tempting, no doubt about it,” said Ben Estes, editor of chicagotribune.com, who said he sometimes takes a story’s popularity into account when determining the relative position of headlines on the site. “It’s a balancing act. You have to be careful and use good news judgment.”

And while e-mailing stories allows newspapers to reach wider audiences than they might have otherwise, it may ultimately reduce readership and diversity of perspective as the same few stories get passed around.

“As much as you’re learning about the interests of other people, it’s also very limiting,” Junnarkar said. “It leads to the narrowing of our focus, which could be detrimental to what we’re aware of.”

But one thing is for sure: MELs have already begun to change readers’ relationship with the media, allowing them to play a role in deciding what constitutes news.

As Johnson put it, the news “has an extra editor now. And that editor is the public.”

E-mail: cet2111@columbia.edu