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Originally published December 30, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 30, 2005 at 11:30 AM

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Danny Westneat

Horse sex story was online hit

As I look back at the year in news, it's clear I should have focused more on people having sex with horses. That's the conclusion I reach...

Seattle Times staff columnist

As I look back at the year in news, it's clear I should have focused more on people having sex with horses.

That's the conclusion I reach after reviewing a new list of the year's top local news stories. Only this list is not the usual tedious recounting by news editors or pundits who profess to speak for you readers. This is the people's-choice list.

It's not a survey of what news you say you read.

It's what you actually read.

By tallying clicks on our Web site, we now chart the most read stories in the online edition of The Seattle Times. Software then sorts the tens of thousands of stories for 2005 and ranks them. Not by importance, impact or poetic lyricism, but by which stories compelled the most people to put finger to mouse, click, open and, presumably, read.

Which brings me back to sex with horses. The story last summer about the man who died from a perforated colon while having sex with a horse in Enumclaw was by far the year's most read article.

What's more, four more of the year's 20 most clicked-upon local news stories were about the same horse-sex incident. We don't publish our Web-traffic numbers, but take it from me — the total readership on these stories was huge.

So much so, a case can be made that the articles on horse sex are the most widely read material this paper has published in its 109-year history.

I don't know whether to ignore this alarming factoid or to embrace it.

It's not just the horse sex. The rest of the top 20 people's-choice list is eye-opening, as well.

Some of it was great storytelling, particularly a wrenching account, at No. 2, of a North Bend man finding photos on a Thai beach that captured a Canadian couple's last moments before the tsunami hit.

And there also are powerful articles on the Tacoma Mall shooting, a deadly rockslide and a local congressman admitting his vote to invade Iraq was a mistake.

But a lot of the stories on the list are what we serious-minded media professionals would imperiously call "soft." There's an article on a vanity license plate that showed the chemical formula for meth. A judge deciding a cat's life is worth exactly $45,480. Congressman Jim McDermott being featured in the book "100 People Who Are Screwing Up America."

There's not much on the so-called "issues" we're always implored to focus on, such as transportation or education. Nothing on the big campaign topics of the year, such as the monorail or gas tax. And nothing on this paper's major investigations or in-depth series.

Of the top 10 local stories as picked by Washington state editors for The Associated Press, only two show up in the people's-choice list: the contested election for governor and Joseph Duncan's alleged killing of an Idaho family.

As for me, this is my 98th column for 2005. None made the peoples' top 20 — though I have high hopes for this one because it mentions horse sex.

My local news columnist colleague, Nicole Brodeur, did get a column into the top 20. It was a great column that became a conversation piece around town. And it was about ... horse sex.

There's got to be a lesson in all this. Maybe the Web favors shorter, more emotional stories, and all you paying subscribers are happily wading through my columns on transit policy or our three-part projects.

Or, maybe, some of us are not giving readers enough of what you really want.

That's what a newspaper in Chile concluded. Las Últimas Noticias — The Latest News — was described as "a middle-of-the-road piece of nothing" until it opted to let readers choose the news.

Now every editorial decision is based on Web-traffic stats. Popular stories beget similar coverage. Unpopular stories get killed. Reporters are even paid by whose stories get the most clicks.

It sounds crass and shallow. It's also now Chile's most widely read paper.

So we in the news business enter 2006 with one eye on the future and, whether we admit it or not, one eye fixed firmly on our Web stats. It could lead to some schizophrenia, like that old Saturday Night Live skit on subliminal news:

"The state Legislature convened today in Olympia (horse sex), and Seattle officials (bestiality) requested funds for a new viaduct (perforated colon)."

This was one bizarre year, wasn't it? For the sake of my line of work, here's hoping for more of the same in 2006.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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