In Chile, instant Web feedback creates the next day's paper
It was 102 years old, boring, unpopular, and basically, as economist Marta Lagos puts it, "a middle-of-the-road piece of nothing."Skip to next paragraph
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Now, it's a phenomenon. Las Ultimas Noticias (LUN) - The Latest News - is Chile's most widely read newspaper today, setting tongues wagging, talk-show hosts chatting, celebrities and politicians denying, serious folks wailing, and advertisers calling.
No, it's not a tabloid, insist the employees at the slightly shabby downtown newsroom. Rather, they say, it's a revolution in journalism, a reader-driven product that reflects the changing values and interests of a postdictatorship public that grew up on a diet of establishment news and now wants more. Or, as some say - because of the often low-brow content - less.
This revolution has occurred, says the paper's publisher Augustine Edwards, thanks to his decision to listen to "the people." Three years ago, under Mr. Edwards's guidance, LUN installed a system whereby all clicks onto its website (www.lun.com) were recorded for all in the newsroom to see. Those clicks - and the changing tastes and desires they represent - drive the entire print content of LUN. If a certain story gets a lot of clicks, for example, that is a signal to Edwards and his team that the story should be followed up, and similar ones should be sought for the next day. If a story gets only a few clicks, it is killed. The system offers a direct barometer of public opinion, much like the TV rating system - but unique to print media.
What news, then, did readers choose in a week when a dozen world leaders gathered in Santiago for an important trade meeting? Among the top stories: Where Secretary of State Colin Powell went to dinner and what he ate (shrimp with couscous). Also, a rundown - with a photo of scantily clad waitresses - of which delegations gave the best tips (Japan).
"This is very experimental, and it seems to be working," says Axel Pricket, a senior editor at LUN. "But," he hesitates, "how are you going to get a journalist to cover an important visit, say, of the Chinese trade minister when you know in the evening everyone will click on the story of the scantily clad girls?" No editor, he points out, is going to be able to say: "Let's showcase an issue which is totally uninteresting to the public."
"And why in the world would they want to?" roars Edwards, dismissing arguments that it is a newspaper's role to educate and inform the public, and rolling his eyes at the charge that the media is causing a "dumbing down" of society.
"I am not of the school that says, 'Eat porridge, its good for you,' " explains Edwards, warning that it's wise to be humble when deeming something "trivial" or "tabloid." "I'm focused not on what people should be reading, but on uniting them around what they want to be reading." As such, he argues, the paper is fulfilling a civic role - but with a twist. "We are serving the people what they want without passing judgment on their tastes or values, and we are reflecting a liberalizing, changing society that is Chile today."