SANTIAGO, CHILE — It was 102 years old, boring, unpopular, and basically, as economist Marta Lagos puts it, "a middle-of-the-road piece of nothing."
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."
"Give me a break," moans Ms. Lagos, the economist, reflecting the attitude of many intellectuals here. With only 30 percent of the country having access to the Internet, and even assuming all those 30 percent are clicking on LUN, is the paper truly a reflection of society? she asks. "The paper is taking its cues only from a very specific sector."
But observers see this small sector as representative of a growing movement. "The appeal of LUN is indicative of several cultural trends taking place in Chile," says Roberto Mendez, director of Adimark, a research firm. Chile, under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet from 1973-90, was one of the most conservative and repressed countries in the Western world, he points out. Films were censored, pornography banned, and news reports very official, and frankly, dull.
"The last 15 years have seen a tremendous cultural revolution, in which social attitudes are changing rapidly," he says. "And all this is coming at the same time as the Internet explosion and the increasing prosperity in Chile." Most media remain wedded to the old news selection system while LUN, says Mr. Mendez, is tapping into the new mood - and making a commercial success out of it.
It's an alarming success, says Orville Schell, dean of the graduate school of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He says it bodes badly for the future of serious journalism. "The quest for eyeballs has soundly trumped good, sound news judgement," he says. "Market forces have established yet another beach head in the publishing world, albeit, through an online fifth column."
Back In the LUN newsroom, Orietta Santa Maria is grinning. Her story - on the arrival of the wealthiest man in the world, the Sultan of Brunei (for the trade meeting) - is one of the top click winners. Her follow up, she says, might be something about the daily activities of his "exotic" entourage. "We are all still getting used to the new system here," she says. "It's all down to a science, with the clicks guiding you more than an editor does."
None of the LUN correspondents have news beats anymore, rather, they compete one against the other. Edwards says he will start financial incentives, with salaries reflecting the monthly clicks each reporter accrues. Editors, he adds, will work more as coaches than bosses. "I want my correspondents to be writing for the people," he stresses. "Not for me, or their editors, or the bureaucrats who put out press releases."
"Some years ago I covered good stories, like the Pinochet case," says Ms. Santa Maria. "I spent my time cultivating sources, and it was serious." She misses it once in a while. "But this is a phenomenon," she says with a shrug, "and I am not going to fight against it."
In a Santiago hotel, clerk Raul Sepulveda is reading the story about the Sultan of Brunei. "Imagine, the wealthiest man in the world in town. I wonder how they choose his hotel?" No, he is not interested in the free-trade agreement just signed between China and Chile - or in Iraq . "Of course these things are important," he says. "But do I have to read about them?"
• Danna Harman is Latin America bureau chief for the Monitor and USA Today.