The NewsCut top 10: What we’ve got here is failure to communicate

Every year around this time, like every other news organization that needs to fill up space when there’s little news happening, I try to publish a list of the 10 most read NewsCut posts of the year.

I’m taking a pass this year because I’m not that crazy about 9 of the top 10, reflective, perhaps, of my inability to get out more this year, due to declining health and the difficulty of keeping the blog updated when I’m not in a position to do so.

Like it or not, page views are the coin of the realm for people who need to justify their existence as bloggers.

I miss going out and meeting more people and telling you about them. I miss you giving me a heads-up on what people I should go talk to if I could (which I can’t thanks to deafness).

But here’s the thing: what I enjoy doing most, what gives me the most creative satisfaction as a writer, what makes me convinced that people’s stories are valuable enough to be told, and what makes me excited to get up in the morning … isn’t what you tend to read. Not here, anyway.

Because it’s a blog, most of the posts are actually other people’s creative outlet; my job is to tell you it exists, maybe post a few excerpts, give you the link, and then let you comment to your heart’s content. Nice, maybe, but not particularly fulfilling for a writer. Radio Nowhere: blog version.

Personally, my favorite post this year was this one, followed by this one, and this one, and this one. And I’ll always have a warm spot for this one.

The highest rank of all but one was 60th — this one.

You — and I mean the collective “you” — didn’t agree and this gives me pause for a number of reasons.

A few weeks ago, a colleague posted an article for digital producers that we should stop doing what people don’t want, which makes a lot of sense, I guess. If people don’t read a story I think is worth the time and expense to tell, as judged by whatever measure of “engagement” — as the kids say — happens to be in vogue that day, is it really a story worth telling?

This — and I admit this is an old newsperson yelling at a cloud — troubles me because I think the erosion of audience in matters of journalism is partly because of a disinterest in knowing things we don’t know in favor of the things we do and want confirmed. This is most often the case, of course, with political stories.

In the article my colleague posted, there is this frustrating passage that is clear reality in 2018.

“If we look at the last two years, the amount of anger in the news has boosted our traffic,” Duhigg said, referencing coverage of U.S. President Donald Trump. “It is the most high-arousal emotion on earth and nobody expects they are going to enjoy it. The trouble is the kind of arousal we most dislike when we can anticipate it is anger — the emotion news usually causes.

“If you say to somebody ‘Would you like to be angry?’ they will universally say no. Then they read something on Twitter that makes them outraged, they will share it and read it again and again. We have to find other emotional rewards to deliver something sustainable.”

News media’s historic emphasis on selling their products with an “eat your vegetables” mentality — expecting people to buy because reading the news is “what’s good for you” — lacks this emotional reward. Said Duhigg: “For the health of the nation and the world, the vegetables are important. I am not saying we shouldn’t do vegetables. But for the financial health of our organizations, the rewards are candy. If we’re not taking the vegetables and dipping them in caramel, we’re making some hard choices.”

It’s only natural that news organizations put resources and time in the things you’ll respond to, and who can blame them? It’s a business and it’s no fun being artistically satisfied while being financially bankrupt.

NewsCut remains one of the most popular spots on the MPR News website, but it will finish the year with about 10 percent fewer “page views” than a year ago. And unless something changes, it will record its sixth straight month of declining audience over a year ago, with losses in eight of the 12 months.

I can’t quite figure it out other than a confirmation that blogs are — if not dying — dead. Long live podcasts. Or whatever.

That’s a lot of wordiness to get to the substitute for the top NewsCut posts of the year.

Here is the only original piece of work that made it into the top 10. It finished at No. 3.

  • Jack

    I think the top story is how we all appreciate the work you do on the blog Bob.

    We will miss you when you retire.

    • boB from WA

      And it isn’t just work, its hard work. But its also for the love of people and their stories. Thank you for that.

      • Ben Chorn

        Can we also mention the moderating? The comment section is one of the best ones out there

        • Joseph

          Because of everyone here in the comment section, I feel like I’ve actually made some friends with you, fellow NewsCutters. (Especially Onan, Gary F, Mr.E85, Al, AL287 and many more!) While the total engagement numbers may be down on the blog overall, those of us still here have made a vibrant, engaging and wonderful community. NewsCut is the only, and I do mean only, comments section on the internet I regularly seek out and participate in. You all, and Bob of course, are what makes it happen. I thank you all.

          • Jack

            Bob keeps it a safe environment for comments. I also only comment here.

    • Al

      You’re one of the good guys, Bob. Thank you.

  • Amber

    I’ve been reading the NewsCut blog for a few years but have never commented due to not wanting to setup a Disqus account. That being said, I created one just to say that I loved the story about the drive-in and the off-the-beaten path museums. I’m a millennial (for what that’s worth) and my husband and I had some of our best dates at the local drive-in. I’m said to think there might not be any around for my son to enjoy when he gets older.

    Yes, I read the political posts top, but it was all the other stories that kept me coming back to hopefully learning something new.

    • I also loved the blog about the drive-in. Definitely my favorite NewsCut post of the year.

  • AL287

    NewsCut is one of the reasons I haven’t gone completely insane over the last two years.

    At least here I can have a fairly reasonable discussion with fellow readers about the issues of the day, of which there many, punctuated with the occasional bittersweet.

    I know you have to retire at some point but I’m hoping it’s not until the current dictator in the White House is finally thrown out on his ear, heaven forbid he should make it to a second term.

    We need you, Bob.

  • Robert

    I appreciate your thoughtful writing and insights. A good mix of happy, sad, engaging, and challenging topics. Happy Holidays to Bob and to all of the NewsCut family!

  • jon

    I know it’s from just recently, but I really liked your take on this one.

    https://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/2018/12/six-takeaways-from-the-oval-office-showdown/

  • joetron2030

    Whether I comment (rarely) or not, and whether I read everything that gets posted or not, this page is one that I always visit because you manage to bring interesting stories to us frequently.

  • 212944

    Newscut – IMO and IMO only – is not a blog but rather a conversation, because the commenting is allowed. And the moderation keeps it a valuable, respectful conversation.

    • merry_rose

      Well said. It’s like our digital family room or coffee room.

  • Joseph

    Also, the ‘vegetable’ stories you always find and share are almost always the most wonderful stories you post. Those are what keep me, and many others, coming back for more. Learning something new is much better than reinforcing already held beliefs. Even after you retire, please always continue to seek out the vegetable stories, and share them with whoever you can (whether that’s us — yes please!, or your wife or neighbors). Never stop learning, and never stop telling stories Bob. You have the gift.

    • I’m at a loss here in my advancing age. “Vegetable stories”? Give me an example because I don’t remember ever doing a vegetable story.

      • Joseph

        Perhaps its my fault, I may have misunderstood what you meant by vegetable stories — I thought you were referring to stories that you wouldn’t typically see in the news, either on TV or newspaper coverage, such as the story about the helicopter who lost it’s wooden rotor, the 3 little pigs chilling in the car in Edina, or the jock and his friend with cerebral-palsy, or any of your famous “Friday stories” that always bring tears to our eyes. Stories like that. I learn something new everytime I read those stories on here, and enjoy those stories the most. And they are stories that get coverage no where else, at least in Minnesota that I know of. Those kind of stories aren’t exactly ‘candy stories’ in my mind — they don’t rely on outrage or politics or fame/infamy and may not drive the most clicks, but for those of us who stop by and read, they are worth more than gold. That’s what I was going for in my original comment, and I may be totally misinterpreting what you meant in your story about vegetable vs candy stories; I mean no disrespect 😛

        • Aha, OK. that makes sense. But did I use the term “vegetable stories” somewhere. It wouldn’t surprise me if I did. At my age, you would be very surprised how often my brain tells my fingers to type a word, and an entirely different word appears on the page, which of course, I only discover much later.

          • The Resistance

            I think he’s just referring to this line above … “News media’s historic emphasis on selling their products with an “eat your vegetables” mentality”.

          • Ahhhhh… OK… now I get it. Yes, the vegetable stories are actually the ones the serious ones — I mostly don’t do vegetable stories — that people just NEED to read because they do (think: Watergate 1972 stories). I don’t suppose anyone really NEEDS to read about a mustard museum — no, of course , they don’t — but in terms of audience reaction, I guess they could be in that category.

            thanks for the clarification. I thought I was losing my mind.

          • Joseph

            Ah ok, so I was partly misunderstanding the gist of candy vs veggie stories, so its partly my fault with this confusion. I was thinking the “Watergate ’72” (or Mueller Report, ’19) stories are the ‘candy’ stories because they feed shock, anger, and hot current event topics that generate tons of clicks, while stories about helicopters losing rotors, mustard museums, and obituaries of the not-so-famous are the ‘veggie’ stories; important to read and learn from, but usually passed over on the plate of news for the sweet and sour ‘candy’ stories driven more by current events and politics. Anyway. My point still stands I think. And whether you are writing a ‘candy’ or a ‘veggie’ story, you have the true gift for storytelling, something rare these days. Many people can report or aggregate the news… few can weave a compelling story that goes deeper beyond the headlines and makes a reader actually care. Yes you have years of practice, but that time of practice means next to nothing without the natural gift of talent. So thank you Bob (and MPR News!) for sharing that talent with us. I look forward to reading your personal blog after you retire 🙂

          • Very kind of you. And thanks for all you bring to the table here. All of you.

          • The Resistance

            We’re all losing our minds.

  • kevins

    My wife, family and I wish you happiness, health and wealth, in that order. Valuable, Valuable, valuable, valuable…thanks.

  • Phil

    Count me among those that greatly appreciate your efforts. There’s never a dull story here, and often more insight to them than the coverage I find elsewhere (if at all).

  • JamieHX

    Here’s a sort of technical/logistical thing to consider in looking at the number of clicks on stories: I don’t click on every story or entry I read here. There are usually three or four WHOLE stories that appear on the “front” or first NewsCut page. I can read them all without clicking on a link to get to them. And I assume it’s like that for all visitors. That’s thousands of readers without any clicks. Do you take that into account?

    • That counts as one page view. That might be part of it but only the top three stories are fully displayed, after that, for the fourth post and beyond, you have to go to the individual stories. That counts as a second page view.

  • Blasko

    Can only say “hear! hear!” to everything already posted. You give the news landscape of the day context, breadth and the framing of a journalist with experience, integrity and even some signs of wisdom. Except on your “Buxton is bust” take – you’re in for a surprise in 2019, big fella.

    Keep at it. We appreciate it. And good picks on your favorite posts.

    • I can’t believe the Twins are not taking advantage of the Indians cutting payroll. I’m all in on Buxton. He may end up a superstar. But right now, he’s still a bust. This is going to be a big season for him, I’m sure.

  • Christopher Hahn

    Listen here, Bob Collins.
    I come here specifically because it’s a consistent source of news that doesn’t make me angry. Some make me cry.

    If I wanted anger I’d go somewhere else,
    Tell that to your bean counters.

    When you retire, where am I to get my fix of appeals court decisions and obituaries?

    • I have a personal blog that I’ll try to keep writing that stuff at. It won’t be as often but I still need to keep my fingers exercised.

  • Regarding the trend in page views, Newscut is holding its own remarkably well. Here’s the thing: Dilution. What that is is the drinking-from-a-fire-hose choice of stuff to capture our attention. What was once one of many fewer choices is now part of the torrent, diluted by an overwhelming number of other distracting possibilities. Across the spectrum of once-popular activities – traditional things like hunting and fishing, service organizations, newspapers & magazines, terrestrial radio, and so much more – all are suffering declines in participation because there are so many other things to do. You can’t beat yourself up over this stuff; it quite simply is what it is and if your blog is still in the running as a quality product – and it is – then screw the page views and keep up the good work. And thank you, Bob.

  • Griff Wigley

    Bob, your colleague @laurahazardowen inserted an interesting question in between the quotes by author Charles Duhigg in her column at:

    http://www.niemanlab.org/2018/12/get-rid-of-the-content-no-one-reads-offer-surprises-and-candy-and-other-tricks-for-retaining-subscribers/

    She wrote:

    “Duhigg talked about the power of emotion in building habits. Hate-reading is habit-forming; is there something more positive that can replace it?”

    There’s a saying among those who’ve built and managed successful online communities (AKA web forums):

    “People come for the information but they stay for the community.”

    Some of your commenters here mentioned the importance of conversation and community that you foster here on your blog. For example:

    212944 wrote above:

    “Newscut – IMO and IMO only – is not a blog but rather a conversation, because the commenting is allowed. And the moderation keeps it a valuable, respectful conversation.”

    Joseph wrote above:

    “Because of everyone here in the comment section, I feel like I’ve actually made some friends with you, fellow NewsCutters. (Especially Onan, Gary F, Mr.E85, Al, AL287 and many more!) While the total engagement numbers may be down on the blog overall, those of us still here have made a vibrant, engaging and wonderful community.”

    I think their words indicate that you’ve tapped into something that creates a positive emotion that’s habit-forming: relationships.

    This is a type of engagement that most news organizations not only don’t measure or know how to foster. They also don’t know how it can be monetized in a way that satisfies the bottom line/TPTB. Pageviews are NOT it.

    I can understand why your current Newscut blogging is “… not particularly fulfilling for a writer.”

    But I’m wondering if you can appreciate your skill as an online community guy and that there might be better ways to leverage that skill while still being a journalist who’d like to help us citizens eat more vegetables?

    • Griff, you’ve been at this a lot longer than I have and have far more experience at community than do I. I’m open to the “better ways” but I’m coming up empty on the question. I sure do appreciate what we’ve been able to create. OTOH, I don’t think a systemic appreciation for community. I think so many people dumping their news content on Facebook and than letting the cesspool of comments warm their hearts (“We got 200 shares!!!”) is indicative of the “page view” mentality.

      And I get it… the people in the news business HAVE to be able to show the bosses something of value and numbers are value.

      But what appears to be a two-way street of “engagement” is actually just a one way avenue. That community voice in the journalism business is not making it back to be a mix in the overall news product. So in that way, we end up being cries in the wilderness.

      Back in its infancy,the whole idea of community and content is that that value WOULD make its way back to influence and be part of content and I think we’ve lost that idealism and opportunity.

      I picked up a guy last night while Lyft driving. Great guy. 28 year old black guy from the east side. Left Chicago four years ago because “It wasn’t a good place for my age group.” Move to Minnesota and the opportunity it affords.

      A year ago he got a job at a warehouse in Brooklyn Center for a company that distributes the food to mcDonald’s.All night he loads the trucks that take french fries and such to McDonald’s. He loves it. $25 an hour. Lots of overtime at this time (the busy season at McDonald’s is whenever kids are out of school).

      What a story. A kid escapes death on the streets of Chicago and success is rightly a warehouse job he has to pay $30 each way to ride too.

      Those stories don’t get told and yet, they’re great stories. Sure, I might tell them here, but that general appreciation for the stories of PEOPLE (not politicians or pointyheads)… those voices… have never been able to migrate to the core media and that was the whole idea of comment sections.

      It’s not the readers fault and I’m not asserting it is. But we are at a crossroads where despite what the internet gave us in terms of voice, we’re losing. That’s frustrating, for sure.

      • Jay T. Berken

        I went to a conference in Dallas at the beginning of November. I flew in the day before election, I got a Lyft to go to downtown Omni in Dallas from the airport. My driver was a older black man who was listening to Christian radio talking about the key to the vote was abortion, so I kind of wrote off talking to him. We went through the toll, and my driver got a little frustrated because he could not understand what the tollbooth person was saying. While exiting onto the main freeway, I told him the story of when I was in Green Bay, my parents and I went to a Supper Club for fish. Paul Hornung was signing autographs. As he was leaving, and I asked for a picture with him. He grumbled and reluctantly took a picture with me. After he left, my dad said, “if I would have know he was going to be such an asshole about it, I would have not asked for a picture.” I said, “But Dad, I don’t care; I got my picture with Paul Hornung!” I don’t care how I achieved my goal of my picture I told my driver, so you may not have understood, you achieved your goal of getting out of the toll. My driver laughed and laughed, and we had a great conversation the rest of the ride. I asked him where he was from, Fort Worth, and where to eat downtown. We were so into conversation that when coming into downtown I asked if this was where Kennedy was shot. He went silent and said, “You want Omni Dallas! This is Omni Fort Worth!” So needless to say a 40 minute Lyft ride turned into a 70 minute ride. But I really enjoyed it. We talked of his dad not have the $200 in the ’70s to fix his transmission, so had to drive backwards on back roads to work for a couple weeks. He told me about his grandson, politics and worries and decisions about this election. I did not ask his political affiliation because it was not my business. We had laughs and some tears and when dropping me off, we hugged it out. He was just a guy like me trying to figure it out.

        So this is what you bring to us Mr. Collins, a place to kind of figure it out and I love you for it (even though I totally did not expect what you looked like when I finally met you at the fair. ;))

        • I’m not really sure how to take that last sentence. 🙂

  • dpsours

    I’m a little late to the party since I was off line yesterday, but I want to add my voice to the accolades for Bob…

    Bob, even though you’ve made noises about retiring for some time now, I let out a big “Oh no!” when I read the announcement. My wife wondered what was wrong. I have followed NewsCut almost every day for many years. It is, quite simply, my favorite site of any type on the internet. You bring me interesting news, stories that get me in the feels, things to make me laugh, and level-headed perspective (from you and your regular crowd of commenters) on things that really matter. And even though I don’t catch it nearly as often as I’d like to, I love your newscasts with Mary. That would be my favorite thing on the radio.

    I’m so sorry that your health issues are having such a serious impact, and I hope things will improve when you’re able to “take it easy”. Whatever happens, please know that you have made a real difference in many people’s lives, including mine. God bless you.

  • Just a hunch, but I bet the people most engaged in the comments section(s) are generally most interested in the sort of posts you listed as your favorites. I know I am! I love Newscut. I will very much miss this blog when you end your activity here, and will absolutely follow you to your personal websites. Thank you, Bob!

  • merry_rose

    I love NewsCut! I got a little giddy when you did the story about the Mustard Museum. I grew up in Madison and had classmates at Edgewood from Middleton. I found the Mustard Mueum on a TV program when it was still in Mt. Horeb. My husband and his brother used to ride in the Dairyland Dare, a cycling event that used to be held in Dodgeville in August, and a trip to Mt. Horeb for dinner at the Grumpy Troll was always on the docket. The Mustard Museum was less than a block away. Fun place. Where else can you toss rings on bottles and win mustard? Yes, we did win.

    I don’t know how one monetizes what you do, but I really appreciate it. Please keep it up.

  • Shannon Stordahl

    Thank you for it all, Bob.

  • Guest

    I think the erosion of audience in matters of journalism is partly because of a disinterest in knowing things we don’t know in favor of the things we do and want confirmed. This is most often the case, of course, with political stories. = = = ASTUTE