One of my favorite anecdotes about working as a local-daily journalist is that my most popular story ever was about something that never happened. One day in September 2007, the local police in Guilford, Conn., started getting a lot of calls that there was a dead mountain lion on the side of I-95. By the time the state DEP people got there, though, the animal was gone. Not such an interesting anecdote, except for the fact that mountain lions haven’t lived in Connecticut for decades. Animal control was adamant that there was no way the carcass could have been a mountain lion, although they noted that they get a lot of calls every year of “mountain lion” sightings — none of which have been confirmed. So I wrote a short, tongue-firmly-in-cheek story about the dead “mountain lion.” The next morning, I had 25 voice mail messages and dozens of emails — by far the most response I ever got to a story. A story that made clear it was about a misidentified piece of roadkill.
I thought about the story again this week while reading through the New Yorker’s recent profile of blog impresario Nick Denton. Denton argues that while he is definitely in the gossip business — and nothing wrong with that — he often disagrees with readers about which stories are important. Denton orients his editorial philosophy around the pursuit of page views, and each post’s page includes an updating number of how many people have read it. The only problem is that you can sometimes end up with all mountain-lion stories. That is, if we’re hoping to preserve journalism as some sort of key element in American democracy, the page-view model may not have a lot to offer us.