Gerber: You can't make everyone happy

Gerber: You can't make everyone happy

August 5th, 2012 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

Lately, a lot of national, state and local news coverage has been focused heavily on the elections.

And rightly so - that's certainly what a lot of talk centered on last week in both Tennessee and Georgia. But newspapers strive for a mix of stories to appeal to the broadest base of readers possible.

On a regular basis I'll get calls or emails that go something like this:

Caller 1: "Y'all cover the county commission/prayer situation too much. Isn't anything else happening?"

Caller 2: "There wasn't a story today about the prayer at the meetings. Are you dropping this? This is huge. Huge. You need to write more about it."

I get the same kind of feedback - where no one agrees - on our coverage of street shootings, the Passage fixes, how many Georgia vs. Tennessee stories we run and, yes, the election.

And the calls started coming in this week about the Olympics. Too much coverage, said one man. Not enough, said another. Who cares, said a third. More pictures of Kate and William at the Olympics, requested another. Why is China winning more medals than the U.S., a woman demanded to know on Thursday. (Uh, I was wondering that myself).

These kinds of calls keep editors on their toes.

When everyone wants something different, pleasing everyone seems out of reach. The editors in this newsroom wrangle over what stories we cover and debate what stories deserve valuable front-page real estate. We don't always get it right, but we do put thought into it.

One tool that allows us to assess what types of stories people respond to is the newspaper's website. There's no way to know how many people read a story in print, but we have exact numbers online.

It's often surprising what stories get Web readers' attention. This summer's top stories in terms of web hits included:

• The tale of colorful, vintage car-collecting Chattanoogan Corky Coker of Coker Tire and his family's new reality show that follows the Coker family as they try to find and restore old and rare vehicles.

• Two stories about 13-year-old Keoshia Ford, who suffered a devastating brain injury when she caught a gang member's bullet meant for someone else.

• A story about Tasha Bates, the 26-year-old Cleveland, Tenn., woman who faces murder and methamphetamine charges after her 3- and 5-year-old sons died of hyperthermia; investigators say their autopsies show they suffered the fatal injuries in a searing hot car.

• A report on how Chattanooga outpaced Tennessee's other major cities in its growth rate and is one of the fastest-growing municipalities in the region.

• The story of Charmane Goins, an ex-convict who turned his life around and now runs the Bistro at the Beth restaurant in Alton Park. (A reader called after this story ran to let me know that I'd be making a mistake if I didn't try the Bistro's beef brisket).

• A compelling story about the Cleveland Police Department reopening the unsolved murder case of Stacy Dillon, who was found dead on March 17, 1991.

• A report on local productions of the "Hair" and "Equus," which both have included nudity in previous productions. The local production of "Equus" included nudity; "Hair" did not.

• A report on the Mobile Market, a mini grocery story housed in a trailer that travels to Chattanooga in neighborhoods considered "food deserts," areas in which one-third of the population doesn't have easy access to healthy food.

• A story about Aetna Mountain and how the interests of different groups - developers, four-wheelers and environmentalists - are clashing.

• The story of how the death of a minister's gay son changed his beliefs as well as his relationship with his church. That story, "Tempest in my Soul," received a stunning 98,010 page views, a number that indicates the story received interest from around the country and the world.

We started closely tracking web-page views on front-page stories because I thought it'd give me a clear view of what types of stories resonate with readers. But after many months of doing this, only one thing is clear to me: It's unclear what people like. Or, more likely, readers like a variety of stories.

So the next time you read a story that you don't think belongs on the front page, or you think a story deserves front-page coverage but doesn't get it, remember, there are other readers who have the opposite opinion.

A lot of discussion and thought goes into story selection and placement at the Times Free Press, but - another thing I've learned - it's impossible to make everyone happy.