Pastry, a lamp, and little Holger – 2011 on news websites

New Year’s Eve is always a good opportunity to look back at the old year and evaluate – accordingly, lists of the best and the worst, the most memorable, popular, forgetable, admirable, embarrasing, etc., of year X constitute a popular genre in the last days of the year.

On news websites, this kind of evaluating lists often appear in the shape of articles about the most-read articles of the year that passed. And for a researcher on web-based news and journalism – such as me – these lists provide an interesting overview of what people actually read when they go online for news. That being said, I must stress the un-academic nature of the following reflections on readership on Danish news websites: the sampling is close to random as I have looked only at the top lists on the Danish news websites that I found searching for “mest læste i 2011” (‘most read in 2011’) and “mest læste 2011” (‘most read 2011’) on Google; the analysis is descriptive and explorative at best; the statistical significance is not calculated (and probably non-existing)! Nevertheless, the lists of most-read articles do give an indication about the patterns of online readership.

On Politiken, the online editor claims that “There is a clear tendency that the readers click on to the more serious news” (my translation). Even though there are indications of this pattern on Politiken’s websites, it is certainly a qualified truth when you look across the different news websites. It is true, that many of the most popular events in terms of readership on news websites were of a serious kind: the Arab Spring, the benchmarking of public schools in Denmark, the terrorist attack in Norway, the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan, and especially the election of a new parlament and appointment of a new government in Denmark were events that readers were very interested in. Those events are all the kind of hard news that journalists, scholars, and concerned citizens agree are important for a functioning public sphere and society.

The most popular event, however, seems to be the disappearence of the little boy Holger which generated numerous articles on the news websites. Readers followed this story intensely and many – among them one of TV 2’s reporters who started crying – must have felt sheer relief when the red-haired boy was finally found and returned to his parents; the articles about the happy ending of the searching were among the most-read on many news websites. The Holger story was only the most prominent example of soft news reaching a large audience.

The 2011 readership of Danish news websites, however, also substantiated and confirmed some of the prejudices about content of online news and the people that reads it. Stories about sex and nudity (quite often with pictures…), celebrities (e.g. the deaths of Amy Winehouse and Danish singer Flemming Bamse Jørgensen), and quirky, uncommon events were popular everywhere. And on Politiken, the most-read article was about TV-gardener Søren Ryge and the best pretzel-shaped pastry in the world; it appears that the turn towards more serious news still has at least some way to go…

When it comes to the websites of local news media, it is clear that the local stories constitute the most popular content. The most-read article from Dagbladet Ringkjøbing-Skjern was, for example, the exciting though very short piece “Lampe revet af væg” (‘Lamp torn of wall’); likewise, in Esbjerg Ugeavis the ultimative click generator of 2011 was about three local pranksters, and almost the entire Top 10 list consists of local news. The same pattern occurs on DR P4 Trekanten where an article about the European Union was among the most-read – but of course with a local angle (about gingerbread). And on the website of Fyens Stiftstidende – Fyens Amts Avis, articles about the sudden illness and death of a prominent local politician constituted seven of the 27 most-read articles.

Departing from the broad overview, I will end this account of the year with an honourable mention of the headline on the front page of a news website in 2011 that I liked the most: “Denne tablet spiser æbler til morgenmad” (‘This tablet computer eats apples for breakfast’) on Ekstra Bladet – about a tablet computer that was apparently way better than Apple’s iPad.

Sources: using Google, I found the following lists of most-read articles:

Did I miss out any mainstream news websites? Add them in the comment field below and I will take a look at them later.

Until then: Happy New Year!

Update January 2, 2012: I’ve found some more lists. Apart from the lists of Børsen and Kristeligt Dagblad which reflect their specialist character (related to respectively financial and religious matters), the news lists generally support the agenda I have outlined above:

Update Feburary 3, 2012: Some of the webpage are now offline. I’ve removed the link but kept the titles for the sake of documentation.