The year of Zuma and Oilgate — or was it?

Looking back at the Mail & Guardian Online‘s news stories of 2005, it was a year filled with high-profile events such as Oilgate and the Jacob Zuma scandal. But there was also a lot of lightweight news that was noticed by our national and international readers.

These are the M&G Online‘s overall most-read stories of 2005, according to the number of page impressions:

The most-read story was ”Suicide theme park proposed for Hong Kong island” — an island councillor said the island should capitalise on the grisly reputation of one of its holiday homes, where 20 people had taken their lives in eight years.

But where is Zuma? Where are Oilgate’s Sandi Majali and Imvume Management? The M&G Online features plenty of political commentary and investigative, in-depth journalism but, looking at this top 20, it seems to cover tabloid and technology news.

The problem is that super search engine Google picks up several of the M&G Online‘s more important (and sometimes quirky) world news and technology reports every day, and links to these on its Google News service. Such stories get more international exposure, and thus more page impressions than other stories — for example, national news — on the M&G Online.

The reports about Apple’s iPod, the Xbox and Google in the top 20 show how intervention by Google can boost an item’s popularity.

Another factor to keep in mind is that a story published in January last year had been online for 12 months, while a story published in late November had only a month to earn page impressions and compete for a spot in the top 20.

Horrific news items such as ”Nigerian Islamic court orders amputation” and ”Teenager ‘sick and tired’ of being raped by father” also scored high and made it into the top 20 — as did the woman who carried her dead baby for 27 years.

The M&G Online, as a serious news website, publishes lightweight, quirky and unusual news in a section called ”And in other news …”, since we do realise our readers like to laugh.

The M&G Online is not the only news source with a slightly appalling top 20: the Seattle Times recently published an article about its most-read online stories of 2005.

An article about a man who died from a perforated colon while having sex with a horse was the Seattle Times‘s number one. Actually, four stories in its top 20 were about this horse-sex incident. Another article involved a judge deciding that a cat’s life is worth $45 480. A licence plate that showed a drug formula made it to number five.

Must online reporters respond to the popularity of such tabloid and lightweight news and give readers the sensationalism they want to read? Or do they carry on investigating for the few that are interested?

Riaan Wolmarans, sub-editor at the M&G Online, said that: ”Our focus is clearly on news of importance, but the world is not all doom and gloom and these lightweight stories become a welcome break for readers from bombings in Iraq, government corruption and famine in Africa.”

On a more serious note, the M&G Online‘s national breaking-news top 10 (from a section not generally plundered by Google) was dominated by Oilgate and Zuma news. But since the site is based in South Africa, with only four million potential readers here but a billion worldwide, the number of page impressions from international readers will always be higher.

Therefore, the number of page impressions for local stories are lower than the ones in the overall top 20, but it still gives a better impression of what M&G Online readers like to see when it comes to South African news:

”The M&G Online‘s readers take their news quite seriously. When one looks at the top stories in our national news section, it’s clear that our readers are interested in serious issues such as Oilgate and the Jacob Zuma saga,” said Wolmarans.

”However, I have yet to meet a reader who won’t have a quick peek at a silly story about sex or a wacky record attempt. It’s human nature.”

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Elvira Van Noort
Guest Author

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