Maybe Free Press readers are more optimistic than Free Press newsroom employees. Or maybe we just see the importance of the news in slightly different ways.
The experiment to test this thesis came with the publication of our top 10 stories of the year and a poll to readers on the topic. Each year, The Free Press staff of reporters, editors and photographers put together a list of top 10 stories of the year in terms of newsworthiness and impact on the communities we serve.
The staff of about 20 people come up with a list of about 20 stories. We then take a vote on which stories should be included in the top 10. We vote on a ranked basis so the story with the highest number of high rankings is the top story. We then countdown and review the stories in the newspaper between Christmas and New Year’s.
You can usually count on a murder story making it as the No. 1 story or very close. If there are no murders — an increasingly rare event — the top story usually involves change at a major institution, a surprising election or a big shift in the economic landscape.
This year we surveyed Free Press readers or “members,” as we now embrace them, and asked them to rank their top stories from the list of 20 or so stories the newsroom came up with as nominations.
The results surprised me, though I suspected readers would see the top stories a little bit different than jaded journalists.
The newsroom top pick was a murder. Levi Minissale killed Yesenia Gonzalez— a woman he knew — by cutting her throat during a confrontation at her home. The murder occurred around 10 a.m. on a warm June day and Minissale was arrested shortly after the incident at the Holiday station on North Riverfront Drive.
It was a shocking murder to us in the newsroom.
Out of 55 readers who voted, just five gave that story their first-place vote. But using a scoring system we use for the newsroom tally, the Minissale murder did not make it into the readers’ top 10 stories.
It received three votes as the second top story and two votes as the third top story. Eight of our readers ranked it story No. 11.
Readers awarded the most first place votes (eight) to the story of Mankato’s successful passage of a $70 million bond issue for major school building projects. That story got four second-place votes and four third-place votes as well.
But if you rank and score first- through 10th-place votes, the story getting the most points among readers was the demolition of Gage towers on the Minnesota State University campus. The second most important story, according to readers using the same scoring system, was the tremendous growth in commercial development in the region.
The school bond issue was actually third in overall points.
Readers gave seven first-place votes to the news that Gage dorm on the MSU campus was demolished and the event that drew big crowds of alumni and others. The story got seven first-place votes but also got 10 second-place votes and three third-place votes.
Major rebuilding of Highway 14 into a four-lane from North Mankato to Nicollet got the fourth-highest number of points from readers.
Of the top five stories, readers and Free Press staff only agree on two — the commercial construction story and the Gage story.
The differences between readers and newsroom staff will give us things to think about as we choose our stories going forward. Readers seem to think stories of community progress and growth are important. Newsroom staffers consider non-breaking news important as well, but it often does not have the intensity and online interest that breaking news brings.
Still, threats to public safety will always be important news stories. Murders are not something we are used to dealing with a lot in our communities. But clearly, they are more common than they used to be. Let’s hope we never get used to it.
Joe Spear is editor of The Free Press. Contact him at 344-6382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.