Nearly four months after The News revamped its Web site -- www.buffalonews.com -- editors here are tracking what features and stories are most popular with our Internet readers.
Some of what we've learned is predictable, but some of it is, if not weird, then at least surprising.
The predictable? Our Web readers love sports. Nothing gets more "hits" -- or instances of being clicked on -- than news about the Buffalo Sabres and the Buffalo Bills -- for example, a story about Bills owner Ralph Wilson and his plans for the team's ownership. (We also happen to know Wilson read the comments that readers posted on our BillBoard blog about the interview -- he told us.)
And readers are also drawn to the "Latest local news" section at the top of our Web site, which changes frequently and may include stories as small as a gas station holdup or as big as Bass Pro's decision to come to town.
The popularity of "Latest local news" reflects not only readers' inherent curiosity about what's new, but also (we believe) their sense that when there is local news, our news staff will have it first.
But other popular choices are far less predictable.
For example, after the tragic deaths of five young women in Fairport last week, more than 2,000 readers, in the first 24 hours, visited our parenting blog written by Greg and Alison Connors. We also saw huge interest in the story about the stormy encounter at the Amherst Pepsi Center between a father and someone else's boy who was misbehaving. Many readers read and posted comments to stories about the man who lives in a bunker he dug in Buffalo, and the mother who had a 14-pound baby.
But what was the best-read, one-day story we've had so far? The one about Paris Hilton's revolving jail cell-door. We're not sure what to make of that, since it's neither local nor deeply significant. But in our celebrity-drenched culture, perhaps it's not such a surprise after all.
Meanwhile, we keep adding new elements to The News' Web site. In recent weeks, for example, photo galleries -- with extra pictures that we don't have room for in the paper -- have become a regular feature.
As a result of improvements like these, use of The News' site has increased about 12 percent over the past few months.
We hope that the site, and its readership, will only get better and better. Some of our best serious journalism will have Web-exclusive elements that add value, as did the recent expose of the New York State Power Authority expenditures, which featured an audio interview and a Web-only salary list.
Two weeks ago today, our front page featured two photographs of Jordan Road in Amherst -- one with lots of trees and one with far fewer. This was a rare exception to our policy of never altering a news photograph, and readers could not have imagined how much discussion went on behind the scenes in deciding to do this.
The reason for that policy is that we know there is an expectation on the readers' part -- one we never want to change -- that a news photograph represents reality, not fantasy.
These days, it's all too easy to digitally manipulate images without disclosure: an absolute journalistic no-no. We don't do that.
In the case of the tree photos, we believed the drama of showing the present and the possible (after the planned cutdown of trees damaged in last year's October storm) was worthwhile, with one important precaution. We told readers as clearly as possible -- in captions, headlines and an editor's note -- that one photo was real, and the other one, essentially, an illustration.
The result was startling, and we have every reason to believe readers understood. "Transparency," letting the reader know what's happening and why, was the key. That continues to be our policy.