If clicks drove coverage at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans —a more realistic prospect than it’s ever been—what kind of publication would we get? We can look at past traffic and get a rough answer: In a doomsday scenario, we would read only about sex, sports, crime, and more crime. The most clicked on stories in the month of June, for instance, included the following headlines: Child among five shot (#1 most viewed); Gretna attorney accused of masturbating in law firm associate’s office (#4); Tattoos help Mississippi deputies identify dismembered remains of Jaren Lockhart (#7); and The deadline to sign Drew Brees to a long-term deal is looming (#13).

The 100 most popular stories that month included no coverage of education, health, immigration, or housing. Less than 10 percent of the stories were even tangentially related to social or public policy. Only two addressed a serious political debate (and one of the two probably made the list simply because Drew Brees was mentioned in the headline). But the stories documented murder, mayhem, and mischief in abundance. As a chronicle of human cruelty and misfortune, the list was nothing short of sublime.

It’s not unsurprising, of course, that sensational and tawdry headlines, pictures, and stories attract eyeballs, both online and in print. The tabloid formula goes back decades, and modern outlets like The National Enquirer and Gawker have used it to their advantage for years. More traditional, community-oriented newspapers have historically taken a different, and more paternalistic, approach. They have always covered their fair share of sports, crime, and fluff, but they include vegetables in addition to dessert, aiming for the balanced meal.

NOLA Media Group, the company that will run both the Times-Picayune (once it converts to publishing three times a week) and the expanded nola.com website, has not said explicitly how, or whether, clicks will drive coverage. And the Times-Picayune leadership has said in meetings with reporters that they will not abandon entirely subjects that fail to attract many eyeballs online (although the layoffs decimated the ranks of the news reporters and left the sports and entertainment departments comparatively intact).
But company officials have made it clear a major goal of the revamped website will be maximizing pageviews: The site, we are told, will emphasize sports and entertainment coverage as well as perpetual churn of stories on nola.com’s homepage. Based on new job descriptions, many reporters in the editorial department (renamed “Content”) will post several updates a day on the homepage’s breaking news blog (renamed “The River”), where some will be read by an editor (renamed “Quality Assurance Producer”) after the fact.

In the not-too-distant future, reporters’ bonuses, and possibly even part of their compensation, will likely be tied to a not-year-defined set of Internet metrics. A precedent established at the MLive Media Group in Michigan, the first Advance Publications property to go digital, offers a telling clue: In Michigan, reporters say their bonuses are based on the number of stories they post, the number of times they engage with readers through the comment stream, and the number of pageviews their stories receive. Pageview and posting goals are developed individually and do reflect reporters’ starting point and beat. Both the Detroit Lions reporter and the schools reporter might strive to increase average story clicks by 25 percent, for instance. For the sportswriter, however, that translates into thousands more clicks per story than the education writer, whose articles will never attract as many eyeballs. And reporters say they have been told to continue to prioritize quality journalism and not simply chase clicks. But whenever the well-trafficked Drudge Report picks up a story, there’s elation in the newsroom (renamed “the Hub”).

The most viewed stories on nola.com, by topic, during the month of June. The data for this graphic and story were compiled in late June and early July. The results can change over time.

I have covered education for the last 13 years—three of them as a New Orleans schools beat writer for the Times-Picayune. During the last two years, I worked limited hours at the newspaper, editing on Saturdays and contributing occasional stories on education, a position that will end when the transition to digital occurs in the fall. While I do not plan to apply for a new position at the NOLA Media Group, I think often about what the changes could mean for the newspaper, the community, and my talented colleagues, particularly if pageviews drive coverage and compensation to a significant extent. For this reason, I collaborated with Cathy Hughes, an online editor at the Times-Picayune, to compile and analyze data showing which stories receive the most pageviews. The data left me with two big fears.

Sarah Carr is a writer who has reported on education for the last decade in local and national publications, including the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Christian Science Monitor, and Time.com. She is the author of Hope Against Hope, about the rebuilding of New Orleans schools after Katrina, which will be released in 2013.