Our newsroom has scores of screens on the walls. They show nearly every TV news channel, several sports channels, and in the afternoons, a few soap operas come through. They also show minute-by-minute statistics about what our readers, and those of our sister news organization WTOP, are reading. What stories people are clicking on.
The screen showing these statistics for Federal News Network happens to be on the wall just outside my studio. On the two or three times a week I post a column, I can see how it’s doing. Both federal employees and contractors read our stuff. So anything related to jobs, careers, and what the government might be up to on the buying end gets many hits.
“Cloudy with a chance of needles” did the best this year. It was about the contractor vaccine mandate. That piece brought together a lot of current themes from the post-vaccine phase of the pandemic. Anything to do with the human side of the pandemic seemed popular. This column, about the seemingly near end of the pandemic, and then its return thanks to new variants, also garnered many views.
Almost as popular was a column having to do with the foibles of newly appointed political staff. They came in swarms over the past year, thanks to a change in administration and party in power. But they didn’t come into office physically. Some have started to, but with offices sparcely populated, it might have been hard to size up the new bosses in person. In ancient times, I used to check new bosses’ shoes, and if they were polished the newbie would avoid a demerit. At least in my mind.
A couple of columns did well that concerned getting back to the office. Lots of readers but also, I’m told, some backlash on social media. Confession: I don’t spend more than a couple of minutes a month on social media. Some readers just email me at the studio, and I keep up an occasional dialog with them. Big media columnists consider their readers the little people. Not me. I try to answer the emails.
I urged the government to get back in, perhaps prematurely. It touched a nerve, I guess. When I expressed skepticism at the idea that feds were generally feeling job burnout, that sparked some reaction. Mostly, I guess, from the burned out. Many agencies did get a ton of unanticipated work from pandemic relief legislation, which can wear you down over time.
Money, of course, is always a high-interest topic. Your own money from pay and benefits, but also the agency’s money — the budget. My third-highest-ranking column of 2021 concerned the Technology Modernization Fund, into which the president had hoped to get $9 billion via the American Rescue Plan. That didn’t happen, but the TFM did receive a billion.
The peril in watching reader-meters is the tendency to write about what will get the most clicks. Certain topics resonate with a section of the audience, but with those people it may matter a lot. All of us here work to keep that in mind.
And by the way, although you might suspect it in the age of web analytics, we don’t know who personally is visiting the site. People used to joke that on TV’s Tonight Show, Johnny Carson could see into your bedroom. Today with internet connected TVs, some with cameras, who knows? But to our web analytics, you’re just part of an aggregate number. That’s why I welcome the emails.