In a few days, the Rochester Beacon will wrap up its third full calendar year of publication. What we’ve found in the past remains true today: The articles that draw the largest readership range widely by topic and type of writing.
Using analytics, we can determine which stories in 2021 generated the most website traffic and clicks on our Weekly Review email. In a year when COVID-19 continued to dominate the news nationally, our coverage of the ongoing pandemic drew strong numbers but did not rise to the top.
On RochesterBeacon.com, which logged more than 164,000 users in 2021, the most-read story was “Jingle all the way? Maybe not,” Washington Correspondent Peter Lovenheim’s look at why Brighton’s Council Rock Primary School removed “Jingle Bells” from the school’s repertoire. (Traffic over the last 24 hours pushed it to the top.) No. 2 was Managing Editor Smriti Jacob’s Q&A with Bill Wynne, whose new memoir describes how he became a staunch advocate for racial and social justice. Headlined “The journey of an ‘oblivious’ white man,” this article was part of our ongoing Four Questions series. Rounding out the website’s top three: “Kitty Van Bortel alleges Ford reneged on dealership purchase agreement,” Senior Writer Will Astor’s story on Van Bortel’s court action that claims the automaker broke a promise and allowed the sale of Henderson Ford to a rival dealership “owned and operated by a male.”
Community contributors are very much a part of the Beacon’s editorial mix. In this category, the most-read article on RochesterBeacon.com was “Stop drug testing mothers and babies without consent” by Yubin Oh, who is studying political science and health policy at the University of Rochester. Her piece described how the screening of pregnant women and newborns is a practice that disproportionately targets Blacks.
Website traffic can be driven by external factors such as social media and news aggregator websites and apps. To measure the interests of the Beacon’s most loyal readers, we look at clicks on articles in the Beacon’s Weekly Review email, which is free but requires registration. No. 1, by a considerable margin, was Peter Lovenheim’s “Jingle Bells” piece. Second was “The demise of a village venture,” Will Astor’s story on the bitter court fight that followed the closing of the Inn on Church boutique hotel in Fairport. “Four takeaways from Evans’ primary win” had the third-highest number of email clicks. Written by Beacon intern Jacob Schermerhorn, it described how Malik Evans’ strength citywide and other key factors secured his victory over incumbent Mayor Lovely Warren in the Democratic primary.
Readership data is an important yardstick to measure the impact of individual stories. But journalism can be meaningful in other ways, too. Once again, we asked each of our principal writers to pick the “best” piece they contributed to the Beacon this year. “Best” was not defined; it could be work that was most successful in probing an important subject, drew the biggest response from readers or simply meant the most to the writer.
Will Astor selected “Life threatening costs,” which described how many patients with a potentially fatal illness also fall victim to another scourge: high out-of-pocket costs for needed drugs. The story, he explains, “blended my personal experience and the dysfunctional dynamics of the U.S. health care market, giving life and immediacy to a topic many find yawn-inducing. I was also heartened by emails from a health care professional and the spouse of a cancer patient in other states who had read and appreciated the story as something that rang true with their own experience.”
Senior Editor E. Catherine Salibian picked “Genocide finally called by its name,” another piece that had deep personal roots. “On April 24, President Joe Biden became the first U.S. president to explicitly recognize the Ottoman Turkish genocide of Armenians,” she notes. “At the time, I wrote in Rochester Beacon: ‘The statement matters to me. It contradicts my invisibility, the world’s indifference to my family’s trauma.’ Something else mattered to me too then: Rochester Beacon Managing Editor Smriti Jacob welcomed and edited my article. Executive Editor Paul Ericson read it and wondered if I might have a family photo to include. The Rochester Beacon published my words. All of that too contradicted my invisibility, enabled me to say something I wanted to say about our world today. I am grateful to Rochester Beacon and my dear, devoted colleagues behind it.”
“I’ll go with the Jingle Bells piece,” replied Peter Lovenheim, when asked for his own pick. “My reason: I enjoyed the challenge of researching and writing about an issue which—though in itself a small matter—nevertheless sits at the intersection of our ongoing culture wars. The task was to address the question in a thorough yet balanced way and with a gentle tone, without yielding to the often-harsh rhetoric of either side.” (Another article that meant a lot to Peter: his Memorial Day piece on the Four Chaplains and what their heroism can teach us today.)
Smriti Jacob also struggled to name only one story.
“It is hard for me to pick between my conversations with Mayor-elect Malik Evans (‘Malik Evans on the high road’) and Rev. Lewis Stewart (‘Rev. Lewis Stewart still hears the call’). Both conversations were memorable journeys,” she explains. “Talking with Rev. Stewart felt like peeling back an onion to reveal an individual who is deeply committed to an inclusive and just Rochester. His tough life experiences probably would have deterred many a person, but Rev. Stewart keeps going. His humility and love for all is striking in a world of conflict.”
In his deep look at Amazon’s plan for 3 million square feet of new construction and more than 1,000 jobs in Gates, Opinion Editor Kent Gardner tackled a thorny question summed up in the headline: “Blessing or curse?” He observes: “Online retail became supercharged during COVID with Amazon alone adding nearly half a million jobs. Handwringing about online has led to many breathless reports of the loss of retail jobs, yet canny analysis by Michael Mandel of the Economic Policy Institute finds that total ‘shopping’ jobs went up, not down. Why? Amazon enables the economy to swap the unpaid work of consumers for paid employment, expanding employment in retail.”
Contributing Writer Mike Costanza says he has become “progressively more concerned about the growing number of illegal firearms in the U.S.” and the fact that a number of them end up on the street as crime weapons. “Researching “The scourge of illegal guns” gave me a close look at the roots of the problem, its effects on the Rochester area and local efforts to take illegal guns off local streets.”
Frank De Blase, who covers the music scene for the Beacon, chose his recent piece, “Learning from Teaching Artists,” on the group of independent teaching artists who create and provide arts learning experiences for students of all ages.
“I’ve been here at the Beacon nearly a year now and enjoy the parlance, the language that is championed here, by those who strive to start a conversation. I come from an outsider’s place and to be welcomed into this intellectual fold has been an honor. I get to expound upon music, local and national, its ups and downs, its rights and wrongs, and its bumps and grinds. How cool is that? I look forward to what capers and points of interest we crack open next.”
For Publisher Alex Zapesochny, his piece titled “Attorney General Letitia James owes us an explanation” stood out.
The article, written after no Rochester Police Department officers were indicted in the Daniel Prude case, “delved deep into an issue of major local and national significance,” he says. “It also combined a careful review of the grand jury minutes with what I had learned during my earlier career as a criminal prosecutor.”
From my own work, I’d pick “A journal of the pandemic year,” a piece that ranked nowhere near the top in the readership rankings yet was very meaningful for me. It was posted on March 18, a year to the day since the first coronavirus death in Monroe County was reported—and also exactly one year since I felt the first symptoms of COVID-19 infection.
As the one-year mark approached, I reread the journal I’d started in the pandemic’s earliest days, reflecting on how our understanding of the virus—and what it would mean for our lives—deepened over time. I’d thought I would be done writing in the pandemic journal after two or three months. But as another March 18 approaches, the end still appears to be somewhere off in the distance. Sadly, there will be more COVID stories to write in the new year.
Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor.