On Sunday, the Rochester Beacon completed its fifth full calendar year of publication, and measured by our most-important metric—readership—2023 was our best year so far. Over the 12-month period, RochesterBeacon.com drew more than 265,000 users, up nearly 10 percent compared with the year before. We also saw a double-digit increase in pageviews.
Using analytics, we’ve identified which articles in 2023 generated the most website traffic and clicks on our Weekly Review email. Once again, the most-read stories of the year reflected the diverse interests of our readership.
On our website, the most-read story—by a wide margin—was “UR physicist faces growing list of accusations,” Senior Writer Will Astor’s report on the accusations of falsifying results and plagiarism lodged against University of Rochester physicist and researcher Ranga Dias. Will scored a hat trick in 2023: He also wrote the No. 2 story, “The divide at Rochester General,” one of several articles from him on the unionization effort by nurses at the hospital, and his piece on Rochester Police Department divisions over reorganization plans rounded out the top three.
Community contributors once again played an important role in 2023. The most-read contributed article on RochesterBeacon.com was “The public power defeat in Maine is a lesson,” an opinion piece by Trish Nilsen, president and CEO of Rochester Gas and Electric and NYSEG. Her article, arguing against a public takeover of RG&E, sparked a number of reader comments—many sharply critical of her piece. (As we note at the end of each article posted, the Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.)
Another key metric for us is clicks on articles in the Beacon’s Weekly Review email. Unlike website pageviews, which can be impacted by social media and news aggregator websites and apps, the email gives us a clearer picture of interest among the Beacon’s readership base. (If you haven’t done so already, you can sign up here to receive the free Weekly Review.) No. 1 this year was “A question of money,” an article co-authored by Will Astor and Contributing Writer Jacob Schermerhorn about the nearly $100,000 from a single super PAC with downstate roots poured into a town board primary race in Brighton. No. 2 was another dual-byline article, “A new locus of debate at UR,” written by Jacob and Alexandra Lajo Leonardi, a student at the University of Rochester. Their piece looked at the controversial plans for two religious sites on the UR campus. Third was another piece from Will—“At the D&C, the numbers tell the story” —on how dramatic declines in circulation and newsroom staff, along with financial woes at parent company Gannett, have taken a toll on Rochester’s daily newspaper.
We track readership data, but we don’t focus on it obsessively. Clicks alone don’t reveal all the ways a story can be meaningful. So, each year we ask our principal writers to select the “best” piece they contributed to the Beacon over the last 12 months. We don’t define “best”; it might be work that successfully tackled an important or knotty subject, or maybe it just meant the most to the writer.
Will Astor’s pick illustrates this well. He did not select one of his stories that ranked at the top of the “most-read” lists. Rather, he chose “A Rochester business rich in history,” a profile of Kip Palmer, the fifth-generation CEO of Palmer Food Services. He selected this story “because of the reader response, the chance it gave me to revisit my own teenage years and the somewhat rare opportunity to do a clearly positive story.”
Managing Editor Smriti Jacob chose to highlight some collaborative efforts. She explains: “I wrote a few articles with our young writers. It is easier and more natural to report and write on your own, but last year showed me it’s just as gratifying to work on an in-depth story with a teammate. I worked with Evan Coleman on a story about the future of College Town, Jess Williams on Erica Fee and the Fringe Fest, and Jacob Schermerhorn on guaranteed basic income in Rochester. I’m a staunch advocate for the next generation of journalists and writing with them was a joy.”
Washington Correspondent Peter Lovenheim selected “Teaching children antiracism at the Museum & Science Center.” He was tipped off to this story by “Brighton parents who told me they would keep their children home from school rather than have them attend—as all Brighton fifth graders were required to do—what they feared would be an ideologically-biased program at the Rochester Museum and Science Center. In response, I attended the full-day program and wrote a 6,000-word description of what had by then been presented to more than 1,000 area school children. Follow-up research showed that essential pieces of the program failed to meet the Science Center’s own stated mission to provide ‘accuracy in our educational programs.’”
Opinion Editor Kent Gardner picked “Pot of gold or tin cup? Economics of cannabis legalization.” He notes that “it took the Legislature 70,000 words to design an awkward new industry that attempted to satisfy the needs and desires of vastly disparate constituents and was laden with a controversial set of preferences and regulations. Two years after the law was signed only 23 retailers had been granted retail licenses in a state with 20 million residents. The arbitrary assignment of preferences prompted a lawsuit by disabled veterans, a group that deemed itself eligible for the preferred status awarded to ‘justice involved’ applicants (although a settlement was approved by the Cannabis Control Board a few weeks ago). Unsurprisingly, the illegal pot trade has continued and a new ‘shadow’ industry, such as an estimated 1,500 illegal storefronts, has emerged. The Legislature’s attempt at social and economic engineering is likely to achieve few of the vaunted goals set for the law.”
For Publisher Alex Zapesochny, “A march for Jews now and long ago,” stood out. “The attacks of October 7th and their aftermath—including rising antisemitism in the U.S.—continue to be one of the most impactful news stories of the year. The March for Israel was a moment of hope in response to some of those horrific developments, and writing this story also gave me a chance to compare the experience to another march from long ago that helped shape me.”
Jacob Schermerhorn picked “A detailed vision for downtown.” Here’s why: “That story combines what I love to do most: combine data analysis from multiple sources with ‘hit the street’ level reporting. Using the geographical boundaries outlined by the Business Improvement District draft plan, I was able to filter down tax parcel data from government records in the area. This let me look up the most common building types, owners of the affected properties, and estimate the potential BID levies. A map I created from that data is included in the story and viewable for any reader.
“I was also able to speak with a wide variety of stakeholders for this story,” he continues. “This included lead property developers, small business owners, government officials, local activists and more from the community. Their voices showed the breadth of reactions to this proposal. When it came to local reporting on this topic, the Beacon was the only news source to have such a detailed breakdown of the plan. I think that analysis was an important way to clarify how a BID might affect an important area of the region.”
Contributing Writer Mike Costanza chose “What’s Next for the Inner Loop North,” saying that as a nearly-lifelong city kid, I enjoyed researching and writing about the history of Rochester’s Inner Loop Highway and the benefits that its final demise could bring for the city.”
“I’m going to go with my story on the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s centennial,” notes Contributing Writer Evan Coleman. When he started to work on “The RPO’s new century,” he “shared the belief of many others that the RPO, like other arts organizations across the country, must still be struggling since the pandemic. What I learned was quite the opposite; the RPO was bouncing back going into this season. This story showed that cultivating the arts is a two-way street between the organization and the community, and it was refreshing to hear not only how the RPO has adapted to become a force for good, but how the community has received these changes.”
For my own pick, two articles stood out: “Clean energy crunch,” a piece I wrote with Smriti Jacob, on a trio of highly touted “green tech” companies now facing serious financial difficulties; and “‘We had people die that didn’t have to die,’” based on a lengthy interview with Commissioner of Public Health Michael Mendoza M.D., about what we’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. I’d give the edge to the Mendoza piece because, as he noted candidly, it’s not clear we’ve truly absorbed the lessons that will enable us to save many lives the next time a pandemic strikes.
On behalf of all of us, let me say many thanks for reading the Beacon in 2023. And please don’t hesitate to suggest stories we might pursue in the coming year.
Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].