Hey, check this out!

The Project for Excellence in Journalism just released a nice summary of the content on user-driven news sites Reddit, Digg and Del.icio.us, but I think the authors of the report missed the point.

The report found little or no overlap between the stories that were pushed to the top of the page on the user-driven sites and the top news stories chosen on those days by mainstream media. The authors concluded — wrongly, I think — that the news agenda is different for the user sites than it is in the mainstream media.

Here’s an excerpt from the overview:

In a week when the mainstream press was focused on Iraq and the debate over immigration, the three leading user-news sites — Reddit, Digg and Del.icio.us — were more focused on stories like the release of Apple’s new iphone and that Nintendo had surpassed Sony in net worth, according to the study. …

  • The news agenda of the three user-sites that week was markedly different from that of the mainstream press. Many of the stories users selected did not appear anywhere among the top stories in the mainstream media coverage studied. And there was often little in the way of follow-up. Most stories on the user-news sites appeared only once, never to be repeated again in the week we studied.

What’s wrong here? I think the authors aren’t thinking about the bigger context and how people behave. We know from the pageviews that Iraq is genuinely big news and people pound the Web for news stories about it.

But don’t confuse important with interesting or odd or useful.

I won’t go to the effort of Digging or emailing a big or widely distributed news story. That’s because I assume people already know about the story, and what is more uncool than proving in public that you have a firm grasp on the obvious?

The odd, unusual, or personally relevant piece, now there’s something I’m likely to pass along, or to Digg.

Those of us who ran news Websites loved comparing the headlines of the “most popular” stories on the site to the headlines of the “most emailed” stories on the site. On most days, those are two very different lists.

That’s also why I keep a Digg feed in my Netvibes start page; not because that’s where I get all of my news, but because that’s where I can count on getting something that I won’t find anywhere else. If I were running a news Website today, I’d offer readers an RSS feed of the “most emailed stories” list, and I bet it would sell.

It’s not that Web news consumers have a different news agenda than mainstream media, it’s that we have a wide variety of interests and we fit into multiple niches. The user-driven Web sites make it easier for people to highlight something that isn’t already well-known, and they make it easier for the insatiable me to graze over more corners of the news buffet.

It’s sort of like leafing through the inside pages of the dead tree edition and serendipitously finding something that made you say, “Hey, check this out!”