Almost every newspaper site has "most viewed" widget on its front page. The list is mostly a passive tool - reporters and editors can throw a few search engine-friendly words into a headline or lede to try to generate buzz, but I doubt this is very common on the news side. Instead, readers largely drive the list and, once a story makes the ranks, its popularity becomes almost self-fulfilling: readers see Story A is the eighth most viewed, so they get curious and click on it, and suddenly it's the fifth most viewed. And up the chain it goes.
Which makes me think that newsrooms need a more robust plan to drive the stories out onto the Internet that they deem most newsworthy (not necessarily most click-worthy), using the same care and judgment they apply to building the front page of the printed edition.
Editors need to take the lead (and some surely are). They need to be the ones using the Twitters and Facebooks and blogs to push the front page out. Don't leave it to reporters to promote their own work (which is generally a bad idea anyway) on personal Twitter accounts; don't wait for bloggers, aggregators or algorithms to find the stories; and don't let the popular become the enemy of the good.
Promote the paper's editorial judgment and, in doing so, promote the things that separate newspapers from other media: traditions of accuracy, institutional memory, standards, ethics, beats, etc.. Flaunt it. If you have an A1 blowout on a corruption scandal that's not riding the "most viewed" tide, then advocate for it on the social networks and blogs (and to producers like me) with the same intensity used to get it onto A1 in the first place.
Don't wait to find out what readers think is news. Show them. And, in doing so, build an active relationship with the audience, rebuild a sense of mission in the newsroom, and show readers why being a witness to events is different from reporting on them.
In the past, the printed front page stood as a newspaper's collective assertion of editorial judgment. Story placement, photos, headlines... these were the visual and written record of what the newspaper could do, and how well it did it. Now the front page has fragmented and spread. The rigid architecture is gone and an organic one has taken its place.
Reporters are now being asked to write more frequently, more briefly and on shorter deadlines. Copy editors are being asked to work faster and more efficiently to get copy online. Editors - their ranks thinned, their influence diluted, their resources strapped - have tried to keep the paper's bearings. Now editors must actively and collectively assert their judgment to create front pages that unfold onto a complex, multidimensional online environment.