It’s no secret that the newspaper business is in trouble. Subscriptions are down, advertising is down, and in recent months local papers such as The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News have offered buyout packages in order to trim staff.

In the meantime, newspapers are working hard to beef up their Web sites and (hopefully) expand their businesses to take advantage of the growing world of online news. To that end, The Greeley Tribune has introduced a new program to tap into the power of the Internet: They are asking readers to tell them what they want to read about:

Help the Tribune reflect your interests. Each weekday from noon to 5 p.m., Tribune editors will list the top stories being considered for tomorrow’s front page. You tell us which ones should make the cut.

One poll focuses on our local stories. The second poll highlights the top national and international stories of the day. Vote for one on each poll. Use the comment feature to elaborate, to lobby fellow readers or to discuss the news. If a story on your mind is not on our list, please tell us about it.

If you want to personally discuss any story, please call our city desk at 970-392-4435. Thank you for your investment in your hometown newspaper.

This is an interesting strategy and one that I think is generally a good idea, so long as it doesn’t backfire. By asking readers to pick what they want to read on the front page, the Tribune is helping to generate more interest in their paper while also, as the last line above says, getting readers to feel “invested” in their local paper.

The downside here is potentially problematic, however. People get a sense of what is important by where it is placed among the news options in front of them; you assume the story on the front page is important because it is on the front page. By using a poll to ask readers to decide what should be on the front page, the Tribune could end up with a situation where an organized online effort is launched to put a story on the front page about something that really might not be that important.

For example, one of the options in the poll today is about Rep. Marilyn Musgrave leading a discussion on the No Child Left Behind Act. A bunch of Musgrave supporters could start an effort to get a lot of people to vote for this story as the most “front page worthy” of the day, even though it may not be as “newsworthy” as the other options (including a story on the sale of the Swift meatpacking company, which is certainly more of a hard news story than Musgrave moderating a discussion).

The Internet has been the tail that wagged the dog of news outlets for a few years now, but rarely have mainstream news outlets been so willing to embrace the idea. Kudos to the Tribune for trying something new to reach out to readers online. I just hope it doesn’t cause more harm than good.