Whether or not Ty MacDowell made an impact on women’s rights by taking off her shirt is now laid bare to public debate. But one question has been answered clearly, loudly and indisputably.

Our potential audience for the Web sites of our newspapers in Maine is virtually limitless.

More than 899,000 visitors went to the Web to read or take a peek at last Sunday’s “Women march topless in Portland ” story and photos. The number was still climbing at week’s end.

Nearly 1 million visitors to the Web sites of The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel — all of which posted the story.

We spend a lot of time, money, and newsprint on weighty matters of public policy, government coverage and human interest stories, to say nothing of those that promote causes such as helping the less fortunate and nonprofits among us.

I mean, listen, we are doing the work of serious journalism here. We are giving readers valuable information that they need. We have a higher calling. And now this?

Right there, staring us in the face, is the naked truth — the truth about the tastes of our readers. We are obliged to keep abreast of these trends.

Men — mostly men, I’d guess — looking at photographs of naked women is not a trend. It’s a fact of life. It’s the single fact about “news” that Hugh Hefner embraced head-on decades ago with Playboy magazine. Skin sells.

In our case, the public has shown us they wanted to read about nude or half-nude women. Prose, not a pose, was the only real option we offered.

The photos we ran by The Portland Press Herald staff photographer Gordon Chibroski were all shot from behind the part-naked parade. If Chibroski had changed the angle of his vantage point, we probably would have racked up 2 million Web hits!

So now that we have the firm data about what our readers really want, what are we going to do next? Aside from trying to predict where and when Ms. MacDowell might stage another nude protest — and if she does, we’ll be there to shine the headlights of public attention on the event — we will use the Web site traffic information to show how many potential viewers an advertiser might reach through our sites.

We do not see this as a boom-or-bust proposition. We will shed the traditions of print journalism and march unfettered into the world of giving the public what it wants. That is, if we can find it. Our Web sites have an infinite audience — which is the magic and allure of the Internet. It does not match the mystery of the unclothed body, but we will do the best we can.

Many of us remember the exact day of historic milestones. This incident reminded me of a day I remember with crystal clarity, even though it was neither a milestone nor historic.

Home for lunch from sixth grade at Mary S. Snow Elementary School in Bangor, I saw my mother drop a magazine on the dining room table as she unloaded shopping bags.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Going to New York with Edythe to see some plays and I want to read about them before we arrive,” she said, hurrying upstairs. Edythe Dyer of Hampden was mother’s best friend and traveling companion.

Alone, eating my lunch, I decided to read about the plays. Opening the magazine, I immediately knew I loved theater.

Page after page had photographs of naked women. It struck me as odd that mother was going to New York to see them in the flesh — but what did I know about Broadway, other than there were two streets by that name in Bangor, one just plain Broadway and the other West Broadway?

Soon, mother was back in the room and looking over my shoulder. In an instant, that was that. The magazine was snatched from my hands, gone, and mother was muttering, “Well, I can’t imagine. I mean I thought Playboy covered theater.”

My daily lunches at home during the school year were never quite the same after that one.

Man’s curiosity about unclothed women has been consistent through the ages. I guess it all started with Eve, even though we’ve been told that entire hubbub was all about fruit, an apple.

That’s why it shocked many Web site visitors to learn that Ms. MacDowell was outraged to find male spectators lining Congress Street to ogle and even take photographs of the 12 marchers. Ms. MacDowell and her group were marching shirtless, in a double-pronged approach (men walked shirtless, too) to protest a double standard. Why, they were asking, is it taboo for women to take off their shirts in public while men can do it any time they see fit?

Many of us learned that Maine law allows toplessness but prohibits exposing the genitals. True civil disobedience, I suppose, would demand that a serious protester should challenge the law by walking down Congress au naturel. Doing it in the dead of winter would add an even more serious mien to the protest.

Reporter Ed Murphy drew the difficult Saturday assignment of covering the protest about uncovering.

“MacDowell said she was surprised by the turnout of those interested less in challenging societal convention than in seeing partially undressed women,” he reported.

“I’m amazed,” she said, and “enraged (at) the fact that there’s a wall of men watching.”

Brick-by-Web-visit-brick, that wall has now encircled our city in the online world. It’s a wall that could reach new heights. Ms. MacDowell says she is considering more topless protests, though perhaps not so top-heavy on societal issues. Happier events, although it should be noted that photos of the gawkers show them mostly all smiles.

“We’ll have a topless adventure,” she said. “Go fly a kite or something.”

Here’s a glimpse of a Portland sunny day. The prospect of this might draw as many persons to the city as those who have visited our Web site. There we’ll be: sitting on a beach or riding a bike on a clear summer’s day. In the distance, we’ll see the skies filled with kites and we’ll follow them to their origin.

When we find those flying the kites we will see fields of half-naked women running, laughing, kites bobbing up and down.

And we’ll avert our gaze from the women and follow the happy flight of the kites.

Sure we will.

Richard L. Connor is CEO of MaineToday Media, owner of The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal and Waterville Sentinel daily newspapers, the weekly Coastal Journal in Bath and their respective Web sites. A newspaperman for 40 years, he has served on two Pulitzer Prize for Journalism nominating committees. He can be reached at:

rconnor@pressherald.com