Apr 8, 2008

Hits-based journalism

in a post this morning about the effect tallying page counts has had on the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Roderick at LA Observed ably summarizes a phenomenon I call hits-based journalism:
It's hard not to notice that the periodic recaps of web performance at LATimes.com don't dwell on writing or reporting quality, impact of the journalism or connecting with Los Angeles. It's all about numbers, seemingly. The eye balls of a teenage boy in Prague looking for tits count the same as a yuppie in Silver Lake or a studio executive looking for real news. And the horny kid in Prague is easier to attract -- just run paparazzi pics, which scored the most page views in the following rundown emailed to the Calendar staff yesterday. Note, though, that the Show Tracker, Web Scout and Dish Rag blogs did pretty good for the week. The worst ratings? For those pesky stories written by actual staff writers.
(Click here to read the rest of the entry)

Hits-based journalism is pervasive and, like a virus, does greater damage the weaker the host. It's a desperate response to two troublesome trends. The first is the distracted way many people tend to consume news online. Whether sneaking peeks between periods of boredom at the office or scanning headlines from the laptop during TV commercials, fewer people set aside time to really digest the breadth and depth of the news happening in their world. The newspaper itself offers an architecture for deeper reflection that the computer screen simply does not.

The second trend has to do with the well-chronicled slump in paid circulation and the free nature of the Internet. Newspapers really have only a single source of new revenue growth available to them as they look to stanch the bleeding: online ads. These ads pay more the more times readers click on a page, a fact that does little to encourage long, contemplative pieces.

As the hits-based model takes hold, it becomes addictive, and the degradation it causes is compounded by the strict budget-based editorial policies adopted by many smaller papers - and many bigger ones.

The allure is obvious. There's nothing quite like having a real-time record of how many people looked at a particular story, or page, and for how long. No matter how imperfect the measure, it's good information to have. What makes it so destructive, as bearish newspaper owners chart an unclear course into The Grim Future, is that ethics and standards quickly become secondary to the need to increase eyeball counts.

It takes good journalists with judgment and experience to stand as a bulwark against our worst instincts. After all, if we're merely interested in getting people to click on our site, why not post porn? If we say we'll never go to that kinky extreme, then where do we draw the line? Indeed, how do we square a metric that measures popularity with a mission to challenge popular notions?

Which standards are foundational to good journalism? Which ones can be compromised? Which measure will we use to determine success other than web hits, blog links and comments?

The more important question may be: How will hit-count lust shape our newsrooms? Assuming raises or bonuses are still part of our business model, how do we dole them out? Does the popular prep sports reporter deserve more money, and more job security, than a reporter covering City Hall? Who gets fired first: a good investigative reporter who has no capacity to blog, or a mediocre reporter who's jazzed about blogging and loves to take his own photos? Does getting attention trump getting the story? What are the boundaries for opinion, columnizing and self-promotion in online content? Should a publication offer a blanket of credibility to outside bloggers and writers by linking to their stories without first checking the reliability of their sources? Will hit counts become the new byline count?

The questions are many. I suspect the papers that will survive the Internet Apocalypse will take a break from counting and try to find the best answers.

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