Sep 10, 2010

Don't sip from the lamestream, media

For responsible journalists, figuring out how and what extent to cover publicity-stuntman Pastor Terry Jones is a complicated task.

Less difficult is pointing out the shamelessness of some media in their attempt to ride the publicity wave Jones and his Quran-burning aspirations have created. For instance, staffers at ABC News wanted to fly Jones to New York City and film the journey. The dumb idea wasn't killed by journalists at the station, but by company executives, Yahoo's Michael Calderone reports.

Calderone also reports that over at MSNBC, the "Morning Joe" crew decided to simultaneously milk the Jones publicity machine and make themselves look above it all at the same time. The show had Jones appear as a guest, but didn't let him speak, instead choosing to have soon-to-be-former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham sermonize to the pastor about New Testament values.

This kind of nonsense becomes irresistible when you live or die by ratings. Which is why a New York Times article about how newspapers are now admitting that they pay a lot of attention to page hits should be worrying.

Proponents of a digital revolution in the news business will generally applaud the paper dinosaurs for finally listening to what readers want, rather than substituting their stodgy editorial judgments for a potentially vibrant democratic discussion.

Newspapers can do a lot of things better if they have a deeper conservation with readers (and with non-readers). But measuring page views and responding to that isn't the way to do it. Indeed, page clicks is the single most dominant measure of success online and it invites the most abuse.

Here's how the Wall Street Journal uses hits to reorder its news site:
At The Journal, editors use traffic data to inform decisions on how articles should be presented on “We look at the data, and if things are getting a lot of hits, they’ll get better play and longer play on the home page,” said Mr. Murray. Conversely, articles getting low audiences will be moved down more quickly if there is no compelling news reason to keep them prominent.
Predictably, the Journal's editors immediately cite an exception to the rule, saying they've investigated or reported on some issue they knew wouldn't be very popular. But exceptions are merely rationalizations for what is actually happening. And when Bill Keller, editor of the New York Times, says his paper uses page views only to determine how articles are presented online, not to direct coverage, he is being similarly disingenuous. Does anyone really think a newspaper is going to invest as much time and resources into topics that it knows won't ever get strong play on the web site? And isn't how a paper presents itself, whether in print or online, one of the key ways it communicates its editorial judgment to readers? (The answer is yes.)

Popularity is, as everyone who has ever heard of Justin Bieber knows, not synonymous with quality. What news organizations can do to protect quality is to develop more effective and nuanced ways to measure success and guide presentation. This doesn't mean they shut readers out. Newspapers should not refuse to adapt to useful feedback from the public. But to protect editorial judgment, they absolutely develop metrics that bake in editorial judgments and organizational mission. Ratings/hit-counts are passive; they will inevitably cause newspapers to substitute audience judgment for their own editorial judgment. Newspapers need a more sophisticated and active approach; they should be hiring people who know how to create the metrics that will make them better, not just more profitable.

Otherwise, they might as well book a flight with Pastor Terry Jones right now.


Anonymous said...

You're half right, Gary. But it's not a zero sum game as you make it out to be.

Media outlets can make both sound journalistic decisions and be guided in online presentation by metrics.

To ignore objective data showing what your readers want is nothing short of foolish.

That said, you can be as high minded about this as you like, but the days of hometown newspapers forcing their news judgment on readers is over.

People have choices now. If you're not providing them the kind of coverage you want, they'll go elsewhere.

Gary Scott said...

I don't understand where your point disagrees with mine. I never said papers should ignore objective data, I said that they should add other metrics that do a better job of measuring whether they're succeeding so they don't rely only on hit counts.

Anonymous said...

Your summary paragraph presupposes some difficult concepts. "This doesn't mean they shut readers out. Newspapers should not refuse to adapt to useful feedback from the public. But to protect editorial judgment, they absolutely develop metrics that bake in editorial judgments and organizational mission." Translated, this means that newspapers should listen, but just as importantly they should try to tell readers "how it is". This "editorial judgement" is interpreted by many as arrogant and elitist. The mob doesn't know what's best, they need someone to tell them, to give them "quality". This reaction is why media is becoming increasingly more niche and segregated. It worries me because there is not much true dialog anymore, but I think your approach is perhaps a bit naive.

Gary Scott said...

I don't know if my approach is naive - perhaps you just don't think it will work.

The fact is, news orgs will look at page counts and make decisions based on raw numbers. It's human nature to embrace the popular, and then there are the profit concerns that demand sites pass ads in front of as many eyeballs as possible.

My argument is that news orgs develop standards that they can measure that push back against the rush to push the most popular stuff out front. And I'd argue that this also protects the conversation that people say they want to have with news orgs, because if everyone is counted as a number, then no one is going to be listened to. High ratings don't encourage television/cable news stations to do better work because they're "hearing" from the people. It encourages them to water things down, or go blandly partisan, to boost numbers.

Thus, better metrics would work to protect editorial judgment and encourage deeper engagement with a public that wants to be informed.

Anonymous said...

I have found that the marketplace dictates what is working and what consumers want. It may be simplistic and there may be ways to understand and help. How are newspapers doing versus their online competition? I'd say poorly.

Anonymous said...


You're argument is pretty bizarre. Don't put the popular stuff out front? You're actually advocating that newspapers suppress the stories they know their readers want to read, and force stories on readers that they know will be ignored?

I can't think of any mindset that would bring a newspaper to its grave faster than that.

Besides, the notion that newspapers can avoid "putting the most popular stuff out front" is confusing. What do you mean by that? Placement on the home page? Because that's probably not as relevant as you propose.

I'd submit that newspapers are receiving the bulk of their traffic via search engines and links, and placing a story "our front" has only a marginal effect on how frequently it is read or upon how its significance is perceived by readers.

Anonymous said...

I know for a fact that a recent story, "Man ejaculates in co-worker's water," (ugh), got the most hits in a recent week. Does that mean that newspapers should become the Enquirer just to satisfy their readers" baser tastes? I sure hope not, but maybe that's naive.

Anonymous said...

Another dumb rant from somebody who has been out of the game for too long. How does radio work Gary? Don't ratings govern whether or not a show succeeds?
Oh wait you work for Warren Olney. Ratings mean nothing when you are government funded.

Gary Scott said...

Anon 8:24 a.m.: I never said popularity doesn't matter. Obviously papers and their websites want and need readers, and measuring the relative popularity of stories and coverage areas is inevitable. What I'm saying is that rather than ignore hit counts, which is impossible anyway, news organizations should not rely solely on them. That means developing metrics to measure editorial goals - what those goals are will help define what the news organization becomes and guide what readers will come to expect.

Gary Scott said...

Not-so-Anon 8:51 a.m.: Of course ratings are important in radio, public radio included. Shows that don't get good ratings don't survive.

At the same time, there are obvious differences between what a show like "To The Point" does and what newspapers do.

We aren't as comprehensive. We are more like a section or page. We don't oblige ourselves to provide ongoing coverage of city halls, for instance, and so don't have to weigh that expense against when we see that crime or sports gets more page views.

Also, because our formats are different, we don't see audience counts for individual program segments and so don't have pressure to cover one issue more so or less so based on raw data.

We do have different pressures in public radio. The vast majority of our funding comes from individual donations (not government funding), so we have to appeal directly to the audience to survive. That creates potential conflicts: Do we broadcast to as broad an audience as possible, or cover things that of interest to communities that donate the most money? How does the station allocate resources if it finds that the shows that are the most popular and bring in the most money aren't news programs?

All media have to make these kinds of decisions. But the main point of my "dumb rant" is that news websites have a unique and mounting pressure because the Internet let's them measure "popularity" in such immediate and granular ways.

Anonymous said...

As a reader of online newspapers, I find the "Most Viewed" and "Most e-mailed" boxes the most valuable spot on the sites.

I trust crowdsourcing to alert me to the best/most interesting stories on a news site much more than I trust the judgment of a bunch of aging newspaper editors.

Gary Scott said...

Anon 9:52 a.m.:

You seem to trust the judgment of editors (all of whom are aging, but not all of whom are old) to a point, given that you read what they and their reporters produce. I see nothing wrong with focusing on stories that other readers deem important or interesting, but someone still has to write/produce them. My suggestion for more subtle metrics is not meant to prevent people from crowd-aggregation, it's meant to ensure editorial judgment absorbs the wisdom of the crowd without becoming beholden to it. I should add that I have no objection to news sites doing whatever they want, but I think it is important to preserve certain things that general interest newspapers do that will disappear if we all go niche or ratings-based.