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 WSJ.com. “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.