I Really Need You to Read This Article, Okay?

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, August 19, 2007

Am I worried about the future of the newspaper industry? No, because as an artist, I find that literature is its own reward. I care only for the pitch, roll and yaw, the warp and the woof -- the yipping and the twittering -- of our beautiful language.

But corporate realities are getting harsh around here, and thus I've decided to blog a lot more about sexual deviancy, inebriated starlets, "American Idol" rejects, unlikely but theoretically possible natural catastrophes and pets in distress. In the future all my blog entries will have headlines such as "Britney Menaced by Sharks." No, wait: "Britney's Dog Menaced by Sharks."

Untrue, but think of the eyeballs!

Newspaper journalism is different these days: Suddenly everyone is obsessed with eyeballs, page views, "stickiness," "click-through rates," and so on. No one shouts "Stop the presses!" anymore, but they do whimper "Why aren't I on the home page?" The noble product that we manufacture and distribute throughout the metropolis -- the physical thing so carefully designed, folded and bagged -- is now generally referred to in our business as the "dead-tree edition." It gets little respect.

And indeed, so often the print version of the news is Old on Arrival. (By the time Karl Rove's resignation made the front page last Tuesday, the only people who didn't already know about it were the ones who didn't care anyway.) The motto in the corner should be What Happened Yesterday or Maybe the Day Before.

Our future is on the Web. This is the mantra in newsrooms. And the Web lets us discover how many readers each article attracts. The data can be scrutinized in real time, moment to moment. Inevitably, this is going to change the way we do business -- excuse me, I mean the way we do journalism.

A dramatic example already exists at the Daily Telegraph in London, where the brand-new newsroom is arrayed like radial spokes, with the Web operation at the center. Everyone can see an electronic board that lists the articles attracting the most eyeballs at that precise moment on the Web. It's like a page-view shrine.

Back in the old days, newspaper journalism was more akin to leafleting from an airplane. "Interactivity" meant that a reporter might occasionally peer out the window and wave to the tiny figures scrambling to collect his magisterial musings. Now readers are actually in the plane. It's not clear who the pilot is. But the cargo door is open and readers are inviting the journalist to take a leap without a parachute.

* * *

The classic slander against people in my profession used to be "You're just trying to sell newspapers." It wasn't true. We were much too pretentious to worry about the crass concerns of the bean counters. The business model for a newspaper seemed secure. Newspapers were cash machines, with profit margins routinely hovering around 25 percent.

More to the point: We wouldn't have known how to sell newspapers even if we'd wanted to. Yeah, the occasional focus group told us that readers wanted shorter stories, but that didn't affect the long, cosmic, Pulitzer-worthy article we planned to finish writing as soon as we submitted our truly heroic expense report. Our literary efforts levitated above the commercial fray; the business side of the operation was somewhere else in the building, a piece of unseen infrastructure, like the plumbing.

No longer.

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