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.
"There is some tendency, if not an outright mandate, to search for eyeballs," says Bob Steele, who teaches journalistic ethics at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla. "Part of it is that the technology now gives barometric pressure on this. We can learn what people are clicking on and how often they're doing it." Combine that with the industry's economic turbulence, and "you do have a recipe for the chasing of eyeballs to the detriment of coverage of substantive issues."
Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz says that the ability to track page views moment to moment "is a formula for pandering and mud wrestling." He asks: "What if it turns out that most readers are sick of Iraq, or don't want any foreign news at all? Do you just toss it out? That's not journalism, it's marketing."
Marketing, however, may increasingly become part of the journalistic mix (along with reporting, writing, doing an online chat, podcasting, filming a video diary, answering e-mails, blogging, etc.) Reporters long immune from circulation concerns are now encouraged to identify bloggers who might link to their work.
The most important Web site for mainstream news outlets is the Drudge Report, once mocked and derided as a tabloid operation with low journalistic standards. But Drudge, which has millions of readers, is the No. 1 source of readers coming "horizontally," via links, into newspaper Web sites. Mackenzie Warren, who runs the online edition of the Fort Myers News-Press in Florida, told the Los Angeles Times that he would use a fake e-mail address to lobby Matt Drudge and his associates to include a link to stories on the News-Press Web site. "I'd say, 'Great story down there in Florida.' Then I'd throw in some incendiary adjective, and next thing you know our story would be at the top of his site and our traffic would be on fire," he said.
* * *
There's a favorite saying in the news biz: "Nothin' but readers." Meaning: That's a story that readers are going to devour. A water-cooler story. We used to discern such articles through gut instinct. The best editors had a "golden gut" for news.
Now a writer or editor at a Web site can find out page views in an instant, or see the running tally on the most-e-mailed list or the most-viewed list. If you're a blogger, you have multiple online options for checking how your blog ranks in page views or incoming links. It's like an author checking his or her Amazon.com ranking: a form of instant gratification, or instant disappointment. (An hour ago you were pretty popular, but what about right now?)
There's one hitch in all this: The numbers are squishy. The page-view metric is easily gamed. You may notice that many stories online "jump" to a second page (or third, or fourth, or 25th, etc.) for no obvious reason. That's just an attempt to up the page-view stats. And a page that automatically "refreshes" will have more page views even if it's minimized at the bottom of your computer screen.
Says Jack Shafer, the media critic at Slate, "If you pause for a couple of weeks and re-ask the question, someone will tell you that the metric that everyone is using is completely irrelevant, and that some other metric is the true metric."
Here's a metric I think we ought to keep in the mix: Gut instinct. A reporter's own sense of a good story. That means being willing to ignore the latest page views and use your professional judgment to produce great journalism.
One more thing: Good writing remains good writing regardless of platform. The Web tends to be a chattier place, more off-the-cuff, but it is still a place where readers appreciate a well-crafted sentence, a nuanced thought, a fully elucidated thesis and commentary undergirded by fact, honesty and a generosity of spirit.
And the readers who don't like that stuff? A buncha jerks.
* * *
The print version of an article may eventually be considered just a prelude to the more complete, annotated story that runs online with a complement of raw documents, outtakes, reactions, contrarian views, reader comments and, needless to say, videos. Web sites are more and more like broadcast outlets. (Film at 11!) The more significant question is whether subject matter and tone will change as we attempt to get eyeballs ("drive traffic" is the operative phrase). It's interesting that so many news organizations recently had stories about the wives of presidential candidates, such as smokin'-hot Jeri Thompson, wife of Fred (who, okay, isn't a candidate yet). At what point does it start to feel like something you'd see on "Nancy Grace"?
Readers do have good judgment. The most-read stories online are often what we'd all agree are the best pieces of journalism. But page views can also lead journalists away from what we do best. For example, look at the most-viewed list on any Web site: Opinion dominates. But opinions are worthless without facts to support them. You know the saying: Opinions are like ax handles, everyone's got one. (Substitute something else for ax handles.)
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, predicts that opinion columnists will have to be more "pungent" to compete in the shrill environment of the Web. But that could also backfire. For one thing, shrill and pungent can become tedious. Outrageousness ad nauseam is boring. And forget my Britney/shark headline. My strong hunch is that most readers -- even those crazy Internet people! -- will gravitate to news sources that provide solid reporting and analysis. Get it right and be fair -- these principles are good ones regardless of the platform.
Here's a proposition: News outlets will never get anywhere if they're obsessed with chasing readers. They can, however, collaborate with them. And therein lies a hopeful future for the business.
Citizen journalism, commentary, rants, recipes, travelogues. Readers can produce all this stuff for a newspaper Web site. The professional journalist can be an instigator of a micro-community of readers, but the readers themselves really run the show. And by the way, they do it all for free.
Some of you may disagree with the preceding. I invite you to post a reaction on my blog. And, um, if you don't mind, please "refresh" the page frenetically.
Joel Achenbach is a Washington Post staff writer and blogs at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.