How readers consume their news online is changing journalism, but it's not just about the clicks

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 2010

I can no longer file a story in our computer system without filling out a box, a small gray square that may well determine the future of serious journalism.

The box is supposed to contain words and phrases that will help me reel you in. Search has become a journalistic obsession on the Web, and with good reason. Most people don't read publications online, patiently turning from national news to Metro to Style to the sports section. They hunt for subjects, and people, in which they're interested.

Our mission -- and we have no choice but to accept it -- is to grab some of that traffic that could otherwise end up at hundreds of other places, even blogs riffing off the reporting that your own publication has done. If you appease the Google gods with the right keywords, you are blessed with more readers. So carried to a hypothetical extreme, an ideal headline would be, "Sarah Palin rips non-Muslim Obama over mosque while Lady Gaga remains silent."

Every newsroom in the country grapples with these questions, and The Washington Post is no exception.

"There's news we know people should read -- because it's important and originates with our reporting -- and that's our primary function," says Katharine Zaleski, The Post's executive producer and head of digital news products. "But we also have to be very aware of what people are searching for out there and want more information on. . . . If we're not doing that, we're not doing our jobs."

In a recent interview, Politico Editor-in-Chief John Harris said he tries to serve the site's "core audience" rather than "chasing a huge number. . . . I'm not expecting a reporter who covers an essential policy subject or covers lobbying in Washington to be among our huge traffic drivers."

David Carr observed in his New York Times column that headlines, once clever or catchy, are now, in online form, "just there to get the search engines to notice. . . . The need to attract attention from computer-generated algorithms sometimes makes the headlines seem like a machine thought them up."

But the dilemma goes well beyond headlines to what content to post on your site, and people like me are hardly exempt. If I write about Radar revealing Mel Gibson's abusive calls to his girlfriend, or the coverage of Tiger Woods's multiple mistresses, my traffic will undoubtedly soar above that for a sober report on how nonprofit groups are pursuing investigative reporting. Like most of my colleagues, I try not to let that affect my judgment, but it hangs in the ether.

Newspapers, of course, have always chased circulation, dating back to the days when editors used racy headlines or sensational crimes to goose street sales. The tabloids still play this game.

But now, for the first time in history, newspapers no longer have to rely on polls and focus groups -- or crude guesswork -- to determine their most popular offerings. Instead, editors know instantly how many hits a story, column or blog is getting -- and can adjust their strategy accordingly. What's hot may get bigger display; what's not may shrink or be kicked off the home page (which makes a statement, even if most readers don't come in through that front door).

"When people worry about whether we're straying from our mission," says Marcus Brauchli, The Post's executive editor, "what they're worried about is are we overemphasizing a photo gallery about a celebrity in hopes of generating traffic. Are we impairing our ability to do good journalism in the areas that matter most to us? And the answer to that is no."

While The Post is a general-interest paper, its mandate is covering Washington "as a place for people who live here and work here" and as "a seat of power," Brauchli says. Of course, he says, the goal is "connecting our journalism to the greatest number of eyeballs possible. There's a great deal of skepticism among old-school journalists about these practices."

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