I think Matt Yglesias is too optimistic about a world in which news organization chase page counts for every story. “[T]he thing that I think journalists sometimes forget is that the point of writing on worthy topics is presumably to get people to read stories on worthy topics,” he writes. But that’s really not the only reason to write stories on worthy topics. Sometimes you write stories where the point is to get the right people to read them -- regulators, Hill staffers, bureaucrats -- and take action.
Stories about payment fraud in Medicare will never dominate “most popular” lists. But so long as they’re in a publication that regulators and hospitals fear, they can have an impact -- even if the vast majority of the paper’s readers never notice them. The fact that those readers could notice them is enough to prod the relevant parties into acting. That’s one of the benevolent inefficiencies in the traditional newspaper model: the popular stories subsidize the unpopular ones, not just in terms of attracting advertising but also in terms of giving the paper enough clout to make its stories matter. The world Matt is describing is one in which the press writes interesting stories but abandons its watchdog role, as that role has relied on being willing to publish on problems and abuses that most of its readers aren’t interested in but that a small subset of its readers could actually do something about.