This post has been updated and corrected.
In October, more people in the U.S. visited The Washington Post (66.9 million) than visited the New York Times (65.8 million).
It was (and is) seen as a big deal in the world of journalism since the Post has long been the Times' little brother in terms of journalistic reach and Web traffic. The Post touted its accomplishment by declaring itself "America's new publication of record" and giving away free three-month digital subscriptions. The Times offered little formal response but the take from its reporters amounted to a collective eyeroll — tied to a belief that The Post's traffic successes were (and are) primarily based on massaging social media algorithms and producing click-bait content that has no real news value beyond piling up traffic.
Here's a tweet from the Times' Lydia Polgreen that sums up that sentiment nicely.
— Lydia Polgreen (@lpolgreen) December 1, 2015
The Digiday article from which Polgreen clipped that bit is worth a read as it tries to explain how The Post caught and passed the Times. It cites growth in Facebook, faster loading times on the site and an increased focus on mobile. None of those are all that controversial. Then there's this — under the heading "Viral fare" — which is what Polgreen scoffs at:
As is the case with other news outlets, the Post’s most popular stories show a traditional newsroom balancing the demand for viral hits with hard news coverage. In a staff memo, Post executive editor Martin Baron credited the October traffic record to a mix of stories. But the most-read story was not on the war in Syria or the presidential race but a social commentary by Alexandra Petri on famous sayings reworded for a modern woman so she doesn’t sound “bitchy.” Other most-read posts included an interactive piece that used a game to explain the concept of majority illusion and two inspired by viral videos, about a boy blessed by the Pope and a dancing cop.
For those — at the Times and elsewhere — seeking to diminish T
he Post's traffic, the message was clear: More traffic for click-y stories is both pointless and meaningless.
Which is, of course, not totally true. And, much more importantly, is totally besides the point.
Let's first dispel the idea that The Post is chasing traffic in ways other outlets including the Times aren't. Yes, since Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought The Post in October 2013, several verticals have been started that aim to write around topics people on the Web are talking about — most notably the Morning Mix team. But, the Times (and every other news outlet that understands the business realities of journalism) has done the same thing. The Times launched an Express Team in October designed to, in the words of editor Dean Baquet, "cover news that readers are searching for and talking about online, but also push that news forward rather than just repackaging it for clicks."
That, of course, is rightly read as a shot at The Post's approach to "news that readers are searching for and talking about online." But, as I can attest to from firsthand observation of the work of Morning Mix and Josh du Lac's general assignment team, the idea that they are simply "repackaging" news for clicks is unfair. They are reporters — just like the rest of the people at The Post or the Times or anywhere else — and work harder than most people at either place.
But, again, that's sort of besides the point. And the fight over whose traffic is more "real" is equally dumb.
I liked Alex Petri's piece on re-imagining famous quotes as they would be said by women in a meeting. Alex writes a blog aimed at being funny and snarky — which is what the piece was. And I liked Perry Stein's piece on the dancing cop; it was a totally fascinating counternarrative on how police interact with the people they are sworn to protect. That the story was based on a viral video seems to me a sign that the reporter was paying attention, which is a good thing not a reason for scorn.
The operating principle — or at least one of the operating principles — of any newsroom in this digital age should be to ensure your writers and reporters are stationed at every Internet street corner where people are hanging out. While I agree there is a very fine line between chasing traffic for the sake of chasing traffic and factoring readers' interests into what, how and how much you write, it's a fine line that absolutely must be navigated if journalism is going to continue in anything close to its recognizable form.
The current debate in journalism circles reminds me of the longstanding music conversation about "selling out." Bands that once had street cred — think REM or Modest Mouse — get labeled "sell-outs" once their music expands beyond a nichey fan base or gets used in a TV commercial (God forbid!). Yes, sometimes bands do make artistic sacrifices just for commercial success. But, commercial success is not sure-fire proof that a band had sold out its principles in order to get popular. Sometimes popular things are popular because they are good/interesting/appealing.
Same goes for journalism. A piece that succeeds (in terms of traffic) isn't necessarily a bad piece or one that doesn't hew to the standards of traditional journalism.
And, if you care primarily about investigative pieces like the Times' stellar one on the death of George Bell or The Post's deep dive into the Clintons' finances, you need to be rooting like hell for the reporters waiting on the Internet street corners to succeed. The idea that news organizations can either do "good journalism" or "click bait" is one of the most ridiculous false choices I have ever heard. First of all, who decides what's "good" and what's "click bait"? Second, we need reporters who cover the Internet corners and those who dig around in the places where no one is looking. One supports the other. It's a mutually beneficial relationship.
Because traffic tends to equal advertising, which tends to equal money to support all sorts of journalistic endeavors that places like The Post and the Times care about, it's hard to see getting more traffic as a bad thing. As a reporter whose content appears almost exclusively on the Web, I am thrilled that The Post — and The Fix — are drawing record numbers of eyeballs. But, I don't think it's a zero-sum game with the Times (or anyone else). I want the Times to kick ass traffic-wise too so that they can support all of the great journalists I know (and don't know) over there.
Journalism is a profession with a broken business model. We need to work together to figure out how to fix it. In that context, the rapid growth of The Post's audience is something that should be congratulated and studied, not sneered at.