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Online news isn’t turning journalists into sheep

April 19, 2011 3 Comments

John Naughton wrote an Observer article at the weekend complaining that news websites such as Gawker "allow ratings to dictate content". And although he didn't say so in so many words, his targets are clearly SEO and site-analytics and real-time trend data.

I say he wrote it. It's mostly a restirring of an original source, an article in the Atlantic. But his main complaints are that journalists are turning into sheep, with the herd all charging in the same direction. I can't see anything different about how online news works compared to how newspapers work. Here's why.


Ewe don't have to follow the herd

His issues are as follows.

News organisations are writing about what their readers are interested in

"Market-driven news [means] news agendas that are driven not by some professional assessment of what's important and relevant, but by research into what viewers like and respond to."

There are five sorts of stories that news organisations can report on:

  1. News they uncover themselves (scandals like MPs' expenses)
  2. News that they and everyone else knows is going to happen (a sports event or a court hearing)
  3. News that's sent to them (press releases)
  4. News that someone else has uncovered (copying someone else's scoop)
  5. News that wouldn't be news but for the fact that it's related to things people are interested in and actively searching for.

With any of these, I fail to see what's wrong with taking account of what viewers like and respond to. If you can't get interested anyone in your story, what's the point of writing it?

There are sites that only do (4) and (5). We tend to call them content farms and dislike them. A couple have made a success out of it. But as a long-term strategy, I wouldn't bet your business on it - you're at the mercy of Google's next algorithm update.

What's more, newspapers have always done this. They have an editorial line - it's based on what their readers expect. The fact that there are tools that make feedback more precise online, doesn't mean it's any different to what they get up to in print.

News organisations are writing about what their readers are interested in

"Somewhere in [online newsrooms'] fancy open-plan offices is a guy who is watching the second-by-second audience for every page on the site. He's the chap who knows what's "trending" now and if your stories aren't figuring then – depending on the editorial culture – you may eventually feel the heat of managerial disapproval.

Again, this surely applies in print as well. If you can't uncover or write about stories that are of interest to people, or make them sound interesting or compelling, you're not going to last long. There are tools that make it more obvious with online - but good.

Also, what's trending doesn't have to be a passive thing. You can shape the news agenda, you can drive interest in a topic by the quality of your journalism.

News organisations are writing about what their readers are interested in

AOL asks its journalists to consider "Traffic Potential ("How many page views will this content generate?"); Revenue/Profit ("What CPM [cost per thousand impressions, a measure of online advertising effectiveness] will this content earn?"); Turnaround Time ("How long will it take to produce?"); and finally Editorial Integrity ("Will this content conform to AOL's editorial standards?"). In that order."

I'm not really sure the order matters does it? But I'm struggling to see anything wrong with this as a set of questions. Newspapers are not a public good - they survive on the basis of the audience they deliver to advertisers (or not). Maybe journalists were never asked this as explicitly before - but is this really a bad thing?

To sum up

I'm not denying the pressure on journalists, the toll on news rooms caused by cost cutting or the dumbing down of the news agenda.

But none of this is caused by the measurement of online news per se - the new tools just give news organisations a more accurate way to measure what they've always done.

Photo credit.

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  • With any of these, I fail to see what’s wrong with taking account of what viewers like and respond to. If you can’t get interested anyone in your story, what’s the point of writing it?

    I don't think that's exactly what John is railing against. Any good journalist, in any era or medium, takes account of what viewers like. That's just understanding your market.

    But the issue is that there's the potential (and at the moment it's only potential) for journalism to become entirely data-driven, in the sense of only chasing stories along lines of ones which have previously worked. The ultimate end of this is something which looks like Demand Media, but for news: generic, repetitive news stories covering only things which have been successful before.

    So what's the problem with that, you might ask? Simple: what has been of interest in the past is only one factor in determining whether a story, or topic, will be successful in the future. In marketing, asking customers what they want is rarely the best way to get the most successful product. Quite often, it will get you a product which sells - but you'll also end up doing exactly the same thing as your competitors, and you will stagnate.

    So, yes, let's use the data analysis tools which we have to work out what works and doesn't. And sometimes, let's ignore it and take a punt - because otherwise, "news" will become characterless and boring.

  • malcolm coles says:

    I think I need a sub editor. "can't get interested anyone" ... Anyway, glad to see we're all in agreement!

    I can't see Demand Media for news being the only successful business model - as what would it feed off? News organisations need to make news as much as report it.

    Due to various strategic mistakes such as charging nothing for their content and not investing in their online formats, the newspapers have allowed others to come along and poach their traffic. But it would be another strategic error to respond to this by all going along Demand Media route.

  • great post. I see so much herding in print(so many case studies to choose from in the last couple of years: phone hacking, wikileaks, health scares...) that stops many angles and topics being explored. News and features editors'limited idea of 'what's news' is extremely restrictive and concerns me far more than online publishers reacting to trend data.

    I thought this might be an appropriate place to flag up AA Gill's comments in the recently published X City Mag for City Journalism alumni:

    "The first thing I do in the mornings is listen to the Today Programme and read five newspapers. That's your business, that's your trade, you have to be on top of every story (...) I don't email anybody, I don't blog, I don't Twitter..."

    To adapt Naughton's words: that sounds like relentless attention to the whims and vagaries of fickle journalists to me...

    The feature doesn't seem to be online but is in the online edition on page 33 here:

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