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Digital selection: a threat or an attribute to journalism?

Digital selection: a threat or an attribute to journalism?

Before the Internet, if newspapers wanted to know who was reading what, they had to rely on intuition and unreliable reader surveys, reports the New York Times. This ignorance of consumers' taste allowed newspapers to blissfully cover the stories that were important without an afterthought of who would be actually reading the content: once a reader had bought the paper, who knows what they actually read. Now, with technologies that track what people actually consume, editors are more aware of which articles get the most hits and what content sparks the interest of readers. These new methods of surveying readers befits the economics of the newspaper industry, but will papers become too self conscious of their readers' judgements and stop covering important stories?

Advanced technology means that newspapers can track the number of unique visits and popular key words. Newspapers are also fascinated by utilizing social media to get feedback on which articles circulate on Facebook and Twitter. The LA Times provides a personalized quiz on their website, which asks viewers several questions about their interests. The answers are complied to generate a personalized homepage for the reader, promoting columns and blogs that the users will be likely to read.

Alan Murray, online editor for the Wall Street Journal, believes that web traffic metrics have made newspapers more efficient although the professional ideals of journalism remain timeless. "We care a lot about what our readers think. But our readers also care a lot about our editorial judgment. So we're always trying to balance the two," explained Murray. Articles that get many hits stay up longer on the homepage, otherwise they will be moved towards the bottom of the page "if there is no compelling news reason to keep them prominent."

Yet just because unpopular articles do not stay on the online front page long, may not imply that the content is not important. Raju Narsetti, online editor for the Washington Post, comments that coverage of Crocs shoes generated more interest that the recently held British elections. "But that did not translate into more Croc coverage. And coverage of the British elections was not scaled back," writes the New York Times. Should critical stories that are arguably more important for society remain in prominent positions on the homepage where they are likely to draw additional readers, or should they be replaced by more entertaining stories?

Information on readership trends are further used to make informed decisions on consolidating budgets in newsrooms. When Narisetti had to cut projects and staff, he used digital tracking information to investigate which sectors had poor circulation. Narsetti decided cut long form video journalism and released a few journalists from that department. Newsrooms are increasingly aware of the revenue that each article brings to the newspaper, tracking exactly how much money each contributing journalist makes for his employer. Undoubtably this information will change the industry's business model to focus more on economics.

With newspapers suffering from issues of content stealing, paywalls, and significant drops in print circulation and advertising, how can papers navigate the online sphere without compromising their journalistic integrity? Newspapers no longer sell their product as a print unit, rather each article is subjected to how it fairs on a search engine. Journalists must write their articles to optimize their appeal to search engines, which may affect the quality of their message. Many journalists already feel pressured by the ranking of articles by popularity, which might encourage them to favour stories that lean towards the average person's taste. As content farms become more prevalent, the model of giving readers only the information they want to read is seen as a threat to 'real' journalism and news organisations must be careful to maintain their editorial line. Clearly, cutting less popular initiatives such as long form journalism and foreign reporting have significant ramifications on molding an informed society.

Obviously there is a need to keep newspapers back in the public's favor and having online tools that generate enthusiasm for content is a positive attribute. It remains to be seen exactly how newsrooms will mix a democratic process of news selection verses news selection based on editorial judgement.

Sources: New York Times



Stefanie Chernow


2010-09-06 14:12

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