Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection describes the process of evolution, whereby a species' characteristics evolve over an unfathomable amount of time. The newspaper industry, however, is experiencing drastic evolution right before our eyes. Now!
The basic concept behind natural selection is that organisms whose genetic traits render them capable of survival and reproduction in a challenging environment are those that will pass their genes on to the next generation, essentially creating the identity of the future. Today's newspaper environment is clearly facing tremendous new challenges. News organizations are squeezing under the tight pressure imposed, in large part, by the Internet's ability to disseminate more content than pre-Internet Age generations could ever have imagined, and for free. Newspapers are desperately trying to avoid the fate of the dinosaurs, hoping that their new strategies will act as 'favorable genes', hoping that they can adapt, hoping that they will survive nature's inevitable chopping block. How exactly are news providers such as AOL and the Washington Post changing their strategies and what does this mean for journalism?
One question that has always been an issue for editors, but which is especially pertinent today, is how to decide what content to write. Nieman Journalism Lab's Laura McGann asks, "Should news organizations give the audience what it wants?"
She explains the difficulty in answering this seemingly obvious question, writing, "Swap out 'news organization' for 'company' and 'audience' for 'customers' and the question seems absurd. But journalists have traditionally considered it a core principle that the audience's taste should not be the sole guiding force behind news judgment. Coverage based on clicks is a race to the bottom, a path to slideshows of Michelle Obama's arms and celebrity perp walks, right?"
Evidence points to the public's yearning for fluffy news. Washington Post Ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, provided the surprising fact that of all the highly important news stories from 2010, ranging from the BP oil spill to the Haiti earthquake to the US health-care reform vote, the most read staff-written story on The Post's site was about...Crocs.
In the era when the newspaper industry was thriving, editors were financially capable of designating reporters to cover huge national or international news, as well as provide the public with the light stories. But in today's unstable newspaper environment, major decisions must be made.
Andrew Alexander, in another editorial, explains that despite the slowly growing revenue from its paid digital content, the short term reality is that The Post, and most newspapers for that matter, are experiencing a "steadily declining circulation" and thus enormous budget problems. He writes, "traditional standards and practices are being tested. Ethical dilemmas abound. Should celebrity photos be used on the home page to gin up traffic? Should The Post link to breaking news reports that it can't independently verify? Such questions have exposed a journalistic culture clash in the newsroom and created an identity crisis as The Post struggles to reconcile its print and online personas."
He concludes his article, his last article as ombudsman, with a terse, powerful one-sentence paragraph: "In the end it's all about quality."
Business Insider recently leaked AOL's 58-page master plan, "The AOL Way", which outlines AOL's tactics to rapidly reinvent itself into a media powerhouse. Some of AOL CEO Tim Armstrong's ambitions for April figures include a jump from 33,000 to 55,000 stories per month and boost from 1,500 to 7,000 pageviews per story. Unlike the Washington Post Ombudsman's belief that editorial quality is the 'be-all and end-all', Armstrong's business model suggests that the key to success is quantity.
According to "The AOL Way", editors should decide what topics to cover based on four potentially contradictory criteria: traffic potential, revenue/profit, turnaround time, and editorial integrity. Some of the questions AOL poses in its section about traffic potential include, "How many PVs will this content generate?", "Is this story SEO-winning for in-demand terms?", and "How can we modify it to include more terms?"
This overt desire for more pageviews, along with AOL's elemental business plans to decrease the cost of production and increase the turnaround time may well come with a price, namely, the sacrifice of high-quality journalism.
Judging from AOL's current homepage, it is apparent that the company views itself as more of a profit-earning business than a public service provider. Of today's 11 feature stories, one informs the public about the Egyptian government's decision, in the face of massive protests, to concede a 15% raise for 6 million public employees. The other 10 articles, nevertheless, cover internationally meaningless topics such as "The Worst National Anthem Flubs", "Valentine's Day Menus You'll Love", "How to Make a Viral Video", and "Teeth Hurt After a Hot or Cold Drink?", to name a few.
One Business Insider reader points out what he sees as a serious flaw in AOL's business strategy. "It is a well laid out plan," he writes, "yet I am not sure how writing a ton of bad content is a way to build a lasting company. This seems like a short term fix to get revenue moving in the right direction and get the hell out. A model that plays upon the whims of what is hot now is likely to have some very good days and then just fade out as consumers will eventually get smart to it. AOL is hoping to out execute people and it may work in the short term, but very questionable as a long term strategy."
Another comment, similar to both the previous statement and Wash Post's Andrew Alexander's opinion, reiterates, "I believe the need for QUALITY content (as opposed to quantity content) will become that much greater."
As news organizations hastily work to develop their new images in today's unpredictable and ever-changing environment, funding will be the key factor is their decision-making: only with a profitable digital business model will newspapers be able to produce high-quality public service news content. AOL's high-quantity, hot-topic content model might be one way, but does it allow for quality, top-notch reporting?