I create context. I also write blog posts:

The Slippery Slope of Online Journalism

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Author: | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

I’ll state this right off the bat: I get most of my news from the Twitter and Facebook reactions of the people I follow. When Haiti was shaken by an earthquake, when my congressman resigned, when balloon boy went up into… well, the attic, I was reading about it on Twitter. And frankly, I got most of the news I needed from those 140 character messages. But I like to dig deeper, so I’ll check the headlines on the New York Times (if I’m in the mood for something really watered down, I’ll check the BBC Headlines that are automatically shown by Firefox… you want to talk about hit-or-miss reporting, check that out) or Google News. But picking up a newspaper isn’t going to be in my future. Twitter does it for me. And since I follow a pretty wide array of people/organizations (from @andyroddick to @Prof_S_Hawking to @shitmydadsays), I get a decent mix of news and special interest stories. And today, I came across a link to this article from Toronto’s The Globe And Mail.

I certainly encourage you to read it, but the main idea is this:

In the world of blogs and tweets and anonymous comment, what has come to matter most is the hits a story receives

Basically, the article points out a disturbing trend that some newspapers measure success not by quality of reporting but by the number of hits a story draws 1 . The problem with that being, obviously, that reporters are now more focused on stirring up controversy or providing headlines that will drum up page views rather than giving factual hard news. And the reader, whether he knows it or not, suffers. News is dumbed down, and the real story gets away. MacGregor calls the inevitable result “lazy journalism,” and warns his peers against turning down that road.

And newspapers should be worried about this. But it’s been around forever. Op-ed pages make splashes all the time with editorials written to stir the pot. FoxNews gets incredible ratings for over-the-top coverage, and CNN has lost all credibility for trying to follow suit. So going for ratings isn’t new; we’re just finding new ways and new measuring sticks for doing so. But the sky isn’t falling.

The way for newspapers to survive online then, is to aim higher. The New York Times isn’t going to compete with TMZ anyways, so there’s no need to worry about making a headline seem more controversial, the way TMZ does. People still want their news to come from trusted sources. They still want quality reporting and the bias to slant in their direction, and they’re not going to stop reading because their source doesn’t rabble-rouse enough. Build a brand that is based on quality and consistency, and readers will be loyal. People don’t read the New York Times because it’s the only paper they can find; they read it because they know it’s good.

How do you find customers who will be loyal? Well, chances are, my father and your father already have a paper that they read. They grew up with a daily paper — probably two editions! But I didn’t, and like daily exercise, reading an actual paper is probably not a habit I’m going to develop anytime soon. But there are certain websites I go to first when I need to know more about an event or story. This is because I’ve used these sites in the past, or they’ve been recommended to me. But mostly, I use the same sources I did in college. Familiarity pays. So the same way Lexus Nexus and its competitors vie for the attention of law students, newspapers should offer deals to college students. I think most do this already, but there doesn’t seem to be, at least in my experience, a huge push for it. There certainly isn’t any marketing for it, because I never see Facebook ads for the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal.

The online format that papers are employing is a slippery slope. With the measurable data available from websites, it’s easy to see which articles get a lot of hits and which ones don’t. Advertisers won’t pay if nobody’s seeing the ads. The answer to this is better content, not worse. I think newspapers and magazines will be fine, as long as they continue to provide coverage that people can rely on.

The biggest problem is going to be finding a way to charge for it.

Photograph from Flickr user DRB62.

  1. (interestingly enough, that’s how I measure success too!)
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