Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Why clicks shouldn't decide what's written

I learned a new phrase today: page view journalism.

And suddenly, in the echo chamber of the Web, it was everywhere, passed along by blog and tweet. But before its latest surfacing -- spurred by the suggestion that journalists were choosing stories that would generate Web traffic over more obscure (but important) topics -- I found a thoughtful discussion dating to 2008.

Then, Edward Wasserman used the phrase calibrated journalism to describe a new system under which "the commercial value of specific editorial offerings is estimated with precision, rewards and punishments doled out accordingly, and coverage cut to fit."

And what's wrong with that, he asked on his blog, and then proceeded to answer:
"The problem with online popularity pay is it that it mistakes journalism for a consumer product, and conflates value with sales volume. Journalists don’t peddle goods, they offer a professional service, a relationship. The news audience renews that relationship to get information and insight on matters it trusts journalists to alert it to, even though the news may be disquieting or hard to grasp."
More recently, Wasserman, a longtime newspaperman who now is a professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., had more to say on the subject, particularly as it is rolling out at AOL (bear with me on the long quote block; it's worth the read):
"When I warned two years ago about the direction online news seemed to be going, some readers objected that my complaints showed why traditional news was on the rocks: I was spouting the obsolete, arrogant insistence typical of the old-guard journalist, who believes editors can dictate taste to their readers and that news organizations can thrive even if they refuse to listen and heed.

"In fact, the calibrated news model that we’re seeing now isn’t really about keeping readers satisfied. It’s about keeping some readers satisfied. Counting up readers doesn’t pay the bills, ad revenues do. That means the readers have to be people advertisers want to pitch to.

"The new model will enable news managers to figure out how profitable a particular story is. Calculating costs isn’t hard, and now, thanks to behavioral tracking, advertisers can measure and profile the audience for that story and determine how much renting space alongside it is worth. Add up how much the story brings in, subtract costs from revenues, and you have an indication of profit per story.

"More important, news managers can see how certain topics have performed and get a pretty good idea how remunerative continuing coverage will be. It’ll be possible to consult something very much like a profit-and-loss statement before deciding whether to assign a story. Already, AOL is considering sharing a piece of its own profits with reporters whose work draws the greatest traffic."
Paying writers by how popular their stores are with advertisers and readers isn't new; it's part of the model at Demand Media, for instance, which produces scads of how-to and advice content through freelancers paid little for their work. But replicating that model wholesale on news sites is troubling.

Yes, pay for reporters at Bloomberg News is tied in part to the number of market-moving stories they produce. And each writer has a board "where the metrics determining his compensation -- any scoops, hits an article attracts -- are tracked," reported the New York Times in a story on the Bloomberg-BusinessWeek merger.

But, Wasserman says, "calibrated journalism feels like a capitulation to the foolishness of the marketplace." And even though many will find it hard to ignore "the snazzy new metrics," he offers this advice:
"... one of the lessons of such technologies is that much as we might think they relieve people of the need to make hard choices, they really don’t. Technologies may clarify options, but it’s people who are left with the toughest of jobs: weighing values, deciding what matters, exercising judgment."

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