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Journalism becoming a consumer product

Edward Wasserman

By Edward Wasserman

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Penelope Trunk delivered career advice on Yahoo Finance until two weeks ago, when Yahoo dropped her Brazen Careerist column. Trunk says Yahoo decided the column didn't draw enough traffic to warrant the premium rates advertisers pay to be in its financial news package. So out she went.

Now, I have sympathy for a career columnist with career problems, but my concern here isn't with whether she was handled fairly but with what her experience suggests about the direction that online journalism is heading.

That direction seems to be toward handing over tighter and much more precise influence over editorial content to the outside people who write the checks. If she's right about the reasons for her dismissal, Trunk has become an early casualty of the new order of online news -- calibrated journalism.

Under the new rules, the commercial value of specific editorial offerings is estimated with precision, rewards and punishments doled out accordingly, and coverage cut to fit.

Of course, we're used to seeing well-loved offerings on commercial media dumped if they don't pull enough people -- or enough of the right people -- to keep advertisers satisfied. That's how network TV works.

Still, although network executives re-jigger their Tuesday prime time lineup to please advertisers, editors aren't supposed to redraw their Tuesday front page for the same reason. The journalism business has been different. Although news and commentary offer a setting both for public discourse and sales pitches, traditional ad-supported journalism has worked despite that disharmony, as long as editorial content is passably free of corruption.

But now? Suppose certain coverage pays -- that is, pays in a direct way: It racks up the page-views, attracting audiences through search engines and enabling publishers to charge advertisers more.

Jack D. Lail, multimedia chief for The Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel, writes: "Print media writers look askance at how ratings affect TV news, but in the digital economy, they face the prospect of eventually being tied to their advertising generating power, the almighty CPM, or advertising cost per thousand impressions."

So if a reporter or commentator produces work that is read, linked to and passed along by lots of people -- to the benefit of advertisers -- why shouldn't he or she benefit?

Already, Gawker Media, with a network of 15 online publications, has created a bonus plan for its bloggers based on page-views.

News organizations benefit too, the logic goes. "This data should be shared, widely, throughout the newsroom," Yoni Greenbaum writes on his Editor on the Verge Web site. "I think it's important for desk editors and reporters to understand the habits of their online readers. Desk editors should know what stories play best online; this is not to say that you don't report some stories, but editors should understand what plays best and where."

Isn't that all for the better? Why not direct journalists toward coverage people find interesting? That's a point Michael Hirschorn, a magazine industry veteran (and ex-colleague) who's head of original programming at VH1, examines in an Atlantic magazine column. Taking a week's worth of three top newspapers, Hirschorn compares their most e-mailed articles with the ones that ran on their front pages -- the stories readers liked most versus the stories editors liked most.

The two realms overlapped less than one-quarter of the time, he found. He admonishes editors, "Stop being important and start being interesting."

Who could disagree? But chasing what's interesting has always been a lot easier, and a lot more bankable, than pursuing what's important. Big-city tabloids have done it for generations. So has local TV news: fast-paced, personality-driven, human-scale -- and hollow to the core, a civic blight.

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.

What's more, the public routinely benefits mightily from stories that few people bother reading. Such is the power of exposure.

News can indeed be recast successfully as a menu of competing distractions. The question is whether we can afford the price of such success.

___

ABOUT THE WRITER

Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University.

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