Give The People What They Want

Alex Massie has provocative thoughts on how being able to track reader interest on a story-by-story basis will change the newspaper business:

I know of at least one (non-US) paper where real-time web traffic figures play a role in shaping editorial decisions - at least in terms of prominence issues. That will only continue and more and more print editions will be influenced by web traffic as stories are published on the web hours before they become available in print (at least for as long as print editions continue to exist). So the boffins will analyse traffic data and note that past stories about Issue X have brought in 7% more traffic than ones about Issue Y; therefore we're going with Issue Y. Editing by numbers, quite literally.

There are upsides to this, of course: you can provide stuff you know readers actually want to read. On the other hand, it's likely to limit creative thinking and it will take strong - and unusually gifted and perceptive - editors to resist the sirens of the web traffic stats. Or rather, those that can marry the data analysis with original thinking that breaks out of a formula will be the most impressive (from a journalistic point of view at least - though possibly also commercially speaking). They'll also be the ones whose hunches - or luck - get them ahead of the market in terms of perceiving what the coming stories are likely to be.

Read the whole thing. What Massie's talking about dovetails with Michael Hirschorn's piece in the latest Atlantic, which argues that newspapers' most-emailed lists would make better guides to what should go on the front page than the usual "this is what we think is important today" calculation. But Hirschorn is rather more sanguine about what this will mean for the quality, if not the capital-I Importance, of what newspapers decide to cover and/or highlight. I've excerpted his argument below the fold:

In my own attempt to formulate a reader-response theory, I reviewed a week’s worth of front pages of The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times in September and compared them with each day’s most–e-mailed list, which seemed more useful than the most-blogged list, because it factors out agenda-driven blogging.

I had expected the most–e-mailed results to track the lineups of the more baldly audience-focused TV newscasts, which have increasingly made a fetish of “news that matters to you,” and hence are packed with tedious features on your health, your real estate, your job, your children, and so forth. Instead, the most–e-mailed lists, despite a smattering of parochial concerns, were a rich stew of global affairs, provocative insight, hot-button issues, pop culture, compelling narrative, and enlightened localism. In short, they were interesting. What they were not, generally, was important, at least not in the grand tectonic geopolitical sense.

Among the most–e-mailed articles on Friday, September 14, for example, was a feature that ran in The New York Times’ second arts section called “Paths of Resistance in the East Village.” The writer, John Strausbaugh, a particularly gifted chronicler of New Yorkiana, toured Manhattan’s legendarily left-leaning neighborhood with the photographer and video­grapher Clayton Patterson, who’d been tracking the transformation of the neighborhood from radical outpost to high-priced BoBo nesting perch for almost 30 years. It was a piece brimming with history, politics, real estate, and local lore, going back to 1857 and the first clashes between police and recent immigrants.

Two days earlier, as the front page commemorated the sixth anniversary of 9/11, the most–e-mailed list contained two stories about a just-deceased parrot named Alex, who in his 31 years had learned some 150 words; op-eds by Thomas Friedman and Maureen Dowd, then still confined to the digital purdah of TimesSelect and expostulating on China and throwing shade at General Petraeus, respectively; a report from Dresden about Germans’ peculiar fascination with Native American culture; and a trend piece about new social-networking sites for older people. Accompanying the 9/11 coverage on the Times front page, meanwhile, were reports on President Bush’s plans for the Justice Department, and Petraeus’s and Ryan Crocker’s arguments for ongoing U.S. involvement in Iraq; and, to show it was not all doom and gloom, a report from New York Fashion Week, complete with photo of Victoria Beckham. This story, despite a kicky header—“A Designer Gives a Spice Girl Some Lessons on What’s Sexy”—did not make the most–e-mailed list.

Again, read the whole thing (yes, you need to subscribe). Hirschorn's conclusion ought to be on the desks of baffled internet-age newspapermen everywhere, I think:

As a practical matter, this ... calls for a tactical retreat for newspapers’ front pages away from commodity news (the aforementioned council meetings and so forth, all of which could now be covered by someone else, maybe one of those newfangled citizen-journalists) and toward something more muscular and even—at risk of total apostasy—more pleasurable. By “pleasurable,” I mean stories that are just fun to read. And they don’t all have to be about Dancing With the Stars—or parrots. Another example: In late August, The New York Times ran a story about new scientific explanations of the mechanics of out-of-body experiences. Surely this was a story with wide appeal, engaging everyone from evangelicals to philosophers to the death-obsessed to current and former acid-heads. Yet it was buried in the back of the front section. Meanwhile, the front page spotlighted a story about minor college sports teams (fencing, swimming) needing to hustle to find funding, an issue with perhaps a bigger demographic footprint, but of literally zero interest to anyone not immediately affected.

... A reimagined broadsheet front page could draw from the [New York] Post’s id and The [Wall Street] Journal’s superego, doing away with the soggy middle of commodity news in favor of a high-low mix of agenda-setting reportage and analysis, strong storytelling on topics not being covered everywhere else, and saucy, knowing takeouts on people the readership actually cares about. It would, in essence, invert the traditional relationship the newspaper has with readers. The old front page assumed your interest; the new front page would earn it.