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July 16, 2010, noon

“What the audience wants” isn’t always junk journalism

Should news organizations give the audience what it wants?

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?

Item: Last week, when The New York Times wrote about the new Yahoo blog The Upshot, the reporter focused on the angle that it will use search data to guide editorial decisions:

Yahoo software continuously tracks common words, phrases and topics that are popular among users across its vast online network. To help create content for the blog, called The Upshot, a team of people will analyze those patterns and pass along their findings to Yahoo’s news staff of two editors and six bloggers…The news staff will then use that search data to create articles that — if the process works as intended — will allow them to focus more precisely on readers.

Yahoo staffers were dismayed, saying the search tool is just one piece of their editorial process. Michael Calderone: “NYT obsesses over use of a search tool; ignores boring, traditional stuff (breaking news, analysis, edit meetings,etc).” Andrew Golis: “Seriously, NYT misses a forest of brilliant old school original reporting & analysis for an acorn of search insights.”

Item: Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander writes that the Post is steeped in a divide, with web journalists pushing to use user data. Print reporters, meanwhile, fear that “if traffic ends up guiding coverage, they wonder, will The Post choose not to pursue some important stories because they’re ‘dull’?” Then Alexander noted that the Post’s top trafficked staff-written story of the past year was about…Crocs. “The Crocs story illustrates a sobering reality about The Post’s site. Often (not always), readers are coming for the offbeat or the unusual. They’re drawn by endearing animal videos or photo galleries of celebrities.” Or rubber shoes.

But what if sometimes “what the audience wants” is more serious than what the news organization is giving them?

Item: A Pew study released Wednesday noted that, while public interest in the Gulf oil spill has dropped a bit — from 57 percent surveyed saying they are following the story closely to 43 percent — coverage of the oil spill has fallen off a cliff, dropping from 44 percent of all news coverage to 15 percent. And the drop in public interest followed the drop in coverage, not the other way around. Meanwhile, news consumers were getting a heavy dose of Lebron James and Lindsay Lohan coverage. (Note: The data is from June 10 to July 10, so before news that BP has tentatively stopped the spew.)

Item: Meanwhile, Mother Jones released its second-quarter traffic stats this week. For unique visitors, they’re up 125 percent year-over-year. Their revenue has increased 61 percent. The timing roughly coincides with the site’s decision to double down on oil spill coverage, though it cites other coverage for the uptick as well. The magazine’s Kate Sheppard follows the spill almost exclusively, filing a lively Twitter feed with links to her own work and others. That could help account for a chunk of the 676 percent jump in traffic from social media year-over-year. (Pew also found recently that the oil spill had slowly entered the social media world, picked up speed and hit a point last month where it was accounting for nearly a quarter of all links on Twitter.)

Could giving readers more of what they want mean both good journalism and a stronger bottom line? The two won’t line up every time, but it’s useful to remember that “what the audience wants” doesn’t always match the stereotype.

POSTED     July 16, 2010, noon
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