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A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
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Sept. 10, 2010, 10 a.m.

This Week in Review: What to do with web metrics, Google search goes Instant, and NPR’s local plans

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

An uneasy move into the world of web metrics: As CUNY j-prof C.W. Anderson declared on Twitter, this was “obviously the week of news metrics,” so it’s probably best to start there. The discussion was kicked off Monday by a New York Times feature on traditional news organizations beginning to pay more attention to their online traffic numbers — something most other websites have been doing religiously for years, but a relative novelty for traditionally one-way institutions such as the Times and The Washington Post. The Times’ Jeremy Peters painted a picture of the Post’s newsroom that didn’t look all that different from Gawker Media in this respect: Traffic data gets displayed on a screen in the newsroom, emailed daily to staff members, and has played a role in staff-cutting decisions.

Still, editors at America’s most prominent newspapers (the Times, the Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Los Angeles Times were the four examined) were careful to note (somewhat dubiously) that they don’t let that traffic dictate what they write about. The Post’s media critic, Howard Kurtz, weighed in on the phenomenon with some concern, pondering the balance between pushing for traffic and protecting a storied brand like the Post’s or the Times’. “They can’t simply abandon serious news in favor of the latest wardrobe malfunction without alienating some of their longtime readers,” he said of the two papers. “What they gain in short-term hits would cost them in long-term reputation.”

Naturally, Gawker tweaked Kurtz for his paternal unease about the issue, mocking the idea that knowing and adjusting for what readers care about represents a threat to journalism. Econsultancy’s Patricio Robles remarked that the Times didn’t find any evidence of major news organizations being corrupted by the use of their traffic numbers and wondered why newspapers don’t go further, like testing multiple versions of the same story.

Meanwhile, Columbia researchers released a study that found that news organizations use metrics that vary widely in their measurements of online traffic, leading to confused editors and hesitant advertisers. The Columbia Journalism Review adapted the study into an article by Lucas Graves on the web’s too-much-information problem and its effect on news organizations: “The Web has been hailed as the most measurable medium ever, and it lives up to the hype. The mistake was to assume that everyone measuring everything would produce clarity.” On the other hand, Graves said, news decisions have been made easier in other media (like, say, TV) where metrics were not necessarily more accurate, but more unanimous.

Google Instant’s impact on search: This week, Google unveiled another tool that might eventually have a significant effect on that web traffic: Google Instant, a change to its web search function (though it’s coming to browsers soon) that allows users to see results for predicted searches as they type. Essentially, it takes Google’s autocomplete feature and shows the results of those possible searches as well as the search terms themselves. Here, let Search Engine Land explain it to you — they’re good at this, and they have pictures.

Google is selling this feature on the idea that it makes searching faster, though like Scott Rosenberg, I’m not too interested in that aspect. (As TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld pointed out, the bigger change is in the volume of search results you’ll be processing, not the speed with which you’ll get them.) The more significant issue is what this might do to industry of search-engine optimization. Google noted that websites and keyword ads will see some fluctuations in the number of impressions they get, and The Guardian has a superb explanation of how SEO works and what Google Instant might do to it.

PR expert Steve Rubel was the first to speculate that Google Instant could kill SEO, arguing that it will serve as feedback that allows people to change their searches in real-time, rejecting inadequate search results and personalizing the web for themselves. “Google Instant means no one will see the same web anymore, making optimizing it virtually impossible,” he said. (The Guardian also noted that if users are signed into their Google account, their results will also be personalized based on their web history.)

Quite a few people leaped to refute Rubel’s point, with ReadWriteWeb quoting a marketer who speculated that top search results and “long-tail search” would gain even more value. Other arguments for the continued existence of SEO: as long as people are using search engines to find information, that information will need to be optimized (Search Engine Land); Google’s search is still only as good as the content it finds (Econsultancy); SEO experts have already been planning around personalized search and Google Suggest (Vanessa Fox); and they’ll continue to adapt to this increased personalization (Google’s Matt Cutts).

A couple of people made the interesting case that Google Instant will actually reduce the individuality in web search: Searchers will stop once they see results for a popular search that’s close enough to what they were looking for, the argument goes. Web entrepreneur Bob Warfield put the point well: “Instant Search will substitute popular searches for those individually created. More people will be driven off the back roads search trails and onto the superhighways that lead to whomever controls the first few search results connected to the Instant Searches Google is recommending at the time.” It’s a possibility that could have damaging implications for serendipity in finding alternative news voices online, too.

NPR’s targeted local push: We’ve been hearing for a while about NPR’s new local-news web initiative, and this week NPR formally launched it as The Argo Network, a set of a dozen websites run by public-radio stations on specific local issues. PaidContent’s Staci Kramer took a close look at what the network’s sites look like and the thinking behind them, with NPR execs noting that the network’s reporter-bloggers will take a web-first approach and that the underlying philosophy isn’t much different from AOL’s Patch hyperlocal-news project. The funding is, however; the project has $3 million to last it through next year, compared with Patch’s gobs o’ cash.

SF Weekly’s Lois Beckett talked to NPR’s Matt Thompson about the reporting ethos of the project: A focus on a passionate niche audience, curation and community-building, and an emphasis on the news stream and news developments’ context within larger stories. Here at the Lab, Ken Doctor was impressed by the indications that the project will be able to create and multiply audiences for itself and its member stations. “Like Silicon Valley startups, the effort is about building a product that seems to meet a clear audience need, building that audience — and then finding a sustainable business model,” he wrote. “That’s what has built companies for decades in the valley, and it’s in contrast to how much of the journalism business has long gotten funded.”

News and Apple’s app police: Apple issued revised guidelines for its App Store this week, summarized nicely at Daring Fireball and a little more comically at TechCrunch. You can find plenty of commentary on this from the developers’ perspective, but there’s a significant journalistic angle to this as well, as Apple’s app store policies have generated a little bit of consternation in the past year.

Apple is using the “we’ll know it when we see it” approach to determining what’s inappropriate content, which Scott Rosenberg saw as pretty problematic for a platform that Apple’s billing as the New Newsstand. After running down excerpts from the guidelines in which Apple threatens imposing new rules on the spot and retaliating against developers who give them bad press, Rosenberg wrote, “Now read these questions from the perspective of a writer or journalist or publisher, not a software developer, and tell me they don’t give you the willies.”

The Lab’s Joshua Benton also examined Apple’s rules from a news perspective, expressing frustration at its limitation of its new political satire exception to professionals. “Defining who is a ‘professional’ when it comes to opinion-sharing is sketchy enough, but when it includes political speech and the defining is being done by overworked employees of a technology company, it’s odious,” Benton said.

Reading roundup: Lots of interesting smaller discussions to poke around in this week. Here’s a sampling:

— Two must-read pieces of advice for new journalists and journalism students: Jay Rosen’s adaptation of his lecture last week (also linked to here last week) on the new users of journalism and how to serve them best, and Mark Briggs’ case for studying journalism right now.

— We got the second quarter’s ad numbers for newspapers, which were either a relief (according to the Newspaper Association of America) or another in a seemingly neverending series of low points (according to industry analyst Alan Mutter). In other depressing statistics, a report found that mainstream journalism jobs in the U.K. have decreased by nearly a third in the last decade.

— At TechCrunch, online video executive Ashkan Karbasfrooshan made his case against content farms from a marketing perspective (“should content producers really be conveying the fact that we’re cheap dates?”), while web veteran John Battelle wrote a long, thoughtful post on whether one of those content farms, Demand Media, can adapt to an increasingly social web.

— New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. urged media companies to be risk-takers in charging for content and finding sustainable business models online. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, meanwhile, said he sees much more of a future in paid mobile apps than in online news paywalls.

— Finally, two longer pieces to spend some time with this weekend: The Lab published a version of Kimberley Isbell’s fabulously helpful primer on aggregation and copyright law, and TechCrunch’s Paul Carr wrote an ode to Adam Penenberg’s hybrid breaking-news/long-form journalism on Twitter. Great stuff, both.

POSTED     Sept. 10, 2010, 10 a.m.
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