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A journalistic lesson for an algorithmic age: Let the scientific method be your guide
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Dec. 4, 2009, 2:52 p.m.

“Integrating” news and advertising

At first, I was horrified as many were at the news out of Dallas that A.H. Belo Corp. would “integrate” news and ad departments at its newspapers, including its flagship Dallas Morning News, by having some section editors at their newspapers reporting to sales managers. Would ad people control content? Yikes. I count myself among the many newsroom troops who fought wars to keep this kind of thing from happening.

But as I thought about it a little more, it occurred to me that this is really just another case of the dead-tree news business trying to catch up to what’s going on in the online world. Thanks to our new friend the algorithm, editorial and advertising content are inextricably linked in ways that were never possible with the printed page.

In this new world, online journalists might think they can publish any stories they want. But if the stories don’t have the right keywords — or, heaven forbid, if they contain words blacklisted by advertisers — they won’t sell. And if the stories don’t sell ads, the publication, however high-minded its editors, will cease to exist. There’s really not much room to escape from that reality — at least as long as the publication’s first duty is to turn a profit for its owners.

Nothing wrong with making a profit. But the close connection can preclude online publications from pursuing some topics with the same depth and vigor as did newspapers of yore — for example, homelessness, poverty, or other social ills that don’t have a natural appeal to advertisers. And if other publishers take their cue from the leadership at Belo, that might not be the case for newspapers going forward.

In my mind, this is exactly the space where the nonprofit model fills a need that grows with every cancelled newspaper subscription. In a world where algorithms supplant human judgment, it can provide a needed buffer that protects the public interest.

POSTED     Dec. 4, 2009, 2:52 p.m.
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