Why pageview journalism can’t really save newspapers

by Jason Preston on September 2, 2008

“What gets more clicks?” is probably the go-to question for anyone crafting a headline on the internet. There are entire courses written on squeezing out those extra page views.

Like everything, journalism that caters to the click is neither entirely bad nor entirely good, but it does embody a significant shift in the way reporters work, and it has some larger effects that shouldn’t go unnoticed.

The internet has effectively split the newspaper into individual articles and individual authors. The package model no longer exists, and readers are free to read what interests them and ignore altogether anything that looks boring.

The package model

The package model, or the practice of bundling products together, has a long history in the United States. Move studios used to force theaters to buy three or four terrible movies in order to get the one Bogart flick guaranteed to draw crowds.

Most of the time, the other films were never shown.

When you buy cable or satellite TV, you don’t get to choose only the channels you want. If you want the local networks and a few family channels, you get the cheap package. If you want the soccer channel, you have to get the huge package, despite the fact that you’ll never use most of the channels you’re paying for.

Newspapers have worked this way for ages. People were forced to buy the whole paper in order to get the sections or the articles they actually wanted to read. You couldn’t buy just the comics.

The internet changes all of that dramatically. Suddenly, consumers are able to cherry-pick the content they want to see, and only that content. Google news even allows people to skip your home page.

Censorship by capitalism

This presents an interesting problem: the only chance you have to attract a reader’s eyeballs is your headline in blue, on a white page—alongside nine other similar titles.

Couple this with the fact that cost per click ads are completely unfair to publishers, and it’s easy to see how this could create new conflicts of interest.

The newspaper only gets paid when people come to their site, and some papers only get paid when people come to their site and then subsequently click on an ad. Either way, a journalist can’t help but think that their job security is tied to their ability to draw page views on the web site.

In other words, the buffer between editorial and advertising that newspapers have worked so hard to construct has essentially disappeared overnight.

In a world where the revenue metric (page views) is tied inextricably to an article’s performance, it’s impossible to ignore any capitalist pressures on the writing.

This bias has existed in the media for some time, of course.

Catastrophe bias

September 11, 2001 was a great news day. Television news anchors were made because they happened to be scheduled on-air when the towers went down.

The media harbors a well-known bias towards anything sensational. Big, dramatic stories sell more newspapers—they are the Humphrey Bogart flicks of the news world. Flagship stories that serve double-duty by supporting the “serious” journalism that doesn’t always turn a profit.

From a purely economic standpoint, the internet is a far better marketplace for news. There’s instant, quantifiable feedback on the content, and it’s easy to root out the stuff that isn’t popular enough to make money.

But from a social standpoint this is a terrible system, because news should not follow the standard rules of economics (only provide things that are profitable). We need to find ways for flagship content to continue to support the less popular but equally important reporting that often acts as “the fourth estate.”

Maybe that means aggregating content from local bloggers and only assigning reporters to beats as-needed. Maybe that means developing effective self-linking strategies. I don’t know offhand what the solution is, but it will be problematic to rely on the standard package model going forward.

Relying on pageview journalism doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t cover important news—sometimes important news is also sensational. But I think it’s a mistake to assume that the market will guide our news coverage the way an editorial board would.

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1 Monica Guzman 09.02.08 at 12:42 pm

“Relying on pageview journalism doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t cover important news—sometimes important news is also sensational. But I think it’s a mistake to assume that the market will guide our news coverage the way an editorial board would.”

Well said. Page views are a good metric. But they should never be the only metric. They miss altogether the ability of your story or blog post to enlighten issues and inspire change.

2 sandrar 09.10.09 at 7:33 am

Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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