Why producing serious journalism and writing for the Web are contradictory impulses.
An intelligent — and deeply depressing to old-school journos like me — analysis from Silicon Valley Watcher:
Sam Whitmore reports:
It’s now a luxury for a reporter to write a story about an obscure but important topic. That used to be a job requirement. Now it’s a career risk.
Example: let’s say an interesting startup has a new and different idea. Many reporters now won’t touch it because (a) the story won’t generate page views, and (b) few people search on terms germane to that startup. Potential SEO performance is now a key factor in what gets assigned.
Two reporters from two different publications this month both told us the same thing: if you want to write a story on an interesting but obscure topic, you had better feed the beast by writing a second story about the iPad or Facebook or something else that delivers page views and good SEO.
Page view journalism will make our society poorer because less popular but important topics will be crowded out.
The new head of Bloomberg Business Week magazine Josh Tyrangiel, formerly at Time, agrees, telling FishbowlNY:
“Just because you have a witty tweet…that’s not journalism,” he said. “I don’t want to reward people who go out of their way to make a scene…for [Gawker Media chief executive Nick] Denton and some other properties, it may make some sense, but for us it doesn’t.”
I started blogging here in July 2009 and now receive about 12,000 unique visitors a month; this month I might hit a high of 15,000.
But only if I write something really sexy.
Yesterday set a new record for me of more than 1,000 pageviews in a day, when I wrote about the ‘Lost’ finale. I wanted to write on it and I thought the show smart and worth discussing. Cynically, sure, I also knew it was the pop culture topic of the day. It’s like driving with the handbrake on if you ignore the essential reality that popular topics rule this space.
But this means that thoughtful, serious, ambitious writers whose work appears only on-line, and whose only putative value is calculated in pageviews or unique visitors, are toast. Which is how our worth, here, is measured.
If I’m paid $1,500 or $3,000 or $5,000+ for a story that demands multiple interviews, research, reading and revisions, as most newspaper and magazine stories do, and it appears on-line later (as it will, without further compensation — nice), you, the reader have the choice to ignore it or, if you’re willing to dive deep(er) know you’re getting something solid.
It works for both of us. If you’re bored, just turn the page — you’ve already paid for the publication. In print, I get paid enough to make my time worthwhile and can still, occasionally, place a long, thoughtful piece on a tough issue before the eyes of millions of readers.
This volume-vs.-quality metric is applied in lousy newsrooms, where reporters are subjected to managers who count the number of their by-lines in the paper and the number of column inches they have filled with their words. Are the reporters producing smart stuff? Interesting? Breaking important stories?
Who cares? It’s content. It’s being read.
As someone who has become increasingly aware of on-line work and how to grease and speed the machinery, it’s pretty clear that if every piece I posted had a headline or early mention of Lady Gaga or Sarah Palin or the oil spill, I’d be golden.
And if I have nothing new to add on any particular topic, knowing it’s the topic of the day, or am merely shilling for eyeballs (and getting them), does it matter? If I deliberately choose to write about something obscure (educating my readers) or less popular (niche) or investigative (quite possibly depressing and complicated), I’m kissing my bonus goodbye.
Integrity versus bonus. Dark, smart, tough stuff versus lite/happy/cute videos. It’s not a divide I want to straddle, but some of us do. Feeding the beast doesn’t always mean producing my best work, stories and ideas that I — and some of the clients I hope with to work in the future — deeply value.
I find it depressing, but instructive, that my top five best-read (of more than 700 posts) stories here are on pop culture. Sigh. I don’t even care much about pop culture, so it’s a fairly rare event when I care enough and know enough to think I might have something worthwhile to add to that particular chorus.
Professional writers write for money. A very rare, and very fortunate, few freelancers are making serious coin writing only serious material.
Dedicated and amateur bloggers can become financially wildly successful if they persist and draw enormous audiences.
But who, beyond the elite troops of paid on-line journalism veterans like ProPublica, (and the on-line versions of old-school newspapers and newsmagazines) will actually cover anything serious?
Do you care?
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- Blogonomics: Monetizing readers (blogs.reuters.com)
- FT.com: ProPublica and the realities of non-profit news (blogs.journalism.co.uk)