Is Page View Journalism Really A Problem?

from the not-seeing-it dept

There have been complaints now and again about this concept of "page view journalism" -- the idea that in this digital era, reporters will only take on stories that will drive lots of page views. Tom Foremski and Sam Whitmore -- two media watchers who I know and respect a lot -- recently discussed this issue, worrying that important stories don't get told because of this. Tom quotes Sam:
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.
Now I'm sure Sam is being truthful in reporting what he heard from those reporters, but something about this just doesn't ring true to me at all. If you have an "obscure but important topic," that actually tends to be a goldmine for pageviews. Why? Because you're the only one covering it. If you look at the types of stories that get a particular site attention, it's when they really do focus in on an important topic, obscure or not. If it truly is important, then people get interested, and if you've done the definitive reporting on it, the great thing about the internet is it often gets found and promoted widely. I'm speaking as someone who writes about "obscure, but important" topics quite frequently. Honestly, who would think that obscure topics like an international agreement on counterfeiting would be of interest to anyone? But because we cover it in-depth, and people realize that it is important, it generates a lot of interest.

In fact, over the years, I tend to gravitate away from the "link bait/SEO" efforts, because it always seemed like everyone else was covering it. I don't write about many start-ups because so many other blogs seem to have that beat covered to death. I don't write about the latest gadgets for the same reason. I could -- but I'd be one in the crowd -- and it's really just not that interesting to me. I'd much rather focus on stuff that is interesting to me, and hopefully explain it in a way that is interesting to others, and that the community seems to respond.

So, perhaps it's true that some journalists focus on just writing about the hot topics, and perhaps some publications are focused on that as well. But, at least from my vantage point, that seems like a really bad strategy. It's destined to put your publication and your writing smack dab in the middle of everyone else, with little to distinguish it or to make it worthwhile. Instead, if you do focus on those "obscure but important" topics, and do a good job of it, people will eventually find you and you can build up a strong audience that way.


Reader Comments (rss)

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  1.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 1st, 2010 @ 11:10pm

    "let's say an interesting startup has a new and different idea."

    ...

    "I don't write about the latest gadgets for the same reason."

    So when journalists try to disguise their advertising as news and people don't pay attention that's a problem? I think not.

     

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    porkster, Jun 1st, 2010 @ 11:56pm

    Oh no, what shall we do!

    So journalist report on the most exciting news. Like that hasn't been happening for hundreds of years. They will always have slow days where they dread out the uninteresting stuff just to fill up the paper/site/blog/whatever.

     

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  3.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 2nd, 2010 @ 1:14am

    Re: Oh no, what shall we do!

    Very true and the point I was going to make myself. Our current newspapers only print articles that get big headlines, you don't hear about the complicated stuff that takes people effort to understand.

     

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  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 2nd, 2010 @ 1:26am

    Measurement distortion

    It's the usual problem of focusing on things that can be easily measured. It tends to distort behaviour. We see it in education all the time - no-one is interested in stuff that they think won't turn up in the numbers. Another good example is speed limits - we tries to enforce safety with speed limits because speed is easy to measure - whilst other dangerous behaviours (eg tailgating) are not.

    Whilst I agree with Mike that "important but obscure" topics would probably show up well if the page views were measured properly and over a long enough period of time I suspect that the people doing the measuring are probably not using an adequate methodology.

     

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  5.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 2nd, 2010 @ 1:57am

    NO MONEY NO FUNNY

    That's what my dad said.

     

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  6.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 2nd, 2010 @ 1:57am

    The assertion here is basically the one you'd expect to read here: the market is infallible, and you get the reporting you deserve.

    It's tautological, really: the way you determine if something is important is if it gets a lot of pageviews. If it doesn't get a lot of pageviews, it must not be very important. Therefore, important things will always be covered by pageview-driven reporting.

    The question is, what happens when tensions between North and South Korea get one eyeball for every 200 that American Idol reports get? Does this mean that American Idol is "more important" than Korean tensions? Around here, probably yes. By objective standards? Well, it depends whose standards you're using. Clearly you can't use "expert" standards because experts are all shams anyway. Aw, hell, "objective" standards probably aren't all that objectives, so we should get rid of the notion of 'standards' entirely.

    The "why worry" theories come out of the woodwork to explain why the 200:1 ratio of eyeballs isn't a problem. The Long Tailers will assert that niche industries will sprout up overnight to serve the 1 eyeball in 200, and will do just as good a job as the reporter serving the other 199. Somehow. Supply-and-demanders will say that the 1 will just pay 200X as much. Somehow. Or if she doesn't, the reporting was obviously not that valuable anyway. Either outcome is good, because it is what the infallible Market decided.

     

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  7.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 2nd, 2010 @ 2:11am

    Re:

    To simplify: I think what they mean by "obscure but important" is something that is objectively important but that few people will realize is so. If you don't believe in objective importance, or objective standards in general, then no such thing exists. This seems to be the source of the confusion.

     

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    Mike Masnick (profile), Jun 2nd, 2010 @ 2:29am

    Re:

    The assertion here is basically the one you'd expect to read here: the market is infallible, and you get the reporting you deserve.

    Hmm. That wasn't the point I was trying to make, actually, because I don't quite believe the market is "infallible." I do believe that the market can solve a lot of problems, but that's not the same as infallible.

    It's tautological, really: the way you determine if something is important is if it gets a lot of pageviews. If it doesn't get a lot of pageviews, it must not be very important. Therefore, important things will always be covered by pageview-driven reporting.

    But I'm saying the opposite. The stuff I write about doesn't tend to get the same crazy amounts of traffic as the linkbait/SEO stuff. But it has found *an* audience. It's not that it gets a lot of pageviews, but those interested in the topic can find it and I write for them.

    The question is, what happens when tensions between North and South Korea get one eyeball for every 200 that American Idol reports get? Does this mean that American Idol is "more important" than Korean tensions? Around here, probably yes.

    Again, you seem to think I said something I didn't.

     

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  9.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 2nd, 2010 @ 2:44am

    Re: Re:

    But it has found *an* audience. It's not that it gets a lot of pageviews, but those interested in the topic can find it and I write for them.

    And right on cue, a Long Tailer appears.

     

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  10.  
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    Mike, Jun 2nd, 2010 @ 3:46am

    The real problem

    The real problem with "Page View Journalism" is that no one even cares if a story is true, and they often publish sensational stories just for the pageviews.

    TechCrunch is - by far - the biggest offender. Unfortunately, it's also (one of) the biggest tech blogs on the internet. Michael Arrington is outwardly smug about the fact that it doesn't matter if a story is true, so long as people come to read it. From that NY Times article:

    But seeking credibility may be a less-important strategy for the blogs at this stage. Mr. Arrington, a lawyer, is quick to point out that he has no journalism training. He is at ease, even high-minded, in explaining the decisions to print unverified rumors.

    Mr. Arrington and the other bloggers see this not as rumor-mongering, but as involving the readers in the reporting process. One mission of his site, he said, is to write about the things a few people are talking about, “the scuttlebutt around Silicon Valley.” His blog will often make clear that he’s passing along a thinly sourced story.

    He did agonize a bit before publishing the post about Twitter and Apple. In fact, he waited five hours. But in the end, he decided, “it was interesting and it didn’t hurt anyone to write about it.”

    This also explains why we see so many "X is a Y killer" stories. The writers know it isn't true. They just need constant sensationalism to drive views, and it gives them an opportunity to promote projects they have a vested interest in.

     

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  11.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), Jun 2nd, 2010 @ 4:00am

    Re: Re: Re:

    And right on cue, a Long Tailer appears.


    Your comment would carry more weight if you had evidence that what I claimed was not true. As it stands, it looks like you're being smug for the sake of being smug.

     

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  12.  
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    Kyle Brady, Jun 2nd, 2010 @ 5:47am

    Disagree, But Agree With Mike

    Seeing as True/Slant pays me pageview bonuses [ http://www.trueslant.com/kylebrady ], I can say that it doesn't really change how I approach my work. If I come up with something that's going to generate alot of traffic, I'll do it, but I don't focus only on that - some of the things I write only get a few hundred uniques, despite being important issues that I care deeply about.

    --Kyle

     

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  13.  
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    Jim L, Jun 2nd, 2010 @ 6:44am

    definition of news

    I always thought that the definition of news is something that doesn't happen very often.

     

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  14.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 2nd, 2010 @ 8:00am

    "I tend to gravitate away from the "link bait/SEO" efforts, because it always seemed like everyone else was covering it. " - this from the guy who internal links his stories like crazy, often not to give readers insight but instead to give the bots link food.

     

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  15.  
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    Chris-Mouse (profile), Jun 2nd, 2010 @ 9:06am

    How is this any different than print journalisim?

    Any newpaper is a business that depends on having a large audience, and this has pretty much always been true. If the business wants to keep that audience, they'd better be targetting the stories they cover at the things that audience wants to read. Doing anything else will eventually result in no audience, and no business. In that respect, the only way online and paper publications differ is that online publications use page views, and paper publication use circulation numbers to measure the size of the audience.

     

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  16.  
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    TtfnJohn (profile), Jun 2nd, 2010 @ 9:14am

    Re: The real problem

    The reality is that sites that pretend to be professional news organizations in the end turn out to be no more, in their owner's view, than a collection of bloggers.

    In this sense TechCruch is no worse or better than, for example, CNET or ZDNet. Both of the latter will tell you that their writers are nothing more than bloggers so that if their slant is pro-MS, pro-Apple or pro-Linux or whatever it doesn't really matter because they aren't really a news or journalistic organization.

    They too are driven by "page view journalism" to overstate, indeed panic, about minor security problems, bubble on endlessly about the latest in vapourware from, ohhh, MS to get a lot of page hits.

    In the print world tabloids, not just the supermarket variety and may television news programs, mostly local but some national, respond to the old selling papers and radio news rule called "if it bleeds it leads" to gain or maintain audience and retain or increase rating numbers in order to sell that to advertisers. The "old" tech version of "page view journalism".

    Of course, if we want, we can blame the internet for that, Rupert Murdock (with some significant justification), CNN (for inventing the 24 hour news cycle now, if seems, down to 24 minutes) and others. Fact is it's always been there.

    "This also explains why we see so many "X is a Y killer" stories. The writers know it isn't true. They just need constant sensationalism to drive views, and it gives them an opportunity to promote projects they have a vested interest in."

    This applies to a lot more than bloggers. It applies to newspapers, radio and television news, CNET/ZDNet and other tech sites, and just about any advertiser based source of information.

    "If it bleeds it leads." Remember that the next time you click on a story about that human train wreck known as Lindsay Lohan.

     

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  17.  
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    Hephaestus (profile), Jun 2nd, 2010 @ 9:33am

    Those guys are so wrong ...

    Journalism is headed toward more specialized niche reporting from people whose opinion you trust, you agree with on some specific subject matter, and-or some subject matter you are interested in. How it is going to be paid for is something that will evolve over time.

     

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  18.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 2nd, 2010 @ 9:53am

    Re:

    "often not to give readers insight"

    To which I disagree.

     

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  19.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 3rd, 2010 @ 1:23pm

    Re:

    Psychic TAM strikes again with an absolute declaration.

     

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  20.  
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    maegan masnick, Oct 1st, 2010 @ 12:05pm

    family

    hello mike, my name is maegan masnick, part of your family somewhere, my fathers name is wayne douglas masnick, and he has 2 brothers, robert and greg. their father's name is john masnick. please e-mail me

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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