Have Analytics Cursed Journalism?

By Deane Barker

I just watched Page One, which is a great documentary on the New York Times and its place in the post-print world. One recurring theme – hinted at a lot, and outright stated a couple times – is that the public often needs news that it doesn’t want to read.

They had an interview with Nick Denton of Gawker fame, who discussed the infamous Big Board which shows everyone how their stories are doing in realtime – how many hits are they getting, are the links being passed around, etc. As a writer for Gawker, you very much want to be on this board.

I read the same thing in AOL’s leaked media plan – traffic drives everything. It doesn’t matter what you write, just get more and more traffic, because we have analytics, and we can tell.

In Page One, they have a video clip of owner Sam Zell addressing the Tribune staff on this topic. he explains how they’re going to give the public exactly what they want. Someone from the audience says “But the public just wants puppy dogs.” Zell gets annoyed, accuses the person of “journalistic arrogance,” and ends by muttering “f-ck you.”

One of the biggest shifts from paper journalism to online journalism is that analytics can tell us exactly what people are reading, and, by extension, what they want to read. So we now know, more than ever before, that people want to read about Kim Kardashian’s wedding of the moment, rather than the war in Iraq.

What long-term effect will this have on journalism? Now that we know what people want, we also know that what they want is often frivolous and superficial. Is that judgmental? Perhaps. But you’d have to be an idiot not to know that the Kardashian wedding has very little long-term impact on anything, while the progress of the Eurozone economic crisis could drive this country into another recession.

Carl Bernstein is interviewed in the film, and he discussed how he and Bob Woodward pursued Watergate for two years, writing 100 stories the first year. The fact is, they never uncovered anything the FBI didn’t already know, but they kept the story in the news, and wouldn’t let it fade away, even when the public was completely uninterested.

If Watergate happened today, would it be the same? Were Woodward and Bernstein blessed by ignorance, not having any idea if anyone was reading their stories or really cared about them? More importantly, if they had a full analytics suite and a Big Board, would they turn their attention away from Watergate and to more culturally palatable stories that would get them on the Board?

Hard news are like vegetables. You didn’t want them as a kid, but you needed them. They served a vital purpose. But we wanted Twinkies, and if we never had a mother that hid the Twinkies and made sure we got our brussel sprouts, how healthy would that have been?

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