Paid By The Mouse Click? Compensated By Page Views? The Death Of Modern Journalism?
Jaws might've dropped and a collective "tsk tsk" might've been heard the other day when a story appeared detailing how a new dynamic might soon be coming to a digital web page near you, one that will have web reporters recompensed based on how many people read their stuff.
"Journalists who were paid to write when the muse or events beckoned," writes New York Times media columnist David Carr, "are now held accountable for the amount of work they produce and the volume of traffic it attracts. Gee, it's almost like news is supposed to be a business or something."
Carr wonders if this new trend will change how news organizations pay employees and if it'll have an effect on content itself. I'm sure the world of journalists-with-a-capitol-J is probably in a tizzy over these very same points.
Too late. It already has and the dynamic pre-dates the mouse and keyboard, at least when it comes to making the meter move among listeners/viewers/readers.
Contesting is an old radio trick used to manipulate the Arbitron diary system that had folks at home writing down what stations they listened to and when, an imperfect setup that was open to industry abuse. That's why WKTI did things like "The Birthday Game" back in the day, offering obscene amounts of money to the right caller who happened to have been born on the day we'd announce at a set time. It's not that our radio station was overtly generous with an unquenchable desire to toss money out the window. We were gaming the system, and it worked.
This dynamic works on television, where the juiciest, rawest, sexiest stories get trotted out not when they break or are in the news climate but rather for "sweeps" when ratings are used to set advertising rates. And now, our TV buds are contesting ala KTI during newscasts, offering swag and cash if you watch at a certain time. Those ad rates push revenue which helps set up budgets which contain salaries paid to station personnel, reporters included. We all live by the numbers.
The Internet isn't ruled by Arbitron or Nielsen. Revenue is culled based on how many eyeballs you draw to your website. Is it any wonder, then, that digital management would come up with a model in which those who bring the most readers make the most cash? The Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times fought back and forth for the stylings of columnist Mike Royko back in the day because his stuff helped empty newspaper boxes scattered all over the Windy City. And, every major town had it's Royko, the stud columnist who's printed word was the water cooler chat of the day. Their stuff was good of and by itself, and it got readers. Now, with so many digital information sources the question is being asked--to stand out, is being good good enough? What gets mouse clicks, unique visitors and page views?
Ask anyone who dabbles in new media and they'll tell you what brings folks in: porn (in all forms), pets/animals, lists, and video of men getting hit in the nards. These aren't scientific, but you get my drift.
I've told the story a million times about my former radio partner John Jagler: he and I both had morning show blogs, and he'd routinely kick my butt in terms of readership. I stuck with my usual Cold Filtered fare--long form takes on things I had a thought about but didn't have time to fully discuss on the air. John often went with video, links to stories that had gone viral and other shorter fare. He killed, and would kid me about all the time and effort I put into what I did with little response. No one's right or wrong here--he knew what worked and went with it. I ended up writing consistently for a global audience of about, um, six.
CNN is getting grief for it's wall-to-wall, round-the-clock, this-is-the-only-story-on-the-planet coverage of the missing Malaysian airliner. The apparent loss of 239 souls is nothing to be ignored, for sure, but the cable channel's devotion to the saga even when there isn't anything even remotely there in the way of "new" information isn't a service but an obvious pander to a ratings system that shows CNN getting its best numbers in recent memory because they're showing the audience what it WANTS to see instead of the news that it claims is part of its mission. News, in fact, was CNN's middle name.
They aren't alone. Local electronic media provide a public service with severe weather coverage, saving lives with cutting edge technology that warns views/listeners of pending electrical storms and tornadoes, extreme cold and life-altering blizzards. Noticing how the numbers jumped amid such events, the bar got lowered to the point where it's not usual to see the mere mention of the word "flurries" pushing weather to lead-story status, with reporters out in the field describing what a half-inch of snow looks like while poised in front of a plow/salt pile. It may not be the most pressing issue of the day, but it moves the meter.
Media folks get paid based by the number of people who read our stuff, watch our stories, listen to our prattle. No numbers? No job. The worry is that, because of the internet, what qualifies as news may change, that journalism may suffer in a head-long rush to numbers. That worry should already be here. A Marquette student media type got torched by Deadspin.com this week for being one of the sources of an erroneous report about Shaka Smart becoming the new MU head basketball coach. Let's hope the school uses the incident as a learning experience to teach its kids that there's more to journalism than posting a story first--there has to be a story in the first place, one that is generated by picking up a phone, turning rumor to fact through legwork, sources and multiple confirmation. I'm sure the kid's social media hits shot through the roof.
Carr writes, "Now that metrics are part of the news agenda, all of the sticks are in the air. Just because something is popular does not make it worthy, but ignoring audience engagement is a sure route to irrelevance." He ends his column with a very cute picture of a kitty. Far be it from me to submit to such an obvious device to curry favor and page views.