In these Trumped-up times, we need good journalism more than ever. Which is why readers of The News & Observer paid careful attention to the recent column by Executive Editor John Drescher on changes there. What he wrote told us three things:
• How much journalism and The N&O are changing,
• How much readers are concerned about the changes, and
• How much editors are concerned about readers’ reactions to the changes.
Readers are concerned that the old wall of separation between news and ads is being replaced by a chart measuring how many clicks stories get and, thereby, how many ads get sold.
Drescher’s column, “On the new N&O menu: Less spinach, more reader-focused coverage,” reassured us that the changes will be positive:
“Starting this week, we’ll be working harder to answer your questions and present the news in a way that is more relevant, with more video and more focus on topics that we know you care about.
“When most of our readership was of the print paper, we never knew with precision how much each story was read. Now we know how much digital readership each story has, and we’ve used that as a guide for which stories we will cover.
“While measuring readership is important to us, it’s not the only factor we’ll consider when deciding what to cover.”
Drescher vowed that the pursuit of digital clicks won’t imperil quality.
“Our core values remain the same. We’ll continue to provide the kind of watchdog reporting that has distinguished The N&O. Check out ‘Jailed to Death,’ our new report on deaths in county jails….We want to give you the news and information that means the most to you in the form and at the times you want it.”
He chided “ink-stained traditionalists” who “worry that we’ll publish nothing but click-bait stories about cats. They (the traditionalists, not the cats) underestimate the intelligence of the readers in this region.”
Well, call me an ink-stained traditionalist. I do worry. Not so much for now, because I know the editors at The N&O today. They are serious, committed journalists.
But they’re under a lot of pressure from business people, bean-counters and click-counters who live on the West Coast. While I trust John Drescher and his colleagues, I don’t know who or what will come after him and them.
Like other ink-stained traditionalists, I’m concerned by stories like this one in The Atlantic, “When Silicon Valley Took Over Journalism: The pursuit of digital readership broke the New Republic—and an entire industry.”
Franklin Foer wrote about a click-checking device called Chartbeat and its impact:
“Data have turned journalism into a commodity, something to be marketed, tested, calibrated. Perhaps people in the media have always thought this way. But if that impulse existed, it was at least buffered. Journalism’s leaders were vigilant about separating the church of editorial from the secular concerns of business. We can now see the cause for fanaticism about building such a thick wall between the two….
“Journalism has performed so admirably in the aftermath of Trump’s victory that it has grown harder to see the profession’s underlying rot. Now each assignment is subjected to a cost-benefit analysis—will the article earn enough traffic to justify the investment? Sometimes the analysis is explicit and conscious, though in most cases it’s subconscious and embedded in euphemism. Either way, it’s this train of thought that leads editors to declare an idea ‘not worth the effort’ or to worry about whether an article will ‘sink.’ The audience for journalism may be larger than it was before, but the mind-set is smaller.”
PS: Drescher’s column did answer a question that the N&O previously had ducked: Why was Barry Saunders let go Drescher wrote:
“We’ve let go of some features that had a limited digital readership. We’ve dropped the weekly news quiz; the Thumbs Up youth achievement page; the Past Times column from our archives; and Barry Saunders’ column. We’ve eliminated the metro columnist job because those columns weren’t resonating with our digital readers.”
In other words, ol’ Barry wasn’t getting enough clicks. The signal to other N&O writers is clear: A popular columnist lost his job because he didn’t embrace digital. You’d better get clicking.