Journalists’ “see no evil” stats

Dave Winer writes:

A J-school prof at Cal told me that most reporters have absolutely no idea which of their stories people read or don’t read. They’re flying blind. I bet TV news people are too.

But wait, it’s even worse than it appears. Not only do most reporters have no idea which stories are read, many if not most don’t want to know.

The traditional view in journalism is that such knowledge is corrupting. If you know what’s popular and what isn’t, you will be driven by such knowledge to degrade your product. So the proverbial “Chinese wall” that’s supposed to segregate editorial decision-making from business influence has generally kept readership data out of the newsroom.

At a crude level, journalists fear that, the more granular the information about readership and popularity, the faster the suits will crank up celebrity gossip and defund serious coverage. The falllacy here is that, sorry, the suits already know everything they need to know about the relative popularity of different kinds of content — it’s just the editorial people who are (often) in the dark.

And then there is a more sophisticated level: the idea that writers and editors themselves, unpressured by crude strongarming by the business side but simply motivated by their own human need for attention, will find their judgment subtly but inexorably shaped by detailed usage stats.

The second concern is, I think, at least partly real, but I don’t lose sleep over it. From day one at Salon, when we were a half-dozen people in sublet space who could barely access our servers, we circulated traffic data to our editors; it simply blew our minds that we could. Over the years we took some heat for the practice, but I still think it makes sense. Ignorance is never a very good state for a journalist. Why choose blindness? Knowing where readers click doesn’t have to dictate your decisions — unless your decisions are poorly reasoned to begin with. In the soup out of which good coverage bubbles, traffic data should be one ingredient of many.

The real defense against what used to be called “page-view pandering” is strong, smart editors and writers with their own moral compasses. If you have them, then they deserve access to as much information as exists. If you don’t have them, then you’ve got bigger problems, and restricting access to your traffic stats won’t save you.
[tags]journalism, ethics[/tags]

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  1. I couldn’t disagree more with this sweeping generalization! One of the most frequent requests from our resporters and writers is read counts for their stories. They thrive on constructive feedback.


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