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Are We Writing for Readers, Ourselves, or Pageviews?

Reader-focused journalism, or pageview-focused journalism? - peoplewhowriteMy newsfeed has been blowing up with reports and thinkpieces about New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger’s dirty dismissal of Executive Editor Jill Abramson. But buried in all the links and sublinks going out is the report Sulzberger’s son Arthur Gregg put together as part of a “Newsroom Innovation Team”.

Do yourself a favor and read it. It’s peppered with Times Jeopardy answers–“The number of URLs The New York Times produces on an average day.” “What is 300, Alex?”–but more importantly, it’s a window into how this respected behemoth is coping with the challenge of relevancy in the 24-hour news cycle.

As the report points out, the new normal requires agility and flexibility–constantly:

We cannot simply become a web-first newsroom or a mobile-first newsroom. We must become a flexible newsroom that continuously adjusts to the needs of the moment. Changes in technology require us to constantly reimagine what is possible. Changes in reader behavior require us to continually assess what’s working. And these exercises shouldn’t be treated as chores: They can elevate our journalism, extend our reach and enable us to better serve our readers.

Making mention of competitors like The Huffington Post, “which in just a few years has eclipsed The Times in total readership,” The Guardian, and Buzzfeed, the report recommends the paper put as much focus on “audience development” i.e. finding readers and getting them to click, as they do on producing world class journalism. The younger Sulzberger also suggested “creating a permanent strategy team in the newsroom” made up of “a mix of backgrounds in journalism, technology, user experience, and analytics.”

All of the recommendations seem right on, and it’ll be interesting to see how the New York Times will evolve as they implement them, but it brings up the question of how writers, editors, and publishers of digital outlets can navigate the increasingly thin line between “reader-focused journalism” and the misleading pageviews metric. Pageviews are often confused with audience, but they are not one and the same.

Anyone with a blog can see how many pageviews they generate by post, where the traffic is coming from, if there are repeat visitors, etc. And anyone with a blog also knows the pieces that get the most clicks may have nothing to do with the core content offering of site, and that those outlier posts may not be a true reflection of the blog’s audience. For example, now and then, I click over to Buzzfeed for their addictive quizzes, but I don’t consider myself a part of their “audience” because I do not visit the site for anything else.  An advertiser might not care about this semantic because my visit to the site means my potential engagement with their banner ad or sponsorship of a quiz, but it’s an important distinction when it comes to audience loyalty, which I would argue is a more important metric.

But if digital journalism or blogging is your business, audience numbers–no matter how or why they come–are necessary as they keep editors assigning you stories or advertisers paying for eyeballs on your site.

They also set up a tension when it comes to motivation:

Should you write for pageviews (e.g. pen a thinkpiece about The Solange Knowles-Jay Z elevator fight)? Should you write for your reader (e.g. take the time to investigate what really happened on the elevator, interview vetted sources, and write an informed piece about what happened  that adds to the knowledge the reader is amassing clicking around to different stories on the elevator dust-up)? Or should you write for yourself (e.g. about something that may have little or nothing to do with Beyonce’s sister going off on Jay Z in The Standard Hotel’s elevator, that you are passionate enough to invest time and think power into)?

The specifics may be different, but it’s a classic human conundrum. Players in every industry have always had to grapple with working for love, money, or more money; and the resolution has always been far from neat and tidy.

If you choose door number Love, it’ll likely take forever to build an audience sizable enough to be relevant (unless you Love writing about celebrity and scandal), and may require you to invest money and resources you don’t have in abundance. If you go for the money, there’s some real or imagined sense you are bartering some part of your soul. Hence, the steam release of watching, re-watching, pausing, laughing at, pontificating about, emailing, and sharing video of celebrities brawling (sans audio, dammit) in an elevator.

The irony is, the internet has made it possible for readers to discover the most niche forms of content, which means there is some reward for work that may not drive tons of clicks. But the issue is who has the time to create content for these seeking souls?

Interesting times at the Times, and in the times, as we work to figure this all out.

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3 responses to “Are We Writing for Readers, Ourselves, or Pageviews?

  1. Pingback: When Opportunity Strikes, It Can Be Expensive | people who write

  2. Pingback: It’s the Story, Stupid | people who write

  3. Pingback: Let's Take a Coding Class | people who write

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