Untangling the Web: Sensationalist, serious or both?

Working out the best way to “sell” a story to readers is not exploitation - it’s good journalism, to the speed and tune of the digital age.

newspaper laptop pencil 311 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
newspaper laptop pencil 311
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Last week I banned myself for a few hours from reading, listening to and watching news, after a particularly hectic week on the desk. I was hanging out with fellow Australian olim in north Tel Aviv who generally prefer to share news about friends back home over breaking news, so I’d figured I was safe.
However on this particular night, as fate would have it, a story about an Australian woman who was murdered in a Tel Aviv hotel had piqued my friends’ interest. Someone got online and started looking up Ynet in English, Haaretz and even The Jerusalem Post, though I asked them not to. Information was gathered. Questions were raised. Theories were expounded.
Knowing that I work in journalism, my friends asked if I’d heard anything, but for whatever reason, I wasn’t interested. I guess crime stories just don’t particularly speak to me, even with a fatality and a possible personal link to the story.
While it’s possible that working in the industry has desensitized me, I think I just tend to find diplomatic- and security-related stories more interesting, and it turns out that JPost.com readers are largely the same. Last week, while writing my other column, The Numbers Crunch, I put together a list of the most-visited sections on JPost.com. After the home page and the news tickers, the 10 most-viewed JPost.com sections in the past month, from highest to lowest, were: Opinion, Defense, Middle East, Jewish World, National News, Iranian Threat, Terror in the South, International, Diplomacy & Politics, and Sports.
Day after day, week in, week out, pieces about terror attacks and riots, diplomatic snafus and Jewish politics, Holocaust gaffes and arms deals crowd the ranks of most-read stories. Crime and human interest stories hardly register, opinion pieces on local matters don’t come close. The Jerusalem Post’s online readers, it seems, are quite like me in their collective taste in news.
Of course, statistics can be twisted to prove any theory and this information doesn’t really tell me tell me anything about our Web readership other than the fact that JPost readers come to the site looking for news on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the peace process, goings on in the Jewish World, and the Middle East. They seek out the types of stories they came looking for, and they click on them. It could even be a case of the chicken and the egg - readers like certain articles so we put up those types of stories so readers click on them so we put them up... and so on.
As an online news editor, this is the more poignant piece of the puzzle. Assuming that by analyzing these figures I can gain an accurate understanding of what our readers like and which stories most grab their attention, what should I do with that information? Should the question of readers’ interests, rather than what the editor deems to be important, be a factor in journalistic decisions?
Let’s cast our minds back to the days of yore, to the editor-in-chief at his desk, chain-smoking, and sorting through dispatches from his reporters. This experienced journalist, along with his news editor, acted as gatekeeper, shaping the paper’s editorial line with his story selection, placement and headline choices. Much of his understanding of readers’ interests and pet peeves may have come from Letters to the Editor, sent in to the paper by post, and other public reactions to stories printed in the past.
Today’s gatekeeper has a different medium, a different audience and different instruments, but essentially a very similar role. While the aim of the game is still the same - to provide the public with accurate, credible information - technology and the advent of the Internet have added the speed factor into the game, thrown in some more obstacles, and provided a new tool or two. Editorial judgment, then, needs to keep up with the times, while making sure to retain its moral compass.
One of the biggest game-changers in the online age is that both quantitative and qualitative feedback is now almost instant. We can tell right away when we’ve put up a story that interests our readers, by looking at data on page views, or clicks, and by examining talkbacks posted under the story. Conversely, an unpopular, presumably uninteresting story would register fewer clicks and fewer comments. This raises still more questions: Is using this data as a guiding factor warping my editorial decision-making? Do I give the people what (I think) they want, or do I give them what (I think) they need?
When we zoom out from the Post’s site specifically and into online media in general, the same holds true. All that a news site has to do is put up a story with a controversial headline or a provocative picture, and they’ll get the clicks. Think hot women in bikinis, racial slurs, the word ‘sex,’ celebrity scandals. Such stories may be interesting, sure, but they are arguably not important in any significant way. Of course, this isn’t new - it’s just common sense. Everyone knows sex sells. The difference is that the details that sites can garner are more accurate and immediate than ever before. Statistics on the hot issues, keywords and trending topics at any given time can provide sites with all the tools they need to manipulate public opinion, should they so choose.
On the other hand, often the most important news stories sound the most boring. Socioeconomic issues, for example, are seldom sexy or eye-grabbing, but they affect the day-to-day lives of the world population far more than Charlie Sheen’s latest rant or even a local terror attack. And yet, unless there’s dramatic language and or world markets crashing, these stories are often buried.
So what is today’s news editor to do? On one end of the scale, keeping in mind the topics that I know my readers like to read about, if I inserted the word “Nazi,” “missile” or “Gaza” into a headline, I can be almost certain that it would register increased page views. That is to say, more people would click on the story, and potentially read it.
Conversely, if I have a strong sense of what’s important and what’s not, what fits into our aim of bringing accurate, reliable and up-to-date news to our readers from Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish World, then I might decide not to bother with any of this. I could reason that search engine optimization and analytics and demographic data are all just modern mumbo-jumbo, getting in the way of good journalism. Write the right article, edit it well, put a good headline on it, and post it on an appropriate section of the site, just like my chain-smoking counterpart would have done in days gone by. But then what happens to the story? It might be the best-written and researched piece on the Web, but if no one clicks on it, it was all for nothing.
This is just the editorial side of the game - there is obviously a commercial factor as well. Whereas in the print business, advertising can be sold based on how many people buy the paper, online it’s not enough to simply get people to the homepage. The number of headlines readers click and the length of time spent on each page has a direct result on a site’s profitability. But as is true across the spectrum of news media, without credibility we are lost. That is to say, the fiscal factors don’t mean a thing if the site isn’t regarded as a trusted source, by individuals, other new sources and search engines alike.
And so, this is where I push the happy medium. The 21st-century instruments are simply the new tools of the trade, to help us polish and present good reporting. I don’t think there’s anything cynical about making sure the word “Gaza” is in a headline, assuming the story is actually about Gaza. Same goes for a good picture: Sure, I know it will catch my readers’ attention, but that’s okay, that’s what we’re meant to do. The human touch has to come first - the nuanced editorial judgment - but after that, data from sources such as Google Analytics and Alexa Internet can help me to guide people through the hundreds of thousands of news bulletins which flood the Web daily.
The two extremes - the controversial, easy click and the serious, weighty story - needn’t be at odds with each other. While it’s convenient that I personally find the same kind of stories interesting as do the majority of JPost.com readers, this is really only the beginning of the story. Familiarity with which topics and sections are popular on the site needs to go hand-in-hand with a strong editorial understanding of the beats that we cover, what elements are new and interesting, and why they are important. From there, working out the best way to “sell” a story to readers is not exploitation, and it’s not even just good business, it’s good journalism, to the speed and tune of the digital age.
The writer is the Internet desk manager at The Jerusalem Post