Creeping Democracy of Web Influences Print Coverage

By: David S. Hirschman

One of the first things you learn working at a Web site these days is that the name of the game, besides serving your core readers, is attracting links from other sites. Links from blogs and news aggregators drive traffic, and more hits equals greater exposure. A single hot article can make the reputation of a site in wholly new communities.

For a journalism-news site, the most effective shout-outs often come from blogs and news aggregators like The Drudge Report, Romenesko, and Gawker. A referral from any of these can yield anywhere from thousands to hundreds of thousands of new readers (many of whom might not even have heard of the site before). Many of these visitors may never return, but many others may develop an outgoing flirtation or relationship with your brand. When recognized by other sites, E&P articles about important industry information, for example, will resonate far beyond the trade circulation of newspaper editors and publishers who subscribe to the print edition.

The same goes for small newspapers in far-flung regions of the country and the world. The size of the print circulation at such a daily loses much of its significance when a link on Drudge to an article on the paper’s Web site can draw tens of thousands of clicks, perhaps even causing the site to crash from the unexpected surge.

Many print publications that publish on the Web now regularly send out tips and news alerts to major bloggers when a story of interest is posted online. Another growing practice among newspapers, noted recently on Editor’s Weblog, is the regular online adaptation of print headlines to include hot keywords, making the article more likely to show up in searches.

But unlike print newspapers, which sell ads based on the regular purchase of an entire paper, it’s hard for most sites to make revenue hay out of single, or repeated, hot link on another site. Readers come to stories on a fickle a-la-carte basis, and are only interested in the specific subject, not necessarily in the entirety of the site. They may not get directed to the breadth of coverage, or to other sections of the site, beyond the single flashy gossip item or serious scoop. They may linger for a quick poke through other issues of interest, but the main point of their surfing is the information contained on a single page.

Thus, in the same way a tabloid’s screaming front page will induce a casual reader to plunk down a quarter to leaf through a paper on the subway, there is a premium in the blogosphere on content that is somewhat shocking, unusual or scandalous, to drive traffic. The difference is that, on the Web, readers often don’t have to plunk down even a quarter.

So a site not only has to somehow create unique content that generates interest, and that can, in time, translate into a larger regular readership that (eventually) yields higher advertising dollars or (some day maybe) a paid online subscription.

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The new Web publishing model has many side effects, particularly for newspapers.

In the past, in the days of ink-stained wretches and typesetting, it was the editors and publishers who set the news agenda. A small coterie of journalists decided what was most important, what went on page one, what was to be emphasized day after day. In effect, they would separate the important from the superficial, and could to large degree push what they wanted to and create the “water cooler” issue of the day.

Of course, this is still true to some extent. The New York Times’ Bill Keller, the Washington Post’s Len Downie, and the Los Angeles Times’ Dean Baquet still determine what tens of millions of Americans will wake up to every morning on their doorstep, or go to bed with online the night before.

But their decisions are influenced more and more by the creeping democracy of blogs and news aggregators; when these sites jump on an issue, it gets noticed. And once the Web starts buzzing, newspapers ignore the issue at their own peril. Blog links and news-site hits are in essence an instant poll as to what is and what isn’t important — at least as judged at the grassroots. A quick glance at Technorati.com can instantly tell you what most people care about on a given day, even if it’s just a passing fancy.

Even if Keller buries a story deep in the paper, it can get more hits (and thus be more important) than what he thought was worthy of page A1 that morning in print. The next day, having noted the reaction, and the spike in traffic, an editor like Keller can’t help but reevaluate the importance of the story; people care, so it is (more) important. He can continue to dump stories about the issue deep in the paper, but in time the denial of the story’s popularity and importance on the web will be seen by some as “bias.” In fact, the newly redesigned New York Times site now features a greater emphasis on “most popular” lists, creating a counterpoint to the decisions of editors.

Essentially, in this new populist paradigm, the daily whim of Matt Drudge may matter more (at least in terms of the discrimination of online information) than the editorial judgment of Bill Keller. Drudge can frame an issue and create seeming significance in a way that Keller, constrained by the format and mission of his newspaper, often cannot, at least outside the “elites.”

This democratization of news cuts both ways, of course. Because many blogs and news aggregators feed on outrage and tabloid flashiness, there is a greater and greater glut of “scandals.” A small journalistic misdeed in suburban Detroit can vault to national attention as stories about it are repeated and linked to incessantly. A scoop on The Smoking Gun about a celebrity drunk driving accident can yield a zillion clicks, while a New Republic story about the growing number of Americans without health insurance can pass virtually unnoticed.

The danger exists that, faced with this disparity in traffic, the New Republic will then try and write sexier stories about flashier topics simply to drive traffic to the site (and perhaps, for all I know, it is already doing so). The urge toward lowbrow populism has, of course, always been a danger to journalism, but on the Web it becomes more pronounced.

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So what can newspaper editors and publishers do to reclaim their power as arbiters of public taste? So far that’s unclear.

While many papers are cautiously experimenting with their own blogs, they are constrained by the corporations that own them and their mission to present news “objectively.” In linking to sites outside of their own editorial, newspaper blogs run the risk of actually driving traffic away to competitors and watering down their own brands. As well, in-house blogs are essentially a low-fi medium, which lose much of their value if they are seen as PR tools or as branches of a corporate entity.

Likely the best that newspapers can do in adjusting to the new digital reality is the same thing they’ve always done: create fresh, unique, and credible, content that will draw the attention of an ever-wider audience while they figure out how to measure and monetize it.

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