Tuesday, September 7, 2010

let there be light

It's hard to see the bigger picture inside a violent disruption of the status quo, but it's still entertaining to watch newspapers discover the concept of audience feedback, as the New York Times did on Monday:
In most businesses, not knowing how well a particular product is performing would be almost unthinkable. But newspapers have always been a peculiar business, one that has stubbornly, proudly clung to a sense that focusing too much on the bottom line can lead nowhere good.

Now, because of technology that can pinpoint what people online are viewing and commenting on, how much time they spend with an article and even how much money an article makes in advertising revenue, newspapers can make more scientific decisions about allocating their ever scarcer resources.
Throughout the Times piece, the ability to track a published article's popularity and audience is couched in careful terms stressing it's benefits, instead of being seen as an unqualified technological advance. Hewing too closely to audience feedback is pooh-poohed as some sort of degenerate rabble-rousing:
The New York Times does not use Web metrics to determine how articles are presented, but it does use them to make strategic decisions about its online report, said Bill Keller, the executive editor. “We don’t let metrics dictate our assignments and play,” he said, “because we believe readers come to us for our judgment, not the judgment of the crowd. We’re not ‘American Idol.’ ”
Instead of being a flawed (or, if not flawed, at the very least limited) business model, the era when newspapers didn't know (or care?) what interested their readers is held up as some sort of halcyon ideal:
Looking to the public for insight on how to cover a topic is never comfortable for newsrooms, which have the deeply held belief that readers come to a newspaper not only for its information but also for its editorial judgment.
A couple items for your brilliant editorial judgement scrapbook, Times:

(And what the hell, let's obey the rule of threes.)

Thank goodness the Wall Street Journal's Alan Murray has the right question:
How can you say you don’t care what your customers think?
How, indeed? It's something Michael Roderick over at One Producer in the City noted well:
If you haven't ever asked your customers to give you feedback, it's like trying to catch fish with your [b]are hands.
Working in theater, audience feedback isn't an abstraction or some violation of principle, it's our very lifeblood. Some generic newspaper's principled stand against knowing what their readers think when  technology makes it possible is incomprehensible, and baldly suicidal.

But this obligation works both ways.

While there are raw numbers of site traffic and counting clicks, the article tracks more advanced news organizations that rely more and more on readers to answer surveys filling out their demographic picture. I'm one of those annoying minorities who refuse to answer questions about my race -- now that content providers pointedly ask for this information, is my tetchy obstinacy contributing in some part to unrepresentative media? Much as I resent it, media companies wouldn't even be asking the color of my skin ten or twenty years ago.

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