Here’a s package I made for SBS News this week on changes to Google’s privacy rules, including the response from the Australian Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim. A slight rushjob – had a Skype interview set for 16:30, two hours before deadline – but was more or less ditched for the ABC. That threw me a little; but I made deadline, yo.
Posts Tagged ‘media platforms’
Tags: citizen journalism, Media convergence, media platforms, online editors, online journalism, online news, Online newspaper
- The ‘information superhighway’: Newspapers take note of the internet
- New Horizons
An Analysis of Online News
- Key findings on popular articles, and how they were featured
- Covering Politics
Summary of Key Findings Concerning the Positioning of Articles
The Future: What Drives Consumption Today, and Tomorrow?
- Why Editors Needn’t Fear the Search Engine p11
- Editors must adapt or perish p12
With major news organisations beginning to take the internet seriously in the mid 1990s, the role of the traditional newspaper editor was set to change dramatically. Just as the format of a ‘newspaper’ (the very medium by which traditionally paper-based news brands deliver news) – was set to change almost beyond recognition, so too were the roles of those involved in the production and delivery of the news. Much has been written about the changing work lives of journalists. Broadcast and print journalists are having to learn new skills and adapt in order to flourish in the multi-platform world. Those that were once purely print journalists need to learn how to write for the web, how to hold a camera, how to upload an audio file. But the journalists are not alone. It is the premise of this dissertation that the role of the editor could become increasingly redundant; either that, or a dramatic change in practices and even ideals will need to occur if the role of the editor is to stay remotely similar to its present-day manifestation.
This work is based on empirical research carried out over a two-week period in the summer of 2008. My aim was to ascertain whether a strong correlation existed between the articles and features that editors deemed important (and thus gave prominent positions to on the newspaper’s homepage), and the articles and features that were being consumed in the highest numbers by readers. The ‘most read’ sections that most major news organisations provide access to allowed this work to be carried out, and it would have been almost impossible to work without this information.
Going by my findings, it is my argument that online editors of major newspapers are becoming increasingly less important in deciding which articles are consumed most, and that they, like the journalists on their titles, will find themselves being forced to change their practice, and even their very ideals, to retain currency. In fact, this has largely already begun. The readers of newspapers have always had a choice over which articles they read, but in the internet age, the statistics are there for all to see. The editor that ignores these statistics is playing a dangerous game.
To start, I will quickly document the rise of online news, and in so doing, draw out the important differences between the much documented ‘citizen journalism‘ phenomenon, and the emergence of an online presence from well-established media actors. I will discuss the traditional role of the editor, the established methods of selecting what becomes ‘news’, and some of the difficulties editorial teams have had to face working in a new environment.
As stated, the bulk of the dissertation will be handed over to my analysis of the web-arm of two ‘quality’ British newspapers, The Guardian (through the Guardian Unlimited website), and The Daily Telegraph, both of which provided some fascinating results: not only the articles that proved popular over this period, but also the lack of authority that the key editorial decision concerning the position given to an article on the page appears to carry. This analysis will then go on to discuss the importance of the editorial ‘gate keeping’ function, as well as the crucial role that this gate keeping plays in a working democracy. I argue, however, that this gate-keeping function is being replaced by a more directorial role. Proponents of ‘citizen journalism’ have often said ‘we are all journalists now’. I propose that we all now have the capacity to be the editors of our news consumption like never before. The question is, what will the editors do?
When speaking about the history of online journalism, it is easy to mix the growth of online arms of major news organisations with the growth of what has been called, arguably inaccurately, citizen journalism. The internet grew from a cold-war project whose founders perhaps never foresaw the dramatic changes that would be wrought on society before the end of the 20th century. Yet by the end of the 1990s, it was starkly apparent that ‘the information superhighway’ would have to be a central consideration of any ‘news’ organisation worthy of the name. Boczkowski (2004, p8) reported that some newspapers had developed an online presence before 1995, but by the end of that year, 175 US newspapers had built a website. By June 1997, almost half of US daily newspapers had a web presence. According to Allan (2006), the death of Princess Diana played the legitimising role that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy had provided for TV news: On the day following the princess’s death in 1997, CNN’s website took an impressive 4.3 million hits.
The 1990s also ushered in a much-heralded ‘democratisation’ of the news delivery process. Allan (2006) and others have documented how individuals working independently of major news organisations began to publish their own articles, whether ‘news’ or opinion, with the growth of web-logging, or blogging. When Matt Drudge broke the news of President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, he not only made a name for The Drudge Report, but, according to Allan (p41), this was the moment that mainstream media began to take blogging seriously. Yet it is important, not least for the purpose of this essay, not to conflate the two phenomena; that of individuals using the publishing potential of the internet to add more voices to the cacophony of opinion, and that of major media organisations finally realising that a technology that had communication as its raison d’etre was more of a tool than a threat. Despite the early potential for individuals to compete on a level playing field, the reality is somewhat different. Allan draws a strong distinction between ‘citizen journalism’ and the interests of multinational news corporations: ‘where online news is first and foremost a commodity defined by profit maximisation.’ (p10) There are some difficulties with this argument – not least the fact that many bloggers live off advertising revenue – but from this point, to avoid confusion, I shall refer to ‘online news’ to refer exclusively to the delivery of news on the websites of established newspapers.
Man can learn nothing except by going from the known to the unknown.
In his meticulous study of the CyberTimes, Boczkowski (2004) has documented the immense challenges faced by an early online branch of a print newspaper, the New York Times. Although more than a mere reproduction of the Times, some of the issues that came up were decisions that hadn’t needed to be made before, concerning technical issues like whether to publish in html (for speed of publishing), what format to place photos on the website in, and whether hyper-linking (to outside sources), something that had never been possible before, should be engaged in. These were all new questions, but as well as technical issues, what can more widely be called structural considerations also came to the forefront. He outlines (p13) how the top-down approach that newspapers have employed when branching out to the web kept many newsroom roles in tact, not least the news editors. Boczkowski writes that;
‘..(newspapers) have often taken limited advantage of the multi-directional information flows afforded by networked computing, thus expanding the unidirectional mode prevalent in the industry but mostly preserving it.’
This was the case in the early days, but over the last ten years, many editors of online newspapers have indeed taken advantage of multi-directional information flows. Forums and blogs, incorporating the one-time buzz-theme ‘UGC’, or user-generated content, have made their mark. But for the most-part, Bockowski, is correct. Visitors to the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ section can indeed share their thoughts, but the option rarely spreads to ‘news’ articles. Largely, the differences between websites of newspapers and the print versions of them, is in terms of format, including the additional use of audio, and more recently, video. Some newspapers’ websites, such as The Manchester Evening News, do have less of a top-down traditional feel, where it is clear the website is thought of as a separate entity from scratch – but most are essentially spin-offs, or indeed afterthoughts. There have also been changes wrought on news and journalism in the creation of so-called ‘feeds’, as well as the importance of considering SEO (search-engine optimisation), which was a prime reason for the Telegraph website taking the lead amongst UK newspapers in terms of unique individual users this year (Kiss, 21.07.08), even if the number one spot frequently changes. This would support Boczkowski’s premise that;
‘The endeavours that have been more successful in realizing the web’s capabilities have articulated limited alignment with the print newsroom, enacted an editorial function structured around alternatives to traditional gate keeping, and constructed the public as technically savvy information producers’ (p172).
This touches on the idea of readers familiar with search engines, RSS feeds (Really Simple Syndication), tools such as technorati, and news aggregation services such as Google News. It raises another serious question, which I will address later, and that is whether, in addition to the lack of persuasive power due to the positioning of articles on a page being less influential, the very way the internet works means that editors can’t keep on top of things.
For the most part though, this paper is concerned with the way news is consumed on the websites of individual newspapers. There have been plenty of column inches dedicated to the way news is increasingly being delivered that is, partly but not exclusively, out of the hands of editors- by RSS feeds and email subscription, but also more importantly via news aggregation services, social networking sites with a news focus (such as Digg), linking from third party blogs and websites, and of course search engines. Although all of these have a direct bearing on whether an article is read in high numbers or not, my first concern is whether or not, now that we have the statistics to properly measure it, the power of editors to decide what is being read by choosing where the article sits on a page, is fading.
An analysis of online news
In order to resolve my central enquiry – whether or not editors of newspapers maintain control over the way news is consumed on their websites – once readers are already on their websites – I examined two British newspapers. Over the course of two weeks, I selected two newspapers for examination- The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk) and The Daily Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk). There were several reasons for selecting these two. First, the papers needed to be ‘quality’ dailies, in order to get the full spectrum of stories, from political analysis to celebrity gossip. Secondly, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, these are the two most popular news sites in the UK. I also felt it would be a stronger study to have one progressive (The Guardian) and one conservative (The Telegraph) paper under investigation, lest that affect the outcome in any way. Finally, and crucially, both papers publish a top ten ‘most read’ list each day, detailing which articles prove the most popular.
My method was as follows. Each morning, between 7 and 10am, for one fortnight over the second half of June (2008), I took screenshots of the homepage of both papers. At the same time, I noted down the most read list from the day before, so that I could, for example, compare the most read list published in the morning of the 21st with the screenshots I took on the 20th. At the end of the two-week study I compiled the stories in a spreadsheet, and ranked the prominence given to the article by the editor in a scale from one to six (taking into account the size of the article, whether there was a picture, and where it came on the page). I also categorised it (whether as an international politics issue or a football-story), and was then able to compare and contrast how the two papers faired – in other words, how much, or how little, the prominence given to an article affected the amount of times it was read by the readers of the paper.
There were of course some problems. With the Guardian, unlike the Telegraph, who published a most read list for ‘yesterday’, the Guardian published a list for the ‘previous 24 hours’ – which would of course, if for example I took the screenshots and readings down at 7am, lead the results of the 21st influenced by 7 hours of viewings made on the 22nd. But as the Guardian is a British paper, there is consolation in the fact that this timeslot has the fewest views, and so had less affect. From here on, the date of, for example 21st/22nd shall be referred to as ’21st’ to avoid confusion. Another factor that I have mentioned already is the importance for newspapers in the digital age of other methods of news delivery. This means that the results could well have been affected by SEO (Search Engine Optimisation), linking on other sites, or other methods. However, we can assume that this would be roughly equal for all articles, and can also be therefore considered less intrusive on the results. I will also explore the issue of SEO later. Also, the homepage of the Daily Telegraph was somewhat smaller than that of the Guardian, meaning that less articles appeared on it. This essentially means that there is a smaller chance that an article will receive one of the higher rankings in the first place, meaning there is a smaller chance the editor of the Telegraph will appear to second-guess his readers than his counterpart at the Guardian. But as my plan was not really to compare the papers against each other, but rather to get an overall picture, the results are still more than usable. Finally, for the two weeks I chose to measure the results, the European football championships were underway. It may be suggested that the high number of football articles proving popular could be put down to the timing of the study, and not that this interest is sustained by readers of quality newspapers at other times. In defence of my methods, a cursory glance at the Guardian’s most read section several weeks after the tournament had ended, on the 18th of July, revealed that the top three articles were once again on the subject of football. It appears that readers of British newspapers do just read a great deal of material on ‘the beautiful game.’
Key findings on popular articles, and how they were featured.
Examining two ‘quality’ newspapers, one might expect to find ‘serious’ topics dominating. This was not the case.
One of the most interesting findings when examining which stories were most read, was the sheer prominence of sport stories, in particular football stories. This was the case with the Guardian in particular, whose readers appear to have an insatiable appetite for football news. On one day (over the 19th and 20th of June), half of the most popular stories were on sport (four of them football). Although many Guardian readers would themselves claim to be of the more ‘high brow’ news consumer, the important role of sport stories cannot be discounted. Rowe (In Allan, ed, 2005) cites Turner (2004), who writes that sport is an important subject for journalism, as it is perfectly positioned ‘to discharge both a news role based on immediacy and an entertainment function founded on celebrity -but more on celebrity in a minute. In her study of US newspapers’ coverage of a record-breaking number of home-runs by a player in a single season, Judy Polumbaum asked editors why they had given prominence to the issue (Polumbaum, 2000). One key finding was that the coverage provided;
“a contrast with prevailing political and economic news, especially ‘Clinton-Monica et al.’ The home run derby made for ‘the bright spot,’ ‘a welcome break’ and ‘marvellous antidotes to Washington sleaze.'”
Polumbaum also ascribes importance to John Galtung and Marl Holmboe Ruge’s study of foreign news, which found that:
“An event with a clear interpretation, free from ambiguities in its meaning, is preferred to the highly ambiguous event from which many and inconsistent implications can and will be made.”
Naturally, the coverage of Euro 2008 football matches can be said to fall into this category of news. But what is most interesting is that this is the first sign that the editor has lost some control – three of the five sports articles do not appear on the front page but are still in the most read list, while the most read article of the day (on football) received a ‘three’ ranking in terms of prominence (see appendix for details); well positioned, but certainly not dominating. Also, on the 1st of July, a football article was the most read piece, but did not appear on the front page.
Articles on celebrity culture also featured prominently in the most read lists. Of the four celebrity articles that made the most read lists of the Guardian over the fortnight, only one didn’t appear on the homepage. Telegraph readers, in contrast, seem to love a good celebrity story. Over the fortnight, 18 celebrity stories appeared in most read lists, and interestingly, 13 of these did not appear on the Telegraph’s homepage. On two occasions, a celebrity article was the most read piece of the day, despite having no homepage coverage. As both involved US celebrities, it is probable that the huge amount of consumption these articles received can be put down to the Telegraph’s reliance on SEO (Kiss, 26.05.08).
Interestingly, studies suggest that the public feel that too much coverage is given to celebrity issues on-air. Lee-Wright points to the Ofcom discussion document (Lee-Wright, 2007) stating that 72% of the public say broadcasters give too much time over to celebrities. The same cannot be said of newspapers – at least not the Telegraph. The Guardian’s editor does seem to be a little more in tune with the readers, at least where the front page is concerned. In an interview with Alisa Zykova (Zykova, 19.06.08), the Guardian’s diary editor explains that readers of the paper are however “interested in the whole spectrum of life-not just politicians” which would explain the celebrity articles that did make the front page. The use of celebrity stories in general can of course increase traffic to a page, as the Daily Mail would testify. According to James Robinson, editor of the Observer, the Mail has a strategy of publishing articles online that are different from the print version. Strong traffic is brought in through the celebrity photo gallery (Zykova, 19.06.08). This might explain the fact that the Mail has climbed to number three in newspaper rankings online according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. According to John Burke however, Deputy Director of the World Editors Forum, this use of keywords in celebrity articles is unlikely to affect consumption of the rest of the newspaper, and will most likely only result in a quick visit from someone unfamiliar with the paper as a whole:
‘It’s a fine line when it comes to SEO: If a lot of traffic is for celebrity news through google, obviously you get hits. But for general news it’s hard to gauge: Most people won’t click through to read another topic’
Yet taking on board the popularity of celebrity articles at serious newspapers, we have to ask how long editors can hold out – with 18 celebrity articles making the top ten over the fortnight at the Telegraph, and only 13 displayed on the homepage, it seems that the gate-keeping responsibility is still being taken seriously – even if it appears that, at least judging by most read lists, it mightn’t be what the readership really wants. This brings us to coverage of political issues.
Covering Politics – Domestic and International
‘Newspaper reading and good citizenship go together’ (Putnam, 2000, p23)
When Putnam wrote this, he was not, we can assume, referring primarily to the fact that newspapers cover celebrity or sports issues. For good citizenship to be truly engendered, citizens need to be informed of political issues, both domestic and international. This is the reason that so much weight is given to ideas of the importance of editorial gate keeping. In the internet age, this is arguably even more important. Campbell quotes Singer as saying (p252, Campbell, 2004):
‘Online delivery of vast amounts of information creates an even greater need for someone to make sense of it all – someone skilled not only in selecting information but, more importantly, in evaluating it.’ (Singer 1997, p77).
Due to adherence to this principle, as well as following basic ideas of what news ‘is’, ranging from Golding and Elliott’s theories (1996) to Phillips’ (2007), newspaper editors give prominence, both in terms of actual coverage and in terms of placing an article in a highly visible spot, to political issues. What this study has shown, however, is what has been suspected for some time – readers are not as interested as editors think they are – or at least think they should be.
Perhaps the most shocking discovery of all in this research is the ostensible lack of interest in domestic political issues by Guardian readers. The fact that it is not only British readers reading the content on the Guardian is of note here, and has certainly affected the findings. According to figures from last November (2007), 62% of the Guardian’s traffic came from outside the UK (Kiss, 22.11.07). Yet this does not prepare one for the news that only six articles on domestic political (or financial) issues made the most read list over the fortnight – from a possible 140 articles. Those that did rank were all ranked (by me) as 1, 2, or 3 – meaning they were all very well positioned. On the 1st of July, an article the editor thought significant enough to give the top spot scraped in at number eight in the most read list.
The Telegraph told a different story. Over the fortnight, 26 articles on domestic politics or economics made it in to the most-read list. Despite the fact that the Telegraph’s homepage had less room than the Guardian’s, 12 of these 26 were featured on the homepage. So, both sites combined, just over half (18/32) of the domestic political articles that did rank well were placed on the homepage. But on the whole, they were not ‘well’ read – particularly at the Guardian.
Where international political stories were concerned, the findings were inversed. At the Guardian, 32 made the top ten, and at the Telegraph, the figure was 11. The fact foreign events were covered less fits in with the findings of Kayser Bril’s study of Western media coverage of foreign news (Kayser Bril, 23.04.08), which found foreign events less interesting, particularly for more conservative publications. An impressive 27 of the Guardian’s 32 were actually given a 1, 2, or 3 ranking in terms of prominence, but before we fall back into suggesting the editor remains all-powerful, only one of these was actually ranked number one in terms of prominence, and it came seventh in terms of consumption on its day of publication. The top two most read articles on this day were both ranked as 7 (i.e., did not appear on the Guardian’s extensive home page)- and had both been published the day before, but had stuck around, whether for reasons of search-traffic from outside the Guardian site, or because they were receiving readers from the ‘most read’ list itself, back on the homepage. At the Telegraph, only 7 of the 11 ‘most read’ articles dealing with international politics were actually featured on the homepage, and by way of explanation, all 11 were classic ‘conflict’ stories. Not one of them had been placed as the most prominent – or even second most – by the editor. Before I suggest what this means for the future, let us quickly examine some other key findings.
Summary of Key Findings Concerning the Positioning of Articles
There is a huge lack in the most well-positioned stories being the first or second most-read story of the day. On the 2nd of July, half of the Guardian’s ten most popular stories were not on the front page. On June 29th and July the 2nd, the top five and six respectively most popular Telegraph articles were also nowhere to be seen on the homepage. On the 3rd of July, only a single article in the top ten list actually appeared there. Not once did the editor at the Telegraph position the article that proved most popular in what I deemed the top two most prominent spots. All of this proves that the positioning of an article has little bearing on the number of people consuming it.
Over a period of 14 days, the most prominent article on the homepage of the Telegraph made the top ten most read articles only four times. What are the implications of this for the future? If no one is reading the article the editor deems to be most important, should the editor not decide on something else in future? As commercial entities, one wonders how much longer newspapers online can ignore what people seem to want to read about, regardless of the calibre of newspaper it is.
There is an interesting phenomenon of climbing stories, or indeed stories that stick around in the top ten for several days in a row, perhaps as people forward the articles to friends, or indeed spot it in the most-read list itself. On the 3rd of July, a story about UFOs that had been poorly placed the day before, but that had never the less proved popular, climbed two spots to be the second most popular story. What this does is confirm, once again, the power of search engines. It is one thing for an article to be well-read on the day of publication, even if it wasn’t featured prominently. But for an article to climb several places, we are looking at the hand of search engines – particularly as the more hits an article gets, the higher its ranking in a search result. This also, perhaps to a lesser extent, confirms the importance of being linked to by third party websites and blogs. According to web consultant Ross Dawson, around a third of web traffic to news sites can be attributed to by search engine referrals (Dawson, 14.05.08). As we have seen what isn’t deciding what is read of the content that is placed online, it is time to discuss what is deciding it, and importantly, examine some of the challenges facing newspaper editors online in the coming years. While this paper has found that, as suspected, there is little correlation between the positioning of articles and the popularity of them, the findings are so unexpectedly extreme, I must look at other causes.
The Future: What Drives Consumption Today, and Tomorrow?
The assumption that the positioning of articles on a homepage has a major affect on their consumption level is wrong. So what makes news get read? According to Wired Editor Chris Anderson in an interview with the Press Gazette’s Martin Stabe (Stabe, 08.09.06):
‘Online, everything is equally available and relevance is not determined by where something is on a page but by what other people think of it. When you look at it from that perspective, you see that stuff that is deemed ‘good’ builds its incoming links over time‚ that is, the longer it is out there, the more people link to it and the more people discover it.’
In other words, editors of online newspapers have far less control over which articles are consumed than do their purely print counterparts. Anderson goes on to add:
‘The day that you could, as a media organisation, expect people to come to your home page, to navigate to news within your site, make you a part of their daily routine, that day is going.’
On the whole, Anderson is being proven correct – according to the Newspaper Online Analytics survey for June 2008, only 35.2% of visitors to the websites of UK newspapers came via the homepage. 32.7 million unique visitors to UK newspapers were referred by Google over the month (Yahoo being the next biggest search-engine referrer with 1.6 million referrals). Also of note is the fact that ‘citizen journalism’ site The Drudge Report referred 6.4 million unique visitors, with aggregation service digg.com also referring 1.9 million unique visitors. This all builds up to the fact that only 22.3 million unique visitors came directly to the sites of UK newspapers – a distinct minority. One thing is clear: Many people aren’t even seeing the homepage any more.
It should also be pointed out at this stage the amount of non-UK visitors to British sites. According to web information company Alexa, only 30.8% of visitors to the Guardian’s site, and 23.6% of visitors to the Telegraph’s, currently reside in the UK. It is therefore no wonder that issues of importance to a global issue (including celebrities and football tournaments), or analysis of international politics, bring in more traffic than Gordon Brown’s latest woes.
Why Editors Needn’t Fear the Search Engine
In the previous example, Anderson was speaking generally about online news – but quality brands need not be overly concerned; they are not doomed. The routine of heading directly to a site might well be going, but it doesn’t mean it will ever be gone entirely. It is easy to see why the editor of tech-bible Wired might feel that way, but according to Boczkowski;
‘Print newsrooms have been around for a long time, which, if nothing else, carries substantive moral authority when it comes to dealing with the uncertain prospects of constructing media artefacts in an unknown information environment.’ (Boczkowski p174).
Although Boczkowski uses the word ‘print’ here, what he is really getting at is that established newspapers are still more trusted to deliver the news. There are, according to blog search engine technorati, currently (July 2008), around 112.8 million blogs in the world, in addition to traditional news sources. With so much information available, the need for someone to make sense of all of this, as I quoted Singer as saying, is even more profound than in the pre-internet age. For this reason, ‘professional’ journalism, available through established news brands, will stay with us for some time. By way of example, in the recent conflict between Russia and Georgia, the masses of conflicting propaganda and information was not at all ‘useful’ in finding out what actually happened – it was several days until opinion pieces in the ‘serious’ press were able to make sense of what happened. In this instance, they truly showed their worth. Financial Times editor Dan Bogler, in an interview with website The Editors Weblog, is in agreement;
‘It (the internet) almost enhances the position of leading media brands for several reasons. One is we are trusted, people believe the news they read with us. Secondly, we select and edit, which becomes an increasingly crucial function as there is more information out there. The more ‘over-informed’ people are, the more likely people who want to know what’s actually going on will turn to a few sources that tell them what s actually important. That’s what professional newspapers do really well.’ (Chainon, 28.04.08)
Furthermore, according to the outgoing editor of The Washington Post, in an interview with Australia’s Media Report radio show;
‘The interesting thing about those kinds of publications…is that they increase the audience for our journalism, because they need to provide content from other news organisations, they need to link to it…. there’s really a kind of symbiotic relationship between the online major news sources and these new blog sources . A recent study shows that a majority of hard news enterprise, original reporting, come from major news organisations – it just gets repackaged across the web.’
Editors must adapt or perish
This study has certainly shown that editors have lost a degree of control of how most viewers of their publication come across their content. This, however, is no call for editors to panic about the future of their titles; good use of SEO (even if the arguments for its detrimental affect on the quality of journalism are true) and maintaining trust and reputation, will keep readers coming.
But what about the editors themselves? There is every chance they will continue to be needed, but in a different capacity. The role of the sub-editor, if the ‘conversation’ aspect of much modern journalism continues, not to mention dipping revenues, could disappear. Indeed, many papers with a strong online presence are ditching their subs altogether (Greenslade 02.07.08) But according to John Burke of the World Editors Forum, in an interview with the author, there is still a need for the editors themselves – even if the role will keep changing further from the one we know:
“It’s not so much gate keeping anymore…It used to be ‘I’m one of your few sources of news, so I’ll tell you what you need to know.’ That has changed. Now it’s more of a director-role. Editors are more important in aggregating news from other places. If you can find your reader -which is different to before – and tell them where else they can go, you’re more valuable to your reader.”
In other words, the element of trust is still there, and the gate-keeping role is not being erased entirely, but is morphing into the role of someone suggesting, guiding, and assisting readers. In a world with so much information, trust is as essential as it ever was. In the words of Jeff Jarvis (18.08.08), the editor will become a curator:
‘There is a need to add context and fill holes in understanding – by using links. As we move from an economy of scarcity in media to one of abundance, there is a need to curate: to find the best and brightest from an infinite supply of witnesses, commentators, photographers and experts. As news becomes collaborative, editors will need to assemble networks from among staff and the public; that makes them community organisers.’
When actor Heath Ledger died in January 2008, many people interested in the news began searching for details on the internet. Trevor Cook (04.03.08) blogs how Pippa Leary from Farifax Online recalled the wholly different experiences of two equally-respected Fairfax papers in a recent presentation, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Melbourne Age. The Herald’s headline got straight to the point with ‘Heath Ledger dies’, while the Age’s staff, who had not been trained in the art of SEO, went with the time-honoured method of clever and quirky headline writing, coming up with ‘Dead in bed.’ Any knowledge of the way internet users search for news could have predicted the outcome: The Age was trounced in the ratings.
Search Engine Optimisation is not optional for editors; but it is not the be all and end all. If online newspapers are to continue to provide free content, and all the signs say they probably will, then they will obviously continue to be partly reliant on advertising for their livelihood. But a balance must be struck. Characteristics like clever headlines will disappear completely, but what is essential for editors is that the trust remains.
It is clear that the role of an editor will change from someone who has distinct control over individuals who have no alternatives for news, to playing the role of a directing force who can assist and guide the reader – after all, these are the professionals who have the time to become informed all day everyday, not merely when they jump online in their lunch break. Editors must find their niche audience in a world with so many competing voices, and it is essential that the content provided is of high value. For this reasons, SEO alone is not the future. If people are visiting a website on just the one occasion, purely because their search-engine found the term ‘Amy Winehouse’ easily, advertisers will soon realise that readers are not hanging around. Even in an environment where SEO is important, there is no cause for alarm for editors of serious online news sites. They can have faith in the old axiom that too much of anything can be a bad thing too. According to Burke of the World Editors Form:
‘The most serious news doesn’t have to write for SEO. Your loyalist readers will find the serious news.’
The importance of opinion pieces is also likely to remain essential. People will always want to hear the opinion of the ‘experts’. If a member of a newspaper’s staff spends all day researching a particular topic, his or her expert opinion will be able to cut through the noise. For this reason there may be an increase in the popularity of opinion pieces by regular visitors of a website. What is really needed is further research on the surfing habits of regular visitors to specific sites – but for the meantime, that is beyond my means.
It is possible that ‘pay per view’ journalism will increase. Certain websites will pay journalists more if their key-word driven copy brings readers, and advertising. But it is unlikely that well-respected newspapers such as the Guardian and Telegraph will risk everything – ie, their reputation – in a world where quality and trust will become more important than ever –even if they are dabbling in new trends now.
My early assumption that the positioning of articles on homepages has little bearing on their consumption stands true – but not entirely for the reasons I suspected. With so much traffic coming via search engines, it is hard to gauge for certain whether editors will in future position the articles they can predict will be most popular in the most prevalent spot; but it is unlikely. According to Burke;
‘I don’t think they’ll change the way they position articles. People expect an article on Gordon Brown on the front page. You’re not going to see a piece on Britney Spears.’
Quality newspapers will be able to continue to produce ‘quality’ content – and feature it accordingly. It would appear that the trust that certain newspapers have built up will allow them not to ignore concepts such as SEO (which, anyway, they are not doing), but that the quality of journalism will not be forced to suffer as some suggest – at least for the core content on the site. It seems search tags will be used accordingly, but that serious comment, opinion and analysis writers will be able to continue as they have done. Largely, the same holds true for editors who may find that the articles receiving the most hits are the ones on celebrity issues. According to Ross Dawson (Dawson 14.5.08):
‘The fundamental issues that underlie media have not changed. Audiences will always make implicit judgments on whether advertising or other commercial interests influence the content of the media they consume. Media proprietors and editors walk a fine line between maintaining credibility and maximizing short-term revenue.’
This brings us back to reputation, integrity, trust, and what readers expect. Papers like the Telegraph and Guardian have spent decades building brands with respected reputations – and the likelihood of an owner coming along who would throw this away for short term financial gain remains, at least in the immediate future, extremely slim. To conclude, the news that is consumed on the websites of established newspapers is not something editors have the same degree of control over as in the pre-internet age, and it appears to be down to search engines. King Canut could similarly not expect to hold the sea back. Editors, though, unlike Canut, do possess some power to manipulate the way the tide comes in, if only via use of SEO. The dilemma is how much SEO to use.
And unlike Canut, editors, and the quality titles they manage, will be around for some time; if they can prove their importance to their key readership – as well as build upon it. People may be more informed than ever, but the assumption that this means they have less interest in consuming additional informed opinion is wrong – the need to make sense of it all is not going anywhere anytime soon.
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