Monday, August 20, 2007

Fisking The Achenblogger

This blog is longtime big fan of both Joel Achenbach and the Achenblog. Joel used to write a humor column for the Washington Post Magazine, the glossy insert where the really long articles go. But it seems that a downturn in advertising from plastic surgeons and high-end furniture stores, made the powers-that-be realize there was only room for one Dave Barry derivative humorist and Gene Weingarten won that sumo-match.

Joel got shuffled off to the Sunday Outlook section where this week he personifies the navel-gazing and deck chair shuffling that has afflicted the dead tree media conglomerates as they become this century’s buggy whip industry He wrote the tongue-in-cheek lament titled “I Really Need You to Read This Article, Okay?

Let’s lightly fisk this cry for help and see if we can see where the problems are.

Newspaper journalism is different these days: Suddenly everyone is obsessed with eyeballs, page views, "stickiness," "click-through rates," and so on. No one shouts "Stop the presses!" anymore, but they do whimper "Why aren't I on the home page?" The noble product that we manufacture and distribute throughout the metropolis -- the physical thing so carefully designed, folded and bagged -- is now generally referred to in our business as the "dead-tree edition." It gets little respect.

I’m trying to remember the last time what we commonly refer to as fish wrap got respect, but I’m pretty sure it was back when Cary Grant was chasing Rosalind Russell around the copy desk. After all, newspapers got us into a ill-thought out war of imperial expansion. And that was in the 19th century. It's called yellow journalism for a reason. Journalism got a minor ego boost during Watergate but that was back when Carl Woodward was the president’s enemy instead of his stenographer.

Our future is on the Web. This is the mantra in newsrooms. And the Web lets us discover how many readers each article attracts. The data can be scrutinized in real time, moment to moment. Inevitably, this is going to change the way we do business -- excuse me, I mean the way we do journalism.

As opposed to television ratings or box-office grosses. Why is instant feedback a bad thing?

The classic slander against people in my profession used to be "You're just trying to sell newspapers." It wasn't true. We were much too pretentious to worry about the crass concerns of the bean counters. The business model for a newspaper seemed secure. Newspapers were cash machines, with profit margins routinely hovering around 25 percent.

It’s the big fat lazy industries that never see it coming. Detroit in the 70s and 80s never realized that efficient well-made cars would eat their lunch. I have a brother-in-law who has never read a newspaper classified ad. He has furnished his house entirely off of CraigsList. The dead trees were too busy charging ten bucks for the first 25 words so that I could sell a $50 lawn mower that they never saw the truck that hit them. If legal classifieds ever go virtual, every weekly lawn litter paper in the country will go away overnight. Overcharging when you have a virtual monopoly is always a prescription for long term disaster.

The most important Web site for mainstream news outlets is the Drudge Report, once mocked and derided as a tabloid operation with low journalistic standards. But Drudge, which has millions of readers, is the No. 1 source of readers coming "horizontally," via links, into newspaper Web sites.

This is one of Joel’s hottest buttons. His little boutique blog is on the exact opposite end of the erudite versus “linky” scale as Drudge. I never go to Drudge Report to read the flashing light headline, but rather to find the fifty or more opinion makers he has linked to in a clean concise quick loading format. If I want to find George Will, or heaven forbid, Charles Krauthammer, it takes six clicks and two pull down menus to find him on the garish WaPo homepage. Google rode a white screen to search engine dominance but most newspaper webpages look like someone spilled a box of HTML crayons on the screen. People go to Drudge for ease of use, not because they agree with his moronic opinions. God I hope not.

Mackenzie Warren, who runs the online edition of the Fort Myers News-Press in Florida, told the Los Angeles Times that he would use a fake e-mail address to lobby Matt Drudge and his associates to include a link to stories on the News-Press Web site. "I'd say, 'Great story down there in Florida.' Then I'd throw in some incendiary adjective, and next thing you know our story would be at the top of his site and our traffic would be on fire," he said.

I’m astounded that Joel found a quote where a Real Journalist admitted to sock-puppetry, a vile, despicable practice. People get fired for that kind of subterfuge.

There's a favorite saying in the news biz: "Nothin' but readers." Meaning: That's a story that readers are going to devour. A water-cooler story. We used to discern such articles through gut instinct. The best editors had a "golden gut" for news.

They also used to call those “Hey, Martha!” stories. Stuff so whacky you just have to share it. Only nowadays sharing involves everyone in your Outlook Contact list. Nobody knows what is going to be the next YouTube sensation and chasing it is a fools game. Now if you could find that e-mail where Karl Rove says “Fire all those loser lawyers” you would get plenty of links.

There's one hitch in all this: The numbers are squishy. The page-view metric is easily gamed. You may notice that many stories online "jump" to a second page (or third, or fourth, or 25th, etc.) for no obvious reason. That's just an attempt to up the page-view stats. And a page that automatically "refreshes" will have more page views even if it's minimized at the bottom of your computer screen.

One more thing: Good writing remains good writing regardless of platform. The Web tends to be a chattier place, more off-the-cuff, but it is still a place where readers appreciate a well-crafted sentence, a nuanced thought, a fully elucidated thesis and commentary undergirded by fact, honesty and a generosity of spirit.

How about some numbers then? This article is completely fact free. According to Editor & Publisher, is the third most visited online newspaper as measured by monthly unique visitors. Compare those to the audited circulation figures of the dead tree editions. -- 14,149,000 -- 10,611,000 -- 9,157,000
LA Times -- 5,267,000
Wall Street Journal Online -- 4,487,000

Those circulation numbers are two years old, so subtract about 25% across the board. In another year only people with exotic birds and incontinent puppies will still get a paper. WaPo is actually a major player in the online game. It’s just that eyeballs don’t sell as much as ink stains at the breakfast table. Until the metrics pay, there is plenty of jostling for position to do.

For a much more detailed primer on web traffic and funny numbers see this Gawker article about rival gossip site PerezHilton.

For example, look at the most-viewed list on any Web site: Opinion dominates. But opinions are worthless without facts to support them. You know the saying: Opinions are like ax handles, everyone's got one. (Substitute something else for ax handles.)

Still looking for the facts in this article. Of the top ten blogs at The Truth Laid Bare, six are rabid political sites, two are linkdumps, one is entertainment gossip and one is a mommyblog. The WaPo most read and e-mail lists seem to be a mix of hard news, opinions, weather and exposes. Your article is 18 most e-mailed as I write this, so you are getting some recognition.

Also on the web you get to swear and shit, unless the use of “ax handle’ was a subliminal allusion to the joke about George Washington’s ax, thus mentally associating with someone’s only temporarily out of print biography. If that was your goal, well played, sir.

My strong hunch is that most readers -- even those crazy Internet people! -- will gravitate to news sources that provide solid reporting and analysis. Get it right and be fair -- these principles are good ones regardless of the platform.

People go to be informed AND entertained. Looks do matter. The only thing keeping Joel from greatness is the ability to insert an “img” tag. Get that protégé of yours to give you some tips. He’s young and tech savvy. He sure knows his way around month-old cross-promotional astroturfed memes.

Citizen journalism, commentary, rants, recipes, travelogues. Readers can produce all this stuff for a newspaper Web site. The professional journalist can be an instigator of a micro-community of readers, but the readers themselves really run the show. And by the way, they do it all for free.

Hey, he’s talking about the Boodle now. Not only do we do it for free, we get our bosses to pay for it. Citizen journalism is fine, but we still need people that with the big rolodex that can meet sources in dark parking garages.

Some of you may disagree with the preceding. I invite you to post a reaction on my blog. And, um, if you don't mind, please "refresh" the page frenetically.

And feel free to link to the people that bother to talk you up and link to you. This New Media backscratching goes both ways.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: Do you still read a hard copy newspaper?


The Pup said...

I used to *deliver* the Washington Post back when they didn't hire adults to fling it anywhere but near your front door.

I have an allergy to newspaper ink now, so I don't subscribe to any hard copy newspapers. I sometimes read used ones with plenty of kleenex handy (less fumy once opened and aired).

If they'd invent broadsheet-sized thin electronic paper screens that would download WaPo, I could read the Sunday comics once again.

I still think that day must come.

2fs said...

No. Somewhere up there (and I do confess I sorta skimmed this post), you ask, "what's wrong with instant feedback?" Assuming it's a legit question, the answer is: its instantaneity. (If that's a word - you get the idea.). The pressure to have everything done yesterday means that anything that takes longer than three seconds to read, or any reaction more considered than that, gets ignored. And that's a serious problem - because the world is so organized that many things simply cannot be boiled down to "elevator pitch" size.

On the other side: the price of type real-estate online is considerably cheaper. You can't really argue, well, this won't fit because we only have X pages. Longer pieces can grow to their appropriate length (although if they're poorly formatted, no one will read them).

On a related rant: what is the deal that online comics are so damned tiny? Over at The Comics Curmudgeon, someone linked to a Liberty Meadows rerun and raved about it: the art looked good, sure, but the print was so small that you couldn't read it. There's no reason online web comics can't be much larger in scale (even if that's done by needing to click through to a larger image), allowing the artists' work to actually be legible. Rant rant rant.

Anonymous said...

I do get a hard copy paper, because I succumbed to a guy on the phone - after JA had gone on about how newspapers were on their last legs. I pick up lots of things from it that I would never find online.

Carl Woodward - clever melding of two names, or typo?


TBG said...

It's still just too uncomfortable to take the laptop into the bathroom.

Stella Dean said...

I read my news online. I stay up to date with the old hometown paper, and I read the AZ Central online.

However, the upside to an actual paper news paper is that you don't have to click to the next page or use the back button and there are no annoying pop up ads.

All in all, I figure why pay for the paper when I can read it online for free? Hello?