We are all page-view whores now

Now that we online journalists know exactly what people want to read, we've got to find something that'll stop us from -- horrors! -- giving it to them.

Published May 6, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

If you're like most folks, you've often wondered, "So just what does Mike Barnicle think about God, anyway?" Well, Barnicle, a regular on Don Imus' morning program and a fixture on MSNBC's Web site, obliged this week, giving a big thumbs-up to "Allah, Jesus, The Lord, Christ, The Big Guy, Numero Uno" for sticking by humanity through Kosovo and Littleton. (Surprisingly, the former Boston Globe columnist, who resigned his post last year amid charges of plagiarism and fabrication, did not praise the Creator for His much-touted ability to speak truth through parables.)

I might be tempted here to critique Barnicle for clichis ("You can talk to Him anytime and the number is never busy"), bathos ("God is more wired than the Internet ... Hey, for all I know, He might even be a chick") or general neo-Miltonic presumptuousness ("God knows there's only so much that can be done on Earth"). But you know, why bother? What the hell do I know? Fact is, the people have spoken, and they have declared that the former journalistic pariah is, consistently, one of the best things going on MSNBC. And he's got the numbers to prove it.

How? Users of MSNBC's Web site, in addition to selecting news by category or a quick news summary, can now surf straight to a list of top 10 stories, ranked by other MSNBC readers on a scale of 1 to 7, a competition in which Barnicle places regularly in the 6-plus range. This and other reader-interactivity features -- before its redesign, Salon briefly experimented with listing its most popular articles -- like Dr. Johnson's dog standing on its hind legs, don't prove much yet except that they can be done. Still, the fact that anybody uses the feature at all -- that thousands of people are willing to rate weather news free of charge -- says something about the potential of revolutionary communications mechanisms to democratize the flow of information straight into the crapper.

When we talk about the potential dangers of two-way info exchange in online media, we usually mean the dangers for users -- privacy, target marketing and so forth. But some of the biggest dangers could be for content providers. The more we learn about exactly how much and why you like us, the less excuse we'll have to rely on our own judgment.

Online, as everywhere else, attention means money. TV producers and programmers have long relied on, and complained about, ratings services like the Nielsens, used to determine ad rates; and thanks to Internet metrics companies, new-media moguls can join in the proud tradition of bitching about the numbers. But there are differences between online metrics and the quaint days of the volunteer consumer survey accompanied by a crisply pressed dollar bill. You can argue about the difference between Media Metrix's reports (which interested parties like Salon charge underrepresent at-work surfing) and Web sites' internal numbers, and you can wonder whether Web companies are fudging their viewership numbers to make themselves look good, but one thing is true: New-media professionals, unlike their earlier counterparts, will have access to varied and micro-detailed numbers that will make yesterday's demographic science look like phrenology. (More important, their advertisers will, too.)

In other words, modern technology has finally opened the ninth circle of writerly hell: knowing precisely, down to the last reader, how boring you are. Because Salon distributes an internal list of hit totals for every day's articles, I have a fairly good sense of which pieces of mine will generate mad hits (breaking news, politics, sex or, preferably, all three) and which won't (esoteric subjects like fashion for the masses or, come to think of it, probably this one).

And if a Web site can calculate its most-recommended articles on the basis of a fairly crude reader poll, it could someday post a more sophisticated rating based on, say, the number of unique hits multiplied by minutes spent per page. Or a list of "Quick Reads!" for the wired lip-mover, by dividing reader-minutes-per-page by word count. ("James, can we lose the 'neo-Miltonic presumptuousness' in the second graf? Your MPP/WC's been off the charts lately.")

So what does the universal mind reward? On MSNBC's list, opinion does well; Barnicle's musings immediately after the Littleton school massacre enjoyed a several-days reign at the top of the charts. Passionate subjects invite passionate response. Hot-button political issues score big; most non-war foreign news doesn't (though a story on an Israeli-Russian weapons deal scored an impressive 6.26 this week). None of this confirms anything we don't already know. But it makes it harder than it already is to ignore that knowledge and run a piece simply because we think it's worthwhile -- and just wait until this sort of metrics comes to television, improving its already obsessive viewer research.

Of course, my objection is selfish and self-serving: Features like MSNBC's top 10 basically contract out my job, turning the readership into a massive communal media critic. So let me offer another reason, even more selfish and self-serving. Despite journalism's propensity to wring its hands over studies and polls, one of the most solemn duties of writers and editors is to disregard your opinion. Publications need to be aware of their readers, but good writing is at heart antidemocratic. A camel, they say, is an animal designed by committee -- but at least a camel's an interesting-looking creature. An Earth populated by democratic ballot would be full of golden retrievers.

In print publications, certain departments depend on an at best fragile feeling of editorial obligation to keep them running; rare is the magazine that can justify a book review section -- not to mention, say, dance or visual arts coverage -- on readership alone. Glamour magazine couldn't even justify continuing the only women-in-politics column in a major women's mag, killing it last fall. Improved metrics could only worsen this tendency. The online-media business is already founded on mealy-mouthed rationalizations about how editorial/business compromises -- commerce links next to articles, selling placements within search-engine results -- are really just foresighted, win-win strategies to empower users and give them what they want. As we get better and better at giving readers exactly what they want, what will be the percentage in trying to give readers what we think they need?

In the future, the mark of a quality publication will be not how well it knows its readers but how it resists knowing its readers too well. As theologian Mike Barnicle could verify, the fruit of the tree of knowledge is original sin. And this knowledge, applied in the profit-challenged online publishing biz, could provide us yet further means to "know" our journalistic principles, in the Biblical sense. Giving props to Yahweh, The Prime Mover, The Man Upstairs, I Am Who Am, etc., Barnicle reminds us, "God doesn't rely on polls or focus groups." The rest of us, though, will take all the help we can get.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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